In politics Americans like to fall comfortably in the middle of the road. And so it’s a common tactic of politicians to present their own views as the mainstream, while painting their opponents as extremists–on the fringe.
Call it the weirdo factor. If you can’t undercut someone by rational argument, just make him look weird, out of the mainstream.
We’re seeing that very tactic at work in the debate today over Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Judge Thomas believes in natural law–that human laws have to be measured against an objective standard of morality and justice. A higher law.
Opponents have labelled this view weird. Harvard professor Lawrence Tribe said no Supreme Court nominee in 50 years has held a natural law philosophy.
That’s a wild exaggeration. In fact, most people hold a form of natural law. How about you? Do you believe the government can pass a law that is unjust? If so, you believe in natural law. You believe a law has to measure up to some outside standard of justice; otherwise it’s unjust.
Natural law has been the dominant legal philosophy throughout Western civilization. Its roots reach back to the ancient Greeks and Romans–to Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca.
It was the dominant philosophy of law in the Middle Ages. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas related the secular concept of natural law to the biblical concept of divine law. Both refer to an objective standard against which human laws are to be judged.
The Reformers talked about natural law, too. John Calvin wrote that God’s law is “engraved upon the minds of men” through conscience and natural law.
Our modern nations are based on the writings of men such as John Locke and Montesquieu, who offered their own theories of natural law.
Need we belabor the point any further?
Natural law has a long and venerable heritage in Western thought. It is hardly novel or unusual. And certainly not weird.
In fact, it is the only basis for human rights. Judge Thomas argues that minority rights depend upon the idea of natural law found in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration talks about certain rights as inalienable–which means a just government can’t take them away.
But rights are not inalienable unless they are based on something beyond the government.
As the late Francis Schaeffer so eloquently put it, Where do inalienable rights come from? From the state? Then they are not inalienable. Because what the state gives the state can also take away.
That’s why the Declaration of Independence says inalienable rights are endowed by the Creator. The state doesn’t create these rights; it merely acknowledges them as pre-existing by divine creation.
It’s not only Judge Thomas who believes this. Recently a Jewish rabbi named Haberman wrote that without a higher law–a law above the state–there is no standard of Justice to which we can hold the government accountable. Then there is nothing to prevent it from falling into tyranny and totalitarianism.
Rabbi Haberman knows what he’s talking about: He had to flee Germany for his life when the Nazis came to power.
For Jews, for blacks, for all of us–the only sure basis of civil rights is natural law. And there’s nothing weird about that–whatever Clarence Thomas’s detractors may say.
Rabbi Joshua Haberman, “The Bible Belt Is America’s Safety Belt, Policy Review (Fall 1987).
Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1981): 31.
Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Volume 2), (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960): 1504.
This is the fifth of a seven part series on Clarence Thomas.