By James Clark

When American evangelicals began to earnestly engage in conventional politics in the 1950s, a problem emerged. As David L. Weeks put it in a 2001 article, “Evangelicals have never developed a coherent and compelling political philosophy. Instead, they have relied on the moral authority and perspicuity of the Bible as a foundation for their social activism.”[1] He argued that “‘biblical politics’” cannot succeed because “for all its moral teaching, the Bible does not fully address political life; it is not a treatise on political philosophy.”[2] People who try to make political arguments by appealing to the Bible are therefore “hamstrung, philosophically, by the lack of common ground with fellow non-Christian citizens, and, rhetorically, by the lack of a moral vocabulary to use in the public square.”[3]

Weeks then noted that the futility of biblical politics does not leave evangelicals with the “Herculean task of creating [a political philosophy] ex nihilo.”[4] Rather, he suggested, evangelicals can turn to natural law as a foundation for political engagement on the grounds that venerable figures such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin based their own political thought on “some version of natural law.” Practically speaking, natural law also “provides much that evangelicals desperately want and need: relief from moral relativism, common ground between believers and nonbelievers, and reasonably clear principles to guide public policy choices.”[5]

As Weeks recognized, however, to make evangelical acceptance of natural law even a possibility would require “overcoming a longstanding suspicion of anything ‘Roman’ as well as correcting many mischaracterizations and misunderstandings.” He thus called on evangelicals to perform “these three tasks—re-examining the natural law tradition, contending with objections, and revisiting traditional doctrines” in light of natural law, such as “creation and the imago Dei, humanity’s fall and subsequent depravity, common grace and general revelation,” etc.[6]

The adoption of natural law as a basis for Christian political engagement was also recommended by others around the same time, and years beforehand as well.[7] Now, almost two decades after Weeks’s article, it seems safe to say Protestant scholars have undertaken his proposed tasks with remarkable verve. Indeed, it would be tedious even to catalog the books on natural law written just by Protestants alone in this interval. As early as 2012 Jordan J. Ballor declared, “The question of natural law and Protestantism is increasingly becoming not that of ‘If’ but ‘How?’”[8] To paraphrase, many Protestants have come to accept the concept of natural law, defined as

That order or rule of human conduct which is (1) based upon human nature as created by God, (2) knowable by all men, through human intuition and reasoning alone (beginning from his observations of creation, in general, and human nature, in particular), independent of any particular divine revelation provided through a divine spokesperson; and, thus (3) normative for all human beings.[9]

This being so, Ballor thinks we must now determine how best to employ natural law as the basis for arguments by which we can potentially persuade non-Christians who disagree with us on contentious political matters.

I agree that probing the practical significance of natural law is critical, but I would evaluate our situation more pointedly: to invert a famous line from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, our theologians have been so preoccupied with whether or not we should try to persuade with natural law arguments that they didn’t stop to think if we could. As Ballor acknowledges, over the past century Protestants have generally been predisposed against the very idea of natural law, such that most recent Protestant treatments of the subject have largely defended the concept against biblical and theological objections rather than pragmatic ones. Consequently, Protestant scholarly works focused on the persuasiveness of natural law arguments have been scant.[10]

In this essay, then, I will briefly survey the recent natural law literature, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, concerning the prospects of natural law argumentation as a means of political persuasion. No one is surprised when natural law skeptics criticize the use of natural law arguments,[11] but I intend to demonstrate that many natural law proponents themselves believe the general persuasiveness of natural law argumentation is dubious, even as they promote the use of such arguments. On this view it is not that natural law arguments never persuade, but the occasions on which they do should be considered the exception rather than the norm.

This ambivalent attitude provokes an obvious question: if many natural law proponents judge natural law arguments to be generally unpersuasive, why do they continue to champion such arguments as a means of engagement? The answer, as I will also show, is that defenders of natural law theory tend to believe if we do not promote natural law as the appropriate foundation for political order, then the only alternative left to us is what J. Daryl Charles has called “majoritarian tyranny.”[12] This refers to a polity where, “In the absence of moral agreement these [moral] matters seem destined to be decided on purely political grounds: either by the decree of the state or by the power of majorities or the influence of interest groups.”[13]

In response I will suggest that concerns about life under majoritarian tyranny are moot in the event such a polity has already come to pass or is imminent. If true this would likely lead natural law proponents to claim that we still must articulate natural law arguments, albeit to restore rather than retain a virtuous political order. In reply I will posit that natural law is not, as many have supposed, best thought of as a basis for persuading those who do not agree with us on matters of morality and public policy. This is not to say natural law has no practical significance, or even that natural law arguments have no good uses—just that creating political consensus where none already exists may not be among them.

Supposing what I have suggested is true—that majoritarian tyranny already obtains and natural law arguments will not undo this situation—another question arises: if natural law arguments do not generally persuade, what other means do we have of communicating with non-Christians that might lead them to think as we do, yet without limiting ourselves to an unadorned preaching of the gospel, or devolving into purely emotional or otherwise non-intellectual appeals? I will close by raising the possibility of beauty as a means of public witness to that which is good and true, a prospect I cannot adequately explore in this space but hope to discuss more fully in the future.

To be clear, I have no biblical, theological, or philosophical objections to the idea of natural law as such. Rather, my simple aim is to underscore how curious it is that many Christian thinkers promote natural law arguments as a means of public persuasion when, by their own account, such arguments are generally unlikely to succeed. Although this position is not self-contradictory or incoherent, it is counterintuitive to the point of warranting scrutiny.

1. Protestants on the Prospects of Persuasion

Many Protestant scholars writing about natural law emphasize its potential use as a means of public persuasion. J. Daryl Charles argues that “even when the biblical tradition remains authoritative through the ages, it must be accompanied by a moral apologetic that argues for the existence of a universal moral sense,” i.e., the natural law.[14] Given this natural law, we should avail ourselves of it in order to “dialogue with non-Christians and those who are ideological opposites.”[15] Likewise, Carl Braaten writes that “natural law has a necessary role to play in Christian ethics, political philosophy, and legal theory.” More specifically he commends “the power of natural law arguments to deal with the critical life-and-death issues within the wider culture.”[16]

However, such scholars often promote natural law arguments as a means of public engagement without saying much about how natural law arguments should be crafted, or the likelihood of their general acceptance. There are some who address this topic, but they are far more tentative about the prospects of persuasion than might be expected.

