July/August 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

The U.S. State Department has announced that it will create a commission to promote human rights around the world based on “natural law and natural rights,” terms that are often used by conservative religious groups in place of “God’s law.”

“Natural law” is a term often used by religious conservatives – chiefly traditionalist Catholics – to undermine church-state separation and argue that public policy should be anchored in faith-based rationales.

The phrase gained currency in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Controversy erupted after some of his speeches and writings surfaced in which Thomas talked about his fondness for natural law. Some critics were concerned that Thomas seemed eager to look for sources of law beyond the U.S. Constitution.

A notice in the Federal Register states that the commission, formally known as the Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, “will provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” The notice states that the commission will meet at least once per month.

Despite the Religious Right’s fondness for natural law, the concept actually pre-dates Christianity. Ancient Greek philosophers pioneered a version of it, arguing that there is an order to the universe and that human reason, when appropriately applied, is capable of understanding this order and deducing a system of ethics to govern moral behavior that is in tune with it.

The ancient Greeks were pagan, but their musings on natural law were co-opted by Christian theologians during the Middle Ages, primarily St. Thomas Aquinas, who anchored the concept in Catholic theology. Aquinas and other church theologians argued that the source of “order” in the universe is, in fact, a monotheistic God. Because this God could be accessed through reason, it just made sense to base laws on the immutable teachings of a unified church, which in Aquinas’s time meant the Catholic Church.

The Protestant Reformation ended any idea of a unified Christendom, but ultra-conservative Catholic theologians continued to promote the natural-law concept, with some arguing that an application of reason would always lead one back to the Catholic Church.

In the modern era, conservative thinkers have argued that natural law, which is fixed and does not evolve over time, supports the Catholic Church’s views on issues like reproduction, human sexuality and even state support of religious education. They insist that adoption of these positions is a matter of reason, not faith.

Today the natural law concept is closely tied to Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor who co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, a group that lobbied against marriage equality. In 1999, George published a series of essays defending natural law.

George, an anonymous source told ABC News, has been prominently involved in the creation of the State Department commission, and is among 15 academics who have been recommended to sit on the panel.