A few weeks ago, the night of Jan. 18th I think, I was listening to Bill O’Reilly on the Fox Channel dispute one of his guests on the nature of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The guest basically contended there was no religious expression, thought, or words in either document, and it was a secular expression of the natural rights of man. And we should keep Christianity out of the public sphere today since it was never intended to be included in our public life. For example, banish prayer in public schools for that reason, and obey the separation of religion and government made explicit in the Constitution.
O’Reilly, usually a pretty good student of history, however did not make a very plausible argument, saying, as he grew louder and louder, that his opponent simply was wrong and did not know how deeply Christianity ran through the documents in question.
It was one of those dismaying television disputes, short bursts of rancorous sound bites that leave one no more informed than they were before, and with a short headache from the yelling to boot.
But if Bill had had enough time, he could have connected the dots, by which I mean relate the expressions in the Declaration and the Constitution to basic Christian doctrine on the natural rights of all men, found in the Bible, explained by the brilliance of St. Thomas Aquinas for all the world to see and contemplate, imbibed by both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, and expressed with clarity in both the Declaration and the Constitution.
To ignore the above and insist on the secular origins of those documents is to be one of two things: an ignoramus, or a blatant ideologue committed to a point of view regardless of history or the truth of it.
William Blackstone (1723-1780), one of greatest expositors of common law in England, and much quoted and used to interpret law in this country, wrote in his famed Commentaries on the Laws of England that “man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is an entirely dependent being….And consequently as man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points confirm to his maker’s will. This will of his maker is called the law of nature.”
Since critics of the exact and direct relationship of God’s law and natural law prefer secular to Christian explanations, let’s turn to Aristotle, the pre-Christian Greek philosopher, for a moment. Aristotle said laws of nature governed the world, and if one applied reason to discern the laws of nature, they were quite apparent to all.
Aristotle, and other like thinkers (Cicero, Livy, etc.), were often pointed to by Jefferson, John Adams and others for the sources of their thinking. Adams wrote that the principles of the American Revolution “are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”
Jefferson was of the same mind, when asked about the underlying principles of the Declaration of Independence: “All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”
Aristotle lived centuries before Christ, but he generally ascribed the existence of the laws of nature to a higher will, or God, seeing as how he wrote that the ultimate causes of nature are divine.
In Christian writing, the apostle Paul is the preeminent thinker and expositor of Christian doctrine among the apostles and very early Church fathers.
He wrote to the Christian church of Rome in Romans 2 and told them that even Gentiles had the natural laws of God written on their hearts.
14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the [Mosaic] law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
Or, put another way, Paul explains the concept of natural law in Romans 1 and 2, stating that we all have a fundamental knowledge of the existence God’s laws in nature. There is a general awareness of right and wrong on all people’s hearts and consciences, Christians or not.
Other of the great Christian thinkers, well known to the Founding Fathers, such as St. Augustine and Aquinas, added to the storehouse of knowledge about natural laws that were created by God, and that underlay the great documents of the American Revolution. Of these Aquinas, a Dominican scholar of the thirteenth century, explained most fully how faith and reason can be reconciled, and also identified the system of natural law as the standard for civil law and government.
Aquinas’ writing is long and sometimes complex but can be rendered simply, without doing too much damage to the subtlety of his arguments.
Aquinas said, according to Scripture, that since God created everything, he undoubtedly also created nature and laws. There are four kinds of laws—eternal laws (or God’s laws), divine law, or the revelations of the Bible, natural law or the laws of nature discerned by man through reason, and human law, or laws made by man and his reason for the common good.
People tended to look after their own good or self-interest, therefore some governing power must be created to direct people toward the “common good,” a phrase also common to Plato and Aristotle for example when describing the role of government.
The philosophy of Aquinas came down to Jefferson, Madison, Adams and others almost directly through John Locke and company. A medieval friar ensconced in another world Aquinas may have been, but observe what he wrote about natural law and its violation by men.
Problems with unjust rulers included those who made laws that violated natural law. When they do so, they become tyrants, and he concluded that a “tyrannical government [like the one of King George III Jefferson probably thought] is not just, because it is directed not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says…”, and “what should the people do about a tyranny?”
Both Augustine and Aquinas stated pretty unequivocally that a people did not have to obey laws if they are illegitimate. Augustine waffled a bit, but Aquinas went further. Subjects might rebel against a tyrant and depose him! This should not be done in haste, but is one of the first justifications for rebellion and revolution in Western thought. Does it sound familiar?
“…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (Declaration of Independence)
You might say, but the eighteenth century was the “age of Reason,” the Enlightenment ruled, the inflexible and dogmatic Church and religion were relegated to the junk heap and replaced with man’s reason as the source of all knowledge.
Secular approaches to the truth did in fact prevail in the age of reason, and the Founding Fathers were enthusiastic subscribers to the new virtue, but, and the “but” is often the most important part of any compound sentence, they were also deeply read in classic, Christian, and modern political theory. They knew much of John Locke probably by heart, and Jefferson paraphrased Locke in the Declaration of Independence.
Both John Locke and Thomas Aquinas founded their political theory on natural law and while many interpretations issue from this—in other areas such as property, liberty, the common good, etc.—they viewed natural law and natural rights as God given, easily traceable back to Scripture, especially passages from the Apostle Paul, and then on back to the pre-Christian philosophers such as Aristotle who saw a divine hand moving the actions of men.
Greg Foster, in his book on Starting with Locke, noted that “during the siege of Boston in the winter of 1775-1776, warships commissioned by George Washington bore flags that declared, in large black letters on a white background, “AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” The flag was adopted by the Massachusetts Navy in April 1776.”
As a Navy veteran, it’s nice to know my old service was well aware of the source of their power.
This would have been a good point for Bill O’Reilly to start with and use in correcting his guest on his show back on January 18th. While O’Reilly claims loudly that the “spin stops here,” he needs to get himself thoroughly informed, which I suspect he is for the most part, but shouting over the voice of your opponent is not much of a convincing argument.
This column published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday February 10, 2013