1.1 David VanDrunen

Few have written as much as David VanDrunen about not only the legitimacy of natural law within the Protestant tradition, but also what a specifically Protestant theory of natural law might look like. It is thus unsurprising that he is among those Protestants who have upheld natural law as a means of public engagement and raised the question of persuasiveness.

In Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms VanDrunen says of the Reformers, “In affirming natural law they professed belief that God had inscribed his moral law on the heart of every person, such that through the testimony of conscience all human beings have knowledge of their basic moral obligations and, in particular, have a universally accessible standard for the development of civil law.”[17] The implication for us today is that Christians “can engage in genuine moral conversation with those of other faiths through the universally accessible law of nature, without making adherence to Scripture a test for participating in cultural affairs.”[18]

Toward the end of the book VanDrunen discusses various “issues that future proponents on this paradigm [of natural law] must wrestle with in order to offer a compelling and useful proposal.”[19] Among these issues, “Probably the biggest question that faces those wishing to revive the Reformed doctrine of natural law is how, concretely, Christians can make natural law arguments in the public square with theological integrity and some degree of persuasiveness to a religiously mixed crowd.” Unfortunately he defers any extended discussion to a later date: “Natural law arguments have always been easier to dispute than to defend, and the present social context surely exacerbates the difficulty of constructing good natural law appeals. Thus this promises to be a major task for future exponents of historic Reformed categories.” He limits himself to saying we should make natural law arguments even if doing so is “difficult,” and, if nothing else, they are more likely to be persuasive than appeals to “verses of Scripture.”[20]

In Divine Covenants and Moral Order VanDrunen reiterates the claim that natural law is “practically useful … for providing an important means for communicating with unbelievers about this common life.” It is therefore “proper for Christians to seek to persuade unbelievers and to collaborate with them by means of natural law.”[21] Once again, though, he declines to elaborate at length on the practicalities of this endeavor: “Since this book is a biblical theology of natural law, and Scripture gives no explicit instructions on how to make natural law arguments, this issue is mostly beyond the scope of my present project, though undoubtedly an important issue.”[22] He does, however, say a little on the subject.

According to VanDrunen, “Any appeal to the moral implications of the way this world is structured constitutes a kind of argument from natural law.” Such arguments can be either “philosophical” or “pragmatic.” He writes, “Many people, I suspect, think that genuine natural law arguments are by definition highly philosophical, though I also suspect that such natural law arguments (however rigorous) may often be least effective.”[23]

If he is correct, that leaves pragmatic arguments. On this score VanDrunen suggests we “attempt to persuade others that they should pursue [certain] patterns of behavior, by demonstrating how these patterns promote various good ends that most people acknowledge at some level,” while also demonstrating the corollary that certain other patterns of behavior “tend to hinder attainment of these [good] ends.”[24]

In VanDrunen’s view these kinds of arguments hold promise because “making and understanding such arguments do not demand intellectual sophistication. Neither do they require moral purity or conversion to Christianity to appreciate at a meaningful level.”[25] For this reason he believes “a more pragmatic species of natural law argument may well be more accessible to the common person and also more likely to garner a measure of assent.” Yet in the same breath he adds, “I say this not to be highly optimistic about the potential effectiveness of natural law arguments, which in reality I am not.”[26]

In short, VanDrunen does not expect natural law arguments to be generally persuasive, but he thinks we should make them anyway because Scripture upholds natural law as commonly shared among Christians and non-Christians and, at the very least, it beats quoting the Bible to try to make a point. This is not exactly a rousing call to arms, and his views are not unique among Protestants either.

1.2 Other Protestants

Apart from VanDrunen, Protestant considerations of the question of persuasiveness are sparse. In one such treatment Daniel R. Heimbach asks, “Should the success of evangelicals engaging the public square depend on hoping supernaturally grounded moral standards can be restored by alleging no need to rely on God or supernaturalism of any kind?” Heimbach affirms the existence of natural law, but he rejects the idea that “natural law theory is able, while denying the necessity of faith in anything supernatural, to secure common ground sufficient to restore moral foundations required to sustain social order.”[27]

In Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought the issue of persuasion is raised by a few contributors, including two of its editors. Bryan T. McGraw argues that a theory of natural law grounded in a “Trinitarian view of creation” can address the concern that natural law theory is by definition independent of theology. That said, he offers his essay as “a chastened affirmation for evangelicals interested in thinking in terms of natural law. We can, and should, think in terms of natural law, but we should also recognize the ways in which such thinking will not prove a panacea for our political challenges.”[28]

Jesse Covington contends that Augustine’s concept of virtue can help evangelicals maintain a balance between “commonality and antithesis” in theorizing about natural law. In doing so he affirms, “Natural law thinking should play a more prominent role in evangelical political thought,” but he also repeatedly cautions that evangelicals should have “carefully tempered expectations of the moral consensus it will produce.”[29]

Finally and most strikingly, in his critique of Stanley Hauerwas Matthew D. Wright mentions Hauerwas’s stance that “natural law arguments often fail to persuade and build consensus on contentious moral issues in the public square.” Far from rejecting this view, Wright concedes Hauerwas is on “firm ground” in this regard and baldly states, “I have little interest in criticizing Hauerwas’s pessimism. There is no reason to be sanguine about the potential for success in articulating natural law arguments in the public square.”[30]

To summarize, while Protestant scholars are increasingly open to the idea of natural law, many register a vote of “no confidence” when considering the question of how persuasive we can expect natural law arguments to actually be. They are hardly alone in making this assessment either, for many Roman Catholic scholars of natural law have expressed similar sentiments.

2. Roman Catholics on the Prospects of Persuasion

Roman Catholics have had a bit more to say about the persuasiveness of natural law arguments than Protestants. This is possibly because they never rejected the concept of natural law, and have thus been in a position to continue discussing unabated many facets of natural law theory beyond its mere legitimacy, including the contemporary question of persuasiveness. Regardless, it will become evident that even as they too support the use of natural law arguments, some doubt their efficacy.

