This is an issue I’ve wanted to address for some time, but wasn’t quite sure how. Ironically, this is the general subject of the Law and Public course I previously taught. Our societal political engagement, however, operates through basic and largely inaccurate talking points. Natural Law is the perfect example. Almost all debates with conservatives on “social issues” ends with “…but natural law.” So…let’s take some time to discuss.
Two forms of Natural Law
Really, their are many Natural Law roads, but for our discussion I’ll narrow it down to two. This is also a Christian approach, so when I refer to “Divine Natural Law”, I mean that which derives from the Christian God. So, here we go.
Divine natural Law
Natural Law is a fairly ambiguous term, but it largely stems from these verses from Paul.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. Romans 2:12-16
Divine Natural Law is just that, Divine. The idea that our basic human rights derive from God. In most instances those rights, as defined by John Locke, include Life, Liberty, and Property
For Christians, Thomas Aquinas is credited as the originator of this idea.
Law; an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community. -Thomas Aquinas
The general idea is that Law needs to have a moral origin. For Christians that is of course the Christian God. This “common good” is written on our hearts, and can be translated into basic human rights that are protected by the government.
Now, to be clear Paul is speaking on God’s law, not government statute. However, we can use that morality as a guide to create a more just society. If this is where you end your understanding of Natural Law, it’s understandable that one would translate bible commands directly into statute. If you believe the bible is without error on top of that, you almost have no choice but to endorse a theocratic system. The problem of course, is that there is so much more to the story.
First, these verses are again likely referring to personal behavior, we have to then deduct a morality that would apply to government. Second, the morality we derive would not consist of old testament ceremonial law or our system would look like that of Saudi Arabia. When you strip away ceremonial law you end up with our Lord’s beautiful summary of God’s commands.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40 NRSV
Jesus makes this very clear for us, and I believe narrows our options down to Love or Selfishness. Unfortunately, while this gives us a useful metric, it leaves us with a whole lot of gray area, and reasonable Christians can disagree on how its applied. This is where I believe many of the problems arise. When you rigidly define Natural Law. and that definition is a core value of your faith, you will defend it by any means necessary. But God doesn’t say that. He keeps his direction simple, and unspecific. He also made us creative, innovative, and intelligent so we might develop new applications of love.
When you use this Divine process to develop policy, you don’t usually need to venture into a defense of Natural Law. In fact, when you attribute too much to Natural Law you risk attributing to much to God. Good or bad. The best route is to use the spirit as your guide and simply do your best to love your neighbor.
Darwinian Natural Law
These terms are my own, but I don’t think that’s why I get a confused look when I mention this form. Darwinian Natural Law is the version that develops through the human evolutionary process. Through thousands of years of interaction we have developed a few core values to stand behind. The values are the same as above, but have no basis in love. So the “common good” is simply the bare minimum of what it takes to live together as a species. An entire political party uses this form as it’s basis. The Libertarian Party. It’s important to understand the influence of this version because I don’t think it gets talked about much. While the Libertarian Party is pretty small, it’s influence on the Republican party has been overwhelming. I know from experience that while the Republican Party is largely driven by White Evangelical voters, there is likely a similarly large faction of folks adverse to an abundance of religiosity. I recommend reading Jesus and John Wayne to understand how Evangelicalism evolved into Trumpism, but don’t underestimate the impact of this loveless political philosophy, and how that also led to Trump.
The Darwinian version of Natural Law can again look very similar to the other, and it can still get you to protecting basic rights. What is it doesn’t give you, however, is a firm foundation for the dignity and equality of all human life. If an Atheistic version of individualism and self-reliance are the only meaningful values, you can forget basic programs like Social Security. (I also find this often leads to more cold-hardheartedness but that’s purely anecdotal.) These folks might tell you there Christian, and they may be, but most seem to care more about their freedom to do whatever they want.
A Dangerous Conflation
What Thomas Jefferson did so beautifully in our Declaration of Independence was essentially to define the American version of Natural Law. This version, however, is nearly identical to that of John Locke and includes “Property” or “The pursuit of happiness.” My faith, however, calls me to continuously take up my cross and sacrifice myself for the sake of others. Of course countless philosophers have connected property rights to the bible is any number of ways, but I still fail to see how is this reasonably connected to Divine Natural Law. The right to own property is written on my heart? That being said, having a “right” to own property is perfectly legitimate, but from God? I don’t think so, and we have to be really careful attributing such things to him.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the introduction to the dangerous modern conflation of conservatism and Christianity. What you end up with a severely distorted set of values. Today we see this conflation in issues like marriage, abortion, and even national defense. Christian’s can reasonably disagree on the loving merits of these issues, but need to stop using Natural Law as their basis.
What to Do With Natural Law
You may not see it from reading this post, but I am generally a “Divine” Natural Legalist. The reason I don’t often mention this, however, is because we are walking a fine line. We can reasonably assume that our God wants for us to be alive and be free, but different lives get different rights (i.e. children), and their are many definitions of Liberty. Our God given ability to freely love one another and be a Kingdom builder, is much different from the kind of Liberty that allows you to not where a mask. In my view, the dignity and equality of all human life are the only certain “Natural” values. Beyond that (so we don’t attribute to God what is not his) Love should be our guide.
I will continue to flush this out further over time but principles like helping the poor, and being prudent with collective funds are loving. Alternatively, issues like institutional racism and various crimes are Selfish. This kind of analysis can be done without even mentioning Natural Law.
An overemphasis of Natural Law results in theocratic tendencies, and an under-emphasis can devalue life. So let’s keep it, but look rather to Love as a guide, and to Natural Law as our barrier.