Natural Law: An Introduction, Part 5

Written by Nicholas K. Meriwether |
Tuesday, July 2, 2024

In his magisterial ‘The City of God Against the Pagans’, interestingly, written not long after Rome had established Christianity as the official religion of the Empire (AD 380), Augustine rejects the idea that church and state should or could be combined. He lays out a Christian vision of the meaning and purpose of human history, and locates in this history two “cities.” The City of God is the universal Church, composed of God’s elect from every nation, tribe, and culture. This City is eternal, and will be perfectly instituted only with the return of Christ. The other is the City of Man, the earthly City, composed of all forms of government outside the Church—cities, states, nations, empires, monarchies, aristocracies, democracies. This City is mortal, full of sinful pride. It frequently arrays itself against the City of God, and will be judged harshly when Christ returns (Rev. 20:7-8). However, both Cities are subject to natural law.

There is no civil law, nor can there be any, in which something of natural and divine immutable equity has not been mixed. If it departs entirely from the judgment of natural and divine law (jus naturale et divinum), it is not to be called law (lex). It is entirely unworthy of this name, and can obligate no one against natural and divine equity.

Althusius, Politica

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

George Washington, Farewell Address

Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. 

John Adams

[NB: Please see the following previous articles in this series: 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

We’ve now reached the point where the question can be asked, What role does natural law play in government and society?

Two stipulations to begin. First: Christians should be fully involved in civic affairs, vote, influence legislation through petitioning public officials, seek elected office, etc. Of course, Christians have at times acted imprudently, and even destructively, nor do I mean to suggest that involvement in politics does not incur moral risk, as does political quietism. But let us not neglect the immensely positive impact Christians have had upon their state and society, such as William Wilberforce, William Booth, Abraham Kuyper, and Evangelical opposition to slavery prior to the Civil War.

A second stipulation: While there are fine works on natural law and the state written by Catholics, and much of it is compatible with Protestant approaches, the work of Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants, has been comparatively neglected. A comprehensive program for Protestant political engagement can be developed from within its ranks, as it were, with one critical addition, which is the political theology of Augustine. It is wholly unnecessary that Protestants rely on Catholic thought, even when Catholic ideas are compatible with Protestantism. My thoughts below reflect engagement with John Calvin (d. 1564), Peter Martyr Vermigili (d.1562), Heinrich Bullinger (d. 1575), Richard Hooker (d.1600), Johannes Althusius (d.1638), Samuel Rutherford (d.1661), John Winthrop (d.1649), Richard Baxter (d.1691), Samuel Willard (d.1707), James Wilson (d.1798), Friedrich Stahl (d.1861), and Groen van Prinsterer (d.1876).

The Program and the Conundrum

These theologians would all agree with the following:

1) The purpose of law is to serve the common good. The laws of the state are not merely for protecting citizens from harm, or protecting private property, rather they are for encouraging virtue, or moral decency, in the citizenry in order that the society may flourish.

2) The common good is based upon the Ten Commandments. Recall that the Ten Commandments include the First Table, requiring the worship of God. Thus, laws should also encourage spiritual development in the citizenry.

As an example, here is a quote from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided a policy for admission of new states to the union. Note the integration of religion, morality, and learning:

Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.[1]

3) The consent of the governed is the basis for state authority. This is the most “modern” part of their consensus.[2] Almost any formulation of the basis of state authority in the modern period draws from the consent of the governed, including our American constitutional order.

The Conundrum: Does Consent of the Governed Undermine Natural Law?

Unfortunately, as most of us know by now, the third point does not comport well with the first two. One has only to consider that laws that codify and extend abortion, LGBTQ ideology, and socialist redistribution, violations of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th commandments, respectively, and thus inconceivable on the basis of natural law, are the products of democratic voting procedures that have elected legislators, governors, and in some cases, judges, who affirm such rights and policies.[3] In fact, the most electorally powerful plank in the Democratic Party’s current political campaigns is to protect and extend abortion rights, arguably up to and including the birth of the child. This would be political suicide if there were not millions of Americans, arguably a majority, who want elective abortion to be fully legal and accessible to all women. Our country is essentially divided between “Red States,” which generally support natural law, including recognition of the First Table as well as a natural law understanding of human sexuality, marriage, and family, and “Blue States” that reject it, including the rejection of the First Table, and the celebration and promotion of non-Christian religions and recognition of and support for alternative sexual identities. The affirmation vs. rejection of natural law is the most fundamental division in Western politics, because this division is both moral and spiritual, the most fundamental human commitments.

The American people have it in their power to uphold the original, natural law-friendly US Constitution through voting for people willing to do so to restore prayer in the public schools, outlaw abortion, and end same-sex marriage, but there are seemingly no longer enough voters to achieve this. And increasingly, the Christian faith is coming under attack, such that citizens who are known to hold to traditional natural law are no longer able to win elections in many parts of the country.

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