2.1 J. Budziszewski

Like David VanDrunen, Budziszewski has written prolifically about natural law. As such, his output on the subject includes a significant amount of material on the question of persuasion.

According to Budziszewski, “The reason we may demand civic enforcement of the natural law—of its foundational precepts, and with respect to the common good—is that they are already matters of both common knowledge and common concern.”[31] Given that the natural law is known to all, he continues, we can appeal to this common knowledge when seeking to “leaven the civil law we share with our nonbelieving neighbors…. In this area we can hardly get far by proclaiming to nonbelievers ‘The Bible says!’ But we can get somewhere by proclaiming extrabiblical truths which we know, on biblical authority, that the nonbeliever really knows too.”[32] This emphasis on drawing out moral truths that even non-Christians can’t not know is a central theme in Budziszewski’s work on natural law. As he once put it, “The only hope for persuading confused fellow citizens to embrace a Christian position on an issue such as, say, the definition of marriage is to get out of the straitjacket of ‘rights talk’ and connect with matters of general revelation that they know already.”[33]

However, just because non-Christians know the natural law does not mean they have to recognize that they know it: “It is a far cry from knowing something to acknowledging it, and the human race has been in the condition psychologists call ‘denial’ ever since the Fall.”[34] Sin thus leads people to deny what they know, and this denial “takes extravagant and irrational forms.”[35] In turn, willful denial presents a roadblock to our efforts at persuasion: “We imagine that if only we present [people] with airtight arguments, they will change their minds. That is not how it will happen, for there is such a thing as motivated error.”[36]

For this reason it may be “utopian to demand robust civic enforcement of the natural law. That is the ideal, but in practice, most of our energy will go toward robust amelioration of its most grievous and damaging violations.” As Budziszewski sees it, our prospects are mixed: “The design of creation works in our favor…. The malice of sin works against us.”[37]

It could be said that Budziszewski, in believing that the natural law “cannot be erased” and is always known even by those who deny it, ultimately chooses to focus on the positive.[38] Yet as he himself notes multiple times, there is nothing stopping those who deny what they know from rejecting our appeals to common moral knowledge indefinitely. Moreover, Budziszewski is not an outlier even among Roman Catholics.

2.2 Other Roman Catholics

Protestant scholars of natural law tend to characterize Alasdair MacIntyre as someone who thinks moral discourse of any kind is impossible. J. Daryl Charles has written of MacIntyre’s “pessimistic” view that “we are moral cave-dwellers who have undergone a catastrophic shift in our understanding that has warped our ability to do moral reasoning at all.”[39] David VanDrunen ascribes to MacIntyre the belief that we in the West “share no common story or telos and therefore have no resources from which to draw in order to have genuine moral discussions about anything.”[40]

Given that in After Virtue MacIntyre plainly says, “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture,” such conclusions are understandable.[41] It is also true that MacIntyre thinks appeals to natural law are “exceedingly often … impotent in the face of radical moral and political disagreement.”[42] Even so, in his later work MacIntyre identifies himself as a Thomist, believing “the natural law can be known by the exercise of the powers of reason, independently of revelation.”[43] Furthermore, while MacIntyre does think appealing to natural law usually does not resolve moral and political disagreement, he goes on to say that in light of this fact, “The urgent practical question will have become that of how we may most effectively find common ground with at least some of those with whom we are in continuing and irremediable disagreement.”[44] He believes the best way to do this is by making “radical philosophical, moral, and cultural critiques of rival standpoints” that target their underlying premises rather than trying to “demonstrate the falsity of [their] conclusions.”[45] For some readers the real news may be that MacIntyre grants any legitimacy whatsoever to moral argumentation, but for our purposes the point is that he is another example of one who does so even as he voices grave doubts about the efficacy of arguments.

In what may come as another surprise to readers, Sherif Girgis—primary author of the foremost natural law defense of traditional marriage[46]—has also admitted there are limits to what natural law arguments can accomplish. In answer to skeptics who ask, “Do natural-law arguments ever persuade?”, he states point-blank, “Yes. Over the last few years, my coauthors and I have heard from many saying we had convinced them to join the marriage debate by showing them its value … ; from others who decided to retire this or that contrary argument; and from still others who switched to our side of the issue.”[47]

This is a powerful testimony in that it refers to real human beings who have actually been persuaded, rather than speaking theoretically of people who are “capable” of being persuaded, as natural law advocates are wont to do. Still, Girgis asks rhetorically, “Then where are the mass conversions? We freely admit that moral philosophy can’t produce them. It doesn’t convert en masse, because evaluating its arguments takes sustained attention.”[48]

Finally, Robert P. George—one of Girgis’s coauthors of the book on marriage—is known for his vigorous defense of the legitimacy of natural law argumentation against numerous critics. To oversimplify his approach, if there are basic “moral norms … that can be known by rational inquiry … then these norms of natural law can provide the basis for a common understanding of human rights.”[49]

But even he has acknowledged, “People who are deeply committed emotionally to one side or the other are unlikely to have a road-to-Damascus type conversion after listening to a formal philosophical debate…. People can have powerful motives for clinging to a particular position even if they are presented with conclusive reasons for changing their minds.”[50] Granted, George also believes there are still “many” people who are genuinely interested in settling various questions for themselves with the help of arguments, but the acknowledgment remains.

3. Some Objections Considered

We have seen that many Protestant and Roman Catholic natural law scholars—not critics and skeptics of natural law theory, but advocates—doubt whether natural law arguments can be generally persuasive, even as they support the use of such arguments. This tension deserves further analysis, but a couple of objections should be addressed first.

3.1 New Natural Law—A Solution to the Problem of Persuasion?

Virtually all the natural law thinkers surveyed above adhere to a “classical” theory of natural law associated with Aristotle and Aquinas.[51] According to this classical theory, “Natural law is … truly expressive of nature,” and “a thing’s nature may be thought of as the design imparted to it by the Creator—in traditional language, as a purpose implanted in it by the divine art, that it be moved to a determinate end.”[52] In other words, we know what is good for us—expressed in the natural law as what we should and should not do—on the basis of our telos, our ultimate end or purpose as human beings.

