One of the most insightful things I’ve ever read about America is G.K. Chesterton’s quip that it is “a nation with the soul of a church.” It’s a comment that cuts two ways. Chesterton made it at a time when the U.S. enforced on its citizens the unjust laws of Prohibition. That policy had been championed by two very different sorts of Puritans: the old-fashioned, bible-thumping kind who drank grape juice instead of wine at their infrequent communion services, and the new sect of Progressivist utopians, who saw alcohol consumption—along with other things, like large families made up of Catholic immigrants—as a threat to “social hygiene.” In other words, the grandparents of today’s religious right and secular left joined forces to deny a pint of beer or glass of wine to our Catholic grandfathers, who came home after a long day at the brick factory to enjoy some schnitzel or fettucine with their families. This is the dark side of America’s romance with political righteousness.
But Chesterton was no ideologue, and he also saw the virtue in America’s churchy soul. As you’d learn from reading What I Saw in America (1922), the democratic Chesterton was deeply impressed by Americans’ commitment to fair play. Leave aside for a moment the ugly fact of racial segregation, and America was the place in the world that most disdained inherited prestige or unearned political privilege. Our culture and economy were built on the presupposition that any person, through hard work and talent, could rise to be the equal of anyone else. It didn’t matter who your grandfather was, or whether you spoke with a “posh” accent. America cared what was inside a man, and what he was willing to do. As a self-made man himself, Chesterton respected that culture of openness, that love of justice. He also knew where it came from.
Over and over again, throughout our history, Americans have been moved to test themselves against abstract ideals, sometimes at the expense of their short-term self-interest. The American Revolution was driven not so much by outrage at trivial taxes on stamps or sacks of tea, as by the sense that King George and his Parliament had no moral right to tax the Colonies without allowing them representation. This violated the traditional rights of Englishmen, but as Thomas Jefferson carefully explained in the Declaration of Independence, it also flouted the laws of “nature’s God.” He built his rationale for the bloody, risky venture of American independence on the groundwork of “inalienable rights” endowed by our “Creator.” It was to defend these rights that the signers of the Declaration pledged “our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor.”
In other words, the very existence of the U.S. rests on a proposition about reality: the existence of an objective, transcendent moral order. By making the rights of the person the cornerstone of the national edifice, Jefferson won sympathy from like-minded people across the world, who might otherwise not have cared about a tax-dispute among Anglophones. He also planted a time-bomb, an intellectual premise that would be used again and again to challenge unjust institutions—such as slavery, a sinful arrangement from which Jefferson himself drew benefit. While it would have been impossible to unite the Colonies and also abolish slavery, by making “inalienable rights” the core American principle, Jefferson wrote slavery’s epitaph in advance.
As the abolitionist movement grew in strength, it would use the Declaration as its chief rhetorical weapon, pointing out the stark hypocrisy of slavemasters who cherished their “liberty.” While they never won a national consensus for outlawing slavery, the abolitionists did make the practice so repugnant that Americans opposed its expansion into new, Western states—and were outraged when the Fugitive Slave Act compelled Northern, free states to act as slavecatchers. The election of Abraham Lincoln was the expression of this outrage. While he fought first to save the Union, Lincoln saw in the midst of war an opportunity: by tying the fight for Union to the cause of Emancipation, he made of the Civil War a crusade for America’s founding principles.
The post-war Jim Crow laws that were enacted throughout the country (not just the South) prevented the full recognition of the rights of non-white persons. It would take another century for the Civil Rights movement to force Americans to take another look at the core principles upon which our country rests. And many tried to paint the Civil Rights protestors as anarchist or Communist agitators. But because our very existence as a nation was only justified by this set of transcendent moral laws, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to make the case that equal rights for all was a patriotic principle. Despite the bitter resistance which claimed King’s life, America was able to enact full, legal equality for all without tearing itself apart.
America is not the first or only country to recognize a transcendent moral order. In fact, the realization that positive laws must accord with (or bow to) the laws of heaven goes all the way back to the roots of Western culture—to Classical Greece. Sophocles put this awareness in the mouth of Antigone, when she defies King Creon’s unjust law: “Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mere more mortal man, could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws. Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live, and no one knows their origin….”
St. Thomas Aquinas did know their origin, and he taught that an unjust law is no law at all, and need not be obeyed.
The roots of international law were planted by Catholic jurists in 16th-century Salamanca, when the Church informed the conquistadors that Native Americans were fully human, and should not be enslaved. (Sadly, nobody listened—there was too much gold to be plundered. But the principle was established.)
When they tried the Nazis at Nuremburg, instead of mere victors’ justice (favored by the vengeful Soviets), American and British judges pointed to a transcendent moral law that overrode the laws of National Socialist Germany.
Martin Luther King, Jr. did not rely on racial groupthink or tribal self-interest when he called for civil rights from the Birmingham Jail, but cited the great Western and Christian tradition: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God… An unjust law is a code out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Because he cited the core principles of our country and our culture, King’s arguments prevailed.
That is how we will prevail in the fight for the sanctity of life—by pointing out, again and again and again that our opponents are merely cynical, that their arguments are purely pragmatic, hedonist and selfish, of no more merit than the rationalizations of slaveholders, the muttered excuses of Nazi guards or the empty rhetoric of segregationists. If America ever had the right to exist in the first place, or had the right to fight the Civil War and abolish slavery, it is only because our ancestors strove to conform our little laws to the Great Law that is writ in every human heart. That struggle is the source of our greatness, decency and cohesion. If we abandon it for the sake of short-term convenience or sexual “freedom,” we will have thrown away our national charter—taken the deed to our house and used it to line the gilded bird cage of a spoiled and selfish generation.
This is Part III of a five-part series appearing on Crisis.