Ethics & Public Policy Center

Natural law = Bigotry? Please.



On November 3, Ken Cuccinelli was elected attorney general of Virginia in a landslide. His 15% margin of victory strongly suggests that Old Dominion voters were unimpressed by a shrill Washington Post editorial published on October 30, which opined that Mr. Cuccinelli “would likely become an embarrassment for the commonwealth” as his “affability and quick wit…have tended to mask his extremist views.”

What, you ask, were those “extremist views”? Well, the Post's indictment — in an editorial titled “Mr. Cuccinelli's bigotry” — centered on the fact that candidate Cuccinelli had described homosexual behavior as contrary to “natural law” and had further suggested that natural law was a useful guide to public policy. Mr. Cuccinelli did not propose to prosecute, much less jail, every gay and lesbian between the Potomac River and the North Carolina border, and no sane person thought he intended to do so. Yet the Post's anonymous editorial writer described Mr. Cuccinelli's appeal to natural law as a “retrofit [of] the old language of racism, bias, and intolerance in a new context.”

Baloney. What's being retrofitted here is old-time anti-Catholic bigotry, tarted up in the guise of tolerance and extended to those who think there are moral truths built into the world and into us — truths that we can grasp by reason.

Ken Cuccinelli is a serious, practicing Catholic. He's also a sophisticated politician who knows that you don't argue public policy in the public square on the basis of uniquely Catholic theological premises. Rather, you make your arguments in a public vocabulary, accessible to all. That's the grammar and vocabulary of the natural moral law: the basis on which Thomas Jefferson argued the case for American national independence, Martin Luther King, Jr., promoted the civil rights of African Americans, and John Paul II passionately and effectively defended the religious and political rights of all.

Was Jefferson a bigot when he staked America's claim to independent nationhood on “self-evident” moral truths derived from “the laws of nature?” Was King a bigot when, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he argued that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law”? Was John Paul II a bigot when, at the United Nations in 1995, he suggested that the truths of the natural moral law — “the moral logic which is built into human life” — could serve as a universal “grammar” enabling genuinely cross-cultural dialogue? Please.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution of 1989, it was a sadness that the editors of the Washington Post misread the moral texture of the American founding, the civil rights revolution, and the revolution of conscience that brought down the Berlin Wall — revolutions in which believers, non-believers, skeptics, and agnostics united in defense of human rights that could be known as such through the natural moral law. Jefferson and the other American Founders would have found the Post's identification of “natural law” with “bigotry” simply bizarre. So would Dr. King. And so would Vaclav Havel and other leaders of the Revolution of 1989, if they happened to be surfing the Internet on October 30 and stumbled across the Post's lamebrained attack on those who think that rationally known moral norms ought to have some bearing on how we should live together.

To be sure, the Post was not quite as over-the-top as Frank Rich of the New York Times, who labeled as “Stalinists” those Republicans in upstate New York who thought abortion-on-demand and gay “marriage” bad ideas. But that's Frank Rich: the former “Butcher of Broadway” is always over-the-top. The Post editorial branding natural law reasoning as bigotry was worse, because the moral lexicon of the natural law is the common vocabulary by which Americans of every political, ideological, and religious flavor have argued in defense of life, in defense of marriage rightly understood, and in defense of religious freedom. To call such arguments retrofitted “bigotry” is a crude attempt to drive classical moral understandings out of the public square, by smearing their advocates as morally coarse anti-social misfits.

Memo to Post editors: we're not impressed and we're not going away.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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