However, in “new natural law” theory (NNL), “Goods … are self-evident as the objects of practical rationality.” Unlike with classical natural law theory, “Knowing these as goods does not require a foundation of speculative, or theoretical, rationality about the nature of being.”[53]

Because NNL holds that no theoretical presuppositions are required in order to grasp the natural law, it could be argued that the problem of persuasion is one exclusive to classical natural law theory. R. J. Snell says as much in a book detailing his own version of NNL: “Culturally, the argument goes, the natural law fails to persuade anyone not already on board because it relies (generally under deep cover) on theological commitments about creation, design, purpose, and human identity.”[54] Snell thinks this objection fails to realize that “since [natural law] accounts differ in important ways arguments against one version may or may not apply particularly well to another.”[55] According to him, the problem of persuasion does not arise in NNL because “denying the basic human goods entails a performative contradiction, so while the goods cannot be proven, it can be shown that any rejection is self-defeating.”[56]

I would say the charge of self-contradiction is likely to provoke in our opponents something like Walt Whitman’s famous phrase: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.”[57] Furthermore, notwithstanding how ardently NNL proponents maintain that natural law can be known independent of theological or metaphysical presuppositions, many have convincingly argued against this position.[58] Even if this were not the case, NNL arguments have shown themselves to be just as generally unpersuasive as classical natural law arguments.[59] Kevin Gallagher in particular deserves to be quoted at length for his resounding indictment of NNL and its “‘secular’ arguments made by the fusionist natural lawyers on questions like abortion and gay marriage”:

What eroded the credibility of the fusionists was nothing but their own failure—and one cannot say that their efforts have been met with anything other than that. On every issue that matters, the fusionists did nothing to increase the influence of Catholic ideas among Republicans—much less the country at large—but they also failed to hold the line, even on long-established political norms. And perhaps no failure was more dramatic, more revealing of the intellectual fatuity of this movement, and more important in stimulating young Catholics to look for new ideas, than the inability of the fusionist equipage to offer any effective response to the movements of late liberalism, which became glaringly apparent after the Windsor and Obergefell decisions.

Apart from a few professionally heterodox commentators, the Catholic punditry attempted with great diligence and coordination to oppose the legalization of gay marriage—producing any number of arguments, less to explicate the perennial teaching of the Church on this matter than to appeal to Justice Kennedy’s whims. Perhaps no effort was more deliberate, or greeted with more fanfare, than the extended essay What Is Marriage?, team-written by a committee of Witherspoon Institute and First Things worthies. But even this grand project went, as it had to go—nowhere. No proponents of the change in marriage law even took it seriously as a challenge.

As a matter of political influence, the essay may as well never have existed. Yet it is preeminently useful as a window into the fusionist mind of only a few years ago. Written, promoted, and (one suspects) only ever read by Catholics, it nevertheless painfully avoided basing its argument on the Catholic sources or argumentative tropes that everyone knew actually inspired it. It discussed sex and marriage as if the centuries of Catholic meditation on these questions had not existed.[60]

It could therefore justly be said to those who would attribute the problem of persuasion to classical natural law theory alone that NNL has no leg to stand on.

3.2 Optimism Remains

It could also be argued that I have given short shrift to adherents of classical natural law theory who believe natural law arguments can be generally persuasive.[61] Hence, the second objection goes, who’s to say I am right in being skeptical and they are wrong in being optimistic?

For example, Alastair Roberts insists that “the arguments for our case [concerning gay marriage] are good, and they are persuasive too. To actually exert their persuasive power, however, they need to be patiently heard out and closely engaged with” by opponents who are “patient, thoughtful, and charitable.”[62] What is more, “As the natural law is a reality, not an argument, it is not dependent upon our appeals to and attempts to articulate it…. As natural law is present and operative within the created order, we don’t need to resort to theological arguments, but can draw attention to the ‘grain’ of the reality that [our hearers] find themselves within.”[63]

Matthew E. Cochran, too, notes that while the sort of God-free, “naturalistic” natural law theory rejected by Daniel Heimbach may not be persuasive, “we should not dismiss the possibility” that “a supernaturalistic version of natural law [can] serve as common ground with the nonbeliever.”[64] Drawing on Budziszewski he suggests we can make “practical use of natural law” by “revealing latent moral knowledge, which people may not realize they possess.”[65] There are also other kinds of arguments that could be tried, such as VanDrunen’s appeal to consequences.

Those who defend natural law theory and are sanguine about the prospects of natural law arguments are not my concern, as there is nothing unusual about their position. I would only observe that recent history does not appear to bear out their confidence. For example, if appealing to the bad consequences of certain behaviors were enough to dissuade people from pursuing those behaviors, same-sex marriage would never have become the law of the land, given that the negative societal and personal consequences of not only same-sex marriage but also mere homosexual practice were exhaustively catalogued during the debate.[66] Moreover, Roberts and Cochran’s appeal to the grain of reality and latent moral knowledge, respectively, amounts to Budziszewski’s appeal to “what we can’t not know,” which he himself grants can always be denied.

If making these points seems unconscionably defeatist, I ask the natural law argument enthusiasts: when the number of natural law violations enshrined in positive law keeps increasing rather than decreasing—when natural law scholars have in two decades gone from bemoaning abortion and gay marriage as some of the worst violations of natural law they can think of,[67] to having to accept the legality of both of these, while also attempting to explain why people should not be legally compelled to speak and act as though men can become women and vice-versa[68]—when all this has transpired, is it yet permissible to wonder aloud whether natural law arguments might not have the persuasive power over society that we would wish? The scholars in my survey have wondered aloud—I intend to press their logic and see where it leads, not so we can resign ourselves to silence and be palliated by the cold comfort that at least we understand why things turned out this way, but so we can think anew about how best to continue our witness.

A last consideration: if natural law arguments are generally unpersuasive, why is this so? This, too, is not my concern. Suffice to say many scholars attribute persuasive failure to sin—meaning not that sin keeps people from knowing the natural law, but that they willfully suppress it—with Budziszewski being an example of this view (see above discussion).[69] Some think attributing unpersuasiveness to sin or some other kind of rational failure “lacks credibility” or is otherwise inadvisable.[70] I agree that publicly attributing our opponents’ disagreement with us to sin or rational failure will dampen rather than facilitate further discussion, yet how can we avoid thinking this among ourselves if it is the truth? But let us proceed.

4. Natural Law—Sole Means of Discourse, Safeguard Against Tyranny

Natural law arguments are thought to be crucial for two reasons: a perceived lack of other options for political engagement, and the fear that failure to make such arguments will conduce to majoritarian tyranny.

J. Daryl Charles exemplifies both of these attitudes: “The extent to which the Christian community and Christian intellectuals in particular affirm natural-law thinking will determine our ability to relate to and address surrounding culture.”[71] Protestants who reject natural law have “lost any basis for a common moral grammar with which to enter moral discourse with non-Christians in a pluralistic social context.”[72] Absent such a common grammar, “What argument and protection do we have against evil when it manifests itself?”[73] “Evil” for Charles means among other things the encroachment of tyranny, which he says we must resist through natural law discourse: “A necessary defense against both incipient and mature forms of totalitarianism and barbarism is an appeal to justice, to the rule of reason and to an objective body of moral values. Free associations (indeed, free societies) must plead in the name of and on the basis of natural law.”[74]

This theme of natural law as our sole means of common discourse and protection against tyranny recurs throughout the literature. Carl Braaten asks, “If there is no natural law to appeal to as common ground with those who do not acknowledge the authority of Scripture, what other foundation might there be to establish consensus and collaboration in a pluralistic society?”[75] The editors of Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought similarly ask, “If natural law is rejected, then what might then ground political norms? Two of the most obvious possible answers—raw will or theonomic triumphalism—raise more problems than they resolve.”[76] Budziszewski speaks of our time as a “return of the sophist,” in that our current political system—wherein “the majority is supposed to rule by reason, not by whim”—is being threatened by a resurgent “sophism.” By “sophism” he means an outlook in which “man is the measure of all things, but man has no fixed nature…. Language is not an instrument for finding truth, but for changing it. Those who can master it, master all.”[77]

All such talk of a slide into majoritarian tyranny overlooks the possibility that it already obtains or is imminent, a possibility MacIntyre warns of:

When we are on particular occasions confronted by so far irresolvable disagreements that arise out of shared practical deliberation, but extend beyond it to questions about the nature of the human good, we always have to face the possibility that shared deliberation with these particular others will no longer be possible. A community that has hitherto been able to participate in joint rational decision making may be fractured by such irresolvable disagreements. It may no longer be possible for its members to arrive through shared practical reasoning at a common mind about how it is best for them to act together. Instead they will have to base their communal decision making either on inherited patterns of authority endowed with nonrational legitimacy or on some implicit or explicit social contract whereby individuals and groups, each trying to maximize their own advantage, arrive at some arrangement about allocations of costs and benefits. In either case it will be inequalities of power that determine the outcomes of decision-making processes. Power rather than practical reason will now have the last word.[78]

As Gerald McKenny notes, “When this kind of power or influence is exercised by majorities or interest groups apart from a social consensus, it usually indicates a corruption of liberal democracy.”[79] Are we in such a state? In answer I offer evidence from the past and the present, beginning with the past.

5. The Future Majoritarian Tyranny Is Now

In his survey of the American moral and political landscape titled We Hold These Truths, John Courtney Murray suggested the “immediate question” was not whether America is free, but “whether American society is properly civil.”[80] The degree of civility in a society, Murray explained, can be measured by its capacity for rational argumentation: “The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt, but that there is a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence. We hold certain truths; therefore we can argue about them.”[81]

In contrast, a barbarous society is characterized by the barbarian, who “[undermines] rational standards of judgment” and “makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs…. Barbarism … threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws…. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of the dialogue.”[82]

Having described these two possible states, Murray again posed the question: is America a civil society or not?[83] He answered starkly, “The fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity, as you will—is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it. And when you do, you catch a glimpse of the factual reality of the pluralist society.”[84] The state of reasoned argumentation that defines a civil society, he lamented, is absent in America:

We are not really a group of men singly engaged in the search for truth, relying solely on the means of persuasion…. As a matter of fact, the variant ideas and allegiances among us are entrenched as social powers…. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige, which not seldom become primary.[85]

In identifying the root cause of this deformed power politics Murray wrote, “We have no common universe of discourse…. Our intellectual experience is one of sheer confusion, in which soliloquy succeeds to argument.”[86]

Murray’s proposed solution was the restoration of natural law as the foundation of political order: “Only the theory of natural law is able to give an account of the public moral experience that is the public consensus.”[87] His hopes for what natural law could accomplish were not exorbitant, but rather that it would “prescribe, for the purpose of law and social custom, that minimum of morality which must be observed by the members of a society, if the social environment is to be human and habitable.”[88] He granted that the natural law tradition was defunct: “One would not talk of reviving the tradition, if it were in fact vigorously alive.”[89] He also granted that any success in restoring “the rule of reason in public affairs” would likely not be “much more than marginal.”[90] Nevertheless, he added, “The margin makes all the difference,” and he was ultimately hopeful that the natural law tradition could recover and guide American society once again: “If there is a law immanent in man—a dynamic, constructive force for rationality in human affairs, that works itself out, because it is a natural law, in spite of contravention by passion and evil and all the corruptions of power—one may with sober reason believe in, and hope for, a future of rational progress.”[91]

Yet, his own hope notwithstanding, Murray was also willing to speculate that America might not recover the tradition of natural law and instead go down a different path:

Perhaps the dissolution, long since begun, may one day be consummated. Perhaps one day the noble many-storeyed mansion of democracy will be dismantled, levelled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged. Perhaps there will one day be wide dissent even from the political principles which emerge from natural law, as well as dissent from the constellation of ideas that have historically undergirded these principles—the idea that government has a moral basis; that the universal moral law is the foundation of society; that the legal order of society—that is, the state—is subject to judgment by a law that is not statistical but inherent in the nature of man; that the eternal reason of God is the ultimate origin of all law; that this nation in all its aspects—as a society, a state, an ordered and free relationship between governors and governed—is under God. The possibility that widespread dissent from these principles should develop is not foreclosed.[92]

My purpose in talking about Murray is to point out that almost six decades ago he believed America was already no longer a civil society in the sense of being governed by reasoned argumentation, and that the natural law tradition was already a dead letter as far as American society was concerned. He hoped the tradition would be revived and save America from further decay, just as the same hope is voiced by contemporary natural law advocates, but I would be interested to hear anyone argue our condition has improved since Murray’s time. If anything, his vision of the consummated dissolution is an apt rendition of America today, and will become more so as time goes on. Indeed, Carlo Lancellotti—reflecting on Augusto Del Noce, who described much the same cultural situation as Murray albeit in different terms—makes a comment apropos to our discussion: “It is hard to escape the impression that the philosophical premises of today’s situation were firmly in place by the early sixties, and that at a fundamental level not much has happened since, except for a slow process of decomposition, as befalls an organism that is no longer living.”[93]

The present signs of this decomposition are further evidence that our state of majoritarian tyranny is, if not regnant, at the very least ascendant. As Mary Eberstadt has reported, traditionally religious Americans (particularly Christians) recently have been—not could be, but have been—“fired, fined, or otherwise punished for their beliefs.”[94] Furthermore, she has helpfully pointed out that what motivates such punishment is best understood not as “nihilistic” atheism, but rather a “substitute religion” in its own right: “Secularist progressivism today is less a political movement than a church.”[95] Per Eberstadt, the people driving these punitive measures can be thought of as adherents to a religion in which, among other commitments, unbounded sex—to the point where even the boundaries of biological sex are rejected[96]—is one of the chief gods, and anyone who questions or opposes it is treated accordingly.

Eberstadt also discusses how we might address this situation, but that is not our concern here.[97] The point is that in the apparent absence of a common morality, we find dueling moralities in America vying for power, and there are numerous documented cases of the ascendant majority—i.e., those who are opposed to Christian morality and, by extension, the morality of natural law—enforcing its own morality and punishing its rivals. Hence it seems we already inhabit a budding majoritarian tyranny, understood as a condition in which political decisions are made on the basis of power rather than common morality. As such, any who insist we continue making natural law arguments lest tyranny overtake us have simply not recognized our current reality.

Now it could be said that nothing in the above discussion rules out the continued use of natural law discourse as a means of reversing this terrible development. J. Daryl Charles, even as he recognizes that at present “moral reasoning and discourse are well-nigh impossible,” nevertheless maintains the appropriate response is to “help create an open and frank cultural dialogue.”[98] In the following section I will venture the possibility that natural law arguments generally have not been, and probably will not be, persuasive because natural law was never meant to serve as a means of moral and political persuasion. This point of view was ably expressed in the past by philosopher Yves R. Simon but has recently been neglected.

6. The Impotence of Natural Law Ideology

Strangely, Simon’s The Tradition of Natural Law was one of the historical resources David Weeks recommended for those interested in reviving natural law as a foundation for evangelical political engagement.[99] Given that Simon criticized precisely this use of natural law, if any Protestant had actually followed Weeks’s advice and taken Simon’s arguments seriously, the endeavor of reappropriating natural law theory as a basis for political engagement would have ironically been not empowered, but deflated early on.

In describing his own time Simon observed, “Natural law once again arouses keen and general interest but it is also more thoroughly negated than it ever was.”[100] He believed a significant reason for the weakness of contemporary natural law theory was that it combined “philosophic and ideological features.”[101] By “ideology” Simon meant “a system of propositions which, though undistinguishable so far as expression goes from statements about facts and essences, actually refer not so much to any real state of affairs as to the aspirations of a society at a certain time in its evolution.”[102]

In Simon’s view, ideological influences on contemporary natural law theory had manifested in the belief that natural law could (and should) function as a defense of “the foundations of common life” against “radical threats”:

We have been witnessing a tendency, in teachers and preachers, to assume that natural law decides … incomparably more issues than it is actually able to decide. There is a tendency to treat in terms of natural law questions which call for treatment in terms of prudence. It should be clear that any concession to this tendency is bound promptly to cause disappointment and skepticism. People are quick to realize what is weak, or dishonest, in pretending to decide by the axioms of natural law, or by airtight deduction from these axioms, questions that really cannot be solved except by the obscure methods of prudence.[103]

Simon’s skepticism toward the capacity of natural law arguments to settle disputed moral questions was rooted in his belief that a practical judgment, i.e., a decision that “cannot not be followed by action,” is “ultimately determined not by cognition but by inclination”:

What is really decisive, the final factor of certainty in prudence, is incommunicable. What we communicate when we succeed, as it frequently happens, in convincing our neighbor that our prudential decision was right is a host of inconclusive considerations; these are plausible enough to cause persuasion, as long as there is no particularly strong ground of opposition, but these plausible considerations did not cause the certainty of our conclusion. Its certainty was caused by agreement with right inclination, and this is a cause of certainty that no discourse can communicate.[104]

The principle of “the incommunicability of the last practical judgment” is brought to bear on moral disputes when we see that we cannot always provide “airtight” demonstrations of the truth of our position:

We often feel certain about right or wrong in a moral essence without being able to show clearly why it is right or wrong. Even in matters which admit of rational clarity, it often happens that available explanations are not airtight, and that there is a striking contrast between the firmness of our certainty and the vagueness of our explanation. Our intuitive acquaintance with the laws of the moral order is way ahead of our ability to connect moral essences with the first principles of morality, in other words, to show why an act is right or is wrong.[105]

This means that although we can know moral truth it is not necessarily the case that we can always (or even often) demonstrate it such that rational assent is incumbent on our interlocutors: “Demonstration does not always imply a promise of communicability. To say the least, it does not promise that the assent of many will be obtained.”[106] Simon held that in the past a social consensus on moral matters had been possible due to the existence of tradition, which “is supposed to conserve and to utter the rules that are established by the inclinations of just hearts without being, as yet, provided with a character of rational clarity.” With the “breakdown of tradition,” however, came a “particularly strong demand for explanation, this particular reluctance to fulfill roles that are not explained.”[107]

Simon noted grimly that if social consensus on moral questions hangs on our treating those questions by “methods of rational communication,” then, “One may not even be entitled to hope that the amount of agreement to be obtained in the future … will ever equal the amount of agreement that was obtained in the past, spontaneously and silently, by affective communion.”[108] Moreover, he pointed out that while “acquaintance with natural law is normally as progressive in mankind as anything else,” we have no guarantee that moral progress will continue, and there are “possibilities even of regression.”[109] Nonetheless the societal demand for rational justification of morality leaves us “no choice” but to attempt to supply it for the sake of “the preservation of whatever is left of virtuous instinct and correct judgment by inclination”:

With no illusion about the possibility of bringing about demonstrative knowledge in a great number of minds, we trust that some good can be done, provided the direction followed by our very imperfectly demonstrative argumentations is sound, provided it is the right direction, the one that will certainly lead some day to demonstrative knowledge, even though in a small number of minds.[110]

Simon’s view of natural law as essentially ill-fitted for the task of political persuasion is not widely shared among natural law scholars today, but it does have some contemporary support. Russell Hittinger has written approvingly of Simon’s views in his introduction for The Tradition of Natural Law:

In our time and culture, natural law is invoked as a response to the breakdown of tradition, to moral relativism and nihilism, to various species of utilitarianism, and to legal positivism. It is expected to be an all-purpose antidote to the estrangements of modernity. Called upon to remediate more than reasonably can be expected, natural law is liable to descend to ideology.[111]

Hittinger further notes, “A society that perceives itself to have only the weapon of natural law theory to address the enemies of right reason is, no doubt, a society that will have trouble taking that measure.”[112] He has commented on the weakness of natural law ideology in his own work as well.[113]

Peter Escalante also rejects the conception of natural law as a tool for political persuasion: “Natural law arguments are mostly useless. First, because that has never been the use of natural law. It is prudence and positive law which settle matters of public moment, not natural law directly, which in itself is not a positive law, but rather the principle of positive law.”[114] In his more recent work David VanDrunen has said something similar: “Natural law … is not first and foremost a means for making moral or apologetic arguments to which unbelievers will be compelled to give assent.”[115] This could be a change from what he has previously said, from merely holding that making natural law arguments will be difficult and unlikely to be effective, to claiming that serving as the basis for arguments is not really the purpose of natural law in the first place.

Simon’s understanding of natural law is worth serious consideration, if only because it better explains our general inability to persuade than “ideological” understandings of natural law. Assuming Simon is correct, this does not mean natural law has no practical significance. VanDrunen in particular lists multiple implications of the existence of natural law: for instance, it helps us understand ethical commands in the Bible not as “obligations proceeding from the arbitrary will of God, but perennial obligations of creatures made in the image of God and thus made by nature to pursue certain kinds of tasks in this world.”[116] Neither is it the case that natural law arguments are never useful, as we will see in the next section.

What a less ideological understanding of natural law does mean for us is that while natural law has been and will be the basis for agreement between Christians and the larger society on at least some matters, whatever consensus we continue to enjoy in the foreseeable future will be not an expanding consensus born of rational persuasion, but a relatively limited one that only by God’s preventive grace will not shrink even further.

Moreover, given the growth in punitive measures against traditional Christians coupled with the probable failure of natural law arguments to reverse this trend, I would contend we are in a transitional period. In this transitional period orthodox Christian participation in public life, including Christians holding political office both elective and otherwise, is currently possible but will become increasingly infeasible. Ultimately such visible participation by traditional Christians is likely to be ruled out de facto if not de jure—all, as Eberstadt says, “in the name of rendering society a ‘safer’ place.”[117]

Brad Littlejohn has also noted that “the handwriting is on the wall” for Christianity in public life. As he rightly observes, though, “Most of the doors are still open, and although it may get harder and harder to push through them, Christians still have a duty to serve in these vocations—as lawmakers and lawyers, teachers and writers, police officers and governors, businessmen and philanthropists—as long as they have opportunity to do so.”[118] I wholeheartedly agree, but the question remains: how are we to witness to the world when natural law arguments largely fail? In answer I will end this essay by briefly considering the potential of beauty as a means of public witness.

7. Could Beauty Really Save the World?

Space prevents me from thoroughly addressing this topic, but I want to make at least three points. First, the witness of beauty is often thought to be non-intellectual. Like many of the natural law scholars discussed above, Peter Leithart has expressed skepticism that arguments in defense of, say, traditional marriage will be generally persuasive. However, he has also suggested that beauty might succeed where arguments have failed: “The truth will out, of that I have no doubt. People do, mysteriously, get persuaded. Cultural revolutions happen. No one can defy creation forever. Beauty is the best persuasion, so Christians should above all aspire to form marriages and families that are living parables of the gospel.”[119]

Alastair Roberts dismissed this suggestion as an untenable “retreat to aesthetics…. To the extent that a particular theologically grounded aesthetic lies at the core of Dr Leithart’s position, it is difficult to see how it can participate in our broader cultural debate.”[120] Brad Littlejohn also noted that Leithart’s invocation of beauty “could be read as a retreat to aestheticism, an abandonment of the demands of rational argument in favor of a strategy that depends merely on wooing our opponents with something pretty…. Such a retreat to aestheticism cannot be the basis for a Christian politics.”[121]

Littlejohn may be right that a Christian politics based on beauty will have no purchase in contemporary society. But as I have already argued, the natural law foundations of our polity are severely eroded and will likely become more so despite our appeals to common moral knowledge. Orthodox Christian participation in conventional politics is therefore, while not yet impossible, likely on its way out for the foreseeable future. As such, we need to be thinking seriously about what we are going to do once this kind of engagement is no longer available to us. Chances are what we do is going to look a lot like Rod Dreher’s “antipolitical politics,” wherein we commit ourselves to a common way of life in which “the truth can be lived in community.”[122] In practicing antipolitical politics a major part of our witness, Dreher has proposed, will be beauty: “The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful—and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.”[123]

This brings me to my second point: the perception of beauty may be just as intellectual as arguments are. In The Vision of the Soul James Matthew Wilson argues that intellectual activity is not synonymous with “discursive reasoning,” understood as “the plodding, methodical procedure that adds thought to thought in order to formulate a conclusion.”[124] Rather, “The perceptions of discursive reason and the perceptions of beauty … are one in faculty and one in end: they both are seated in the intellect and converge in being.”[125] Beauty, then, is itself “a way of knowing.”[126]

There is more to Wilson’s argument than this, but what I wish to convey is that on his account the perception of beauty is an intellectual encounter rather than just an emotional one. If he is right we ought not dismiss the witness of beauty as “merely … wooing our opponents with something pretty.” Instead, in addition to thinking about how we as Christians can consciously reflect the beauty of God in our everyday lives, we should put a renewed emphasis on raising up “more artists and authors, poets and playwrights, sculptors and screenwriters,” those who can craft works of beauty that appeal to the intellect in their own right rather than functioning in some completely other, mysterious realm of “aesthetic experience.”[127] Natural law arguments still play an important role in such a scheme even if they only persuade relatively few—as Sherif Girgis has observed, although “abstract reasoning doesn’t convert masses of people, it shapes the thought of those who do—in public and higher education, the media, the arts, and law and policy.”[128]

My last point is that beauty as a means of public witness is not a new idea to Christianity in general or Protestantism in particular. To name just one example, decades ago C. S. Lewis had already “lost faith in the ability of rational arguments to penetrate the defenses modern society had erected against reason itself. By the late 1930s, in fact, Lewis was already contemplating whether imaginative fiction is a better medium to communicate truth to a postmodern audience.”[129] More recently, in his own treatment of natural law arguments Matthew Lee Anderson offered this reflection in the context of the marriage debate: “Those interested in preserving traditional marriage need beauty as well, beauty that comes in the form of lives and marriages that reflect the beauty of the cross.”[130] Ryan T. Anderson has also written, “While intellectual arguments are important, people are moved more by beauty and holiness. The lives of the saints are more inspiring than the arguments of philosophers and social scientists.”[131]

These ideas about beauty must be further explored some other time, but I hope I have said enough to pique your interest. I end with one last thought from Dyer and Watson: “Lewis’ positive arguments for the reality of the natural law or the importance of the doctrine of creation may fall on deaf ears…. But his fiction might still subtly communicate forgotten truths to a new generation. Or it might not even do that.”[132]

It may turn out that beauty is no more effective at reaching people than natural law arguments have been. As yet, though, it remains a relatively untried approach among contemporary evangelicals. We can investigate the idea with faith that no matter what we find, God has not left us dumb even in the face of ever growing darkness, though we must still discern how best to carry on our unending witness.

James Clark graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a B.A. in Religion, and is currently a student at Yale Divinity School. His writing has been featured at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Front Porch Republic, and Themelios, as well as other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @jamesdkclark.

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  1. David L. Weeks, “The Uneasy Politics of Modern Evangelicalism,” Christian Scholar’s Review 3, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 403.
  2. Ibid., 408.
  3. Ibid., 407.
  4. Ibid., 408.
  5. Ibid., 409.
  6. Ibid., 416.
  7. See, e.g., Carl E. Braaten, “Protestants and Natural Law,” First Things (January 1992): https://www.firstthings.com/article/1992/01/002-protestants-and-natural-law, and J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
  8. Jordan J. Ballor, “Natural Law and Protestantism: A Review Essay,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41, no. 2 (Winter 2012): 208.
  9. David Haines and Andrew A. Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Trust, 2017), 5.
  10. Discussion of this topic has been somewhat more prevalent among Christian thinkers online. For an “annotated catalogue” of one such exchange see Brad Littlejohn, “An Idiot’s Guide to the Late Great Natural Law Debate,” Political Theology Network, 20 March 2013, https://politicaltheology.com/an-idiots-guide-to-the-late-great-natural-law-debate/.
  11. See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983; repr. 1991), 60–61.
  12. J. Daryl Charles, Natural Law and Religious Freedom: The Role of Moral First Things in Grounding and Protecting the First Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2018), 253–56.
  13. Gerald McKenny, “Moral Disagreement and the Limits of Reason: Reflections on MacIntyre and Ratzinger,” in Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics, ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 196.
  14. J. Daryl Charles, The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 49.
  15. J. Daryl Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 63. See also ibid., 314.
  16. Carl Braaten, “A Lutheran Affirmation of the Natural Law,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal, Robert C. Baker and Roland Cap Ehlke, eds. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011), 11–12. See also ibid., 13–14.
  17. David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 1.
  18. Ibid., 14.
  19. Ibid., 427.
  20. Ibid., 433. For a similar defense of natural law arguments see Brad Littlejohn, “The Commonwealth and Natural Law: Littlejohn Responds to Dillon,” Mere Orthodoxy, 21 November 2017, https://mereorthodoxy.com/littlejohn-responds-dillon-two-kingdoms-guide-perplexed/.
  21. David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 491–92.
  22. Ibid., 492. Italics original. To be fair, he says from the beginning he does not intend to provide a “detailed strategy” for applying his ideas on natural law. Ibid., 18.
  23. Ibid., 492.
  24. Ibid., 492–93.
  25. Ibid., 493.
  26. Ibid., 492.
  27. Daniel R. Heimbach, “Rethinking Natural Law for Engaging The Public Square,” The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, 22 April 2015, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/rethinking-natural-law-for-engaging-the-public-square.
  28. Bryan T. McGraw, “The Doctrine of Creation and the Possibilities of an Evangelical Natural Law,” in Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, Jesse Covington, Bryan McGraw, and Micah Watson, eds. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013), 58–59.
  29. Jesse Covington, “The Grammar of Virtue: Augustine and the Natural Law,” in Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, 185. See also ibid., 168, 181–85.
  30. Matthew D. Wright, “Natural Law, Civic Friendship, and Stanley Hauerwas’s Counter-Polis Thesis,” in Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, 245.
  31. J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009), 192–93. See also Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 11.
  32. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 184.
  33. J. Budziszewski, Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 87. See also ibid., 37, and J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Dallas: Spence, 2003), 204–5.
  34. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 183.
  35. Budziszewski, Line Through the Heart, 194. See also ibid., 20, 72, and Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 185, 191.
  36. Budziszewski, Line Through the Heart, 18. See also ibid., 19.
  37. Ibid., 194.
  38. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know, 80.
  39. Charles, Unformed Conscience, 22. See also Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 27.
  40. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 8.
  41. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 6.
  42. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” in Intractable Disputes, 2.
  43. Alasdair MacIntyre, “From Answers to Questions,” in Intractable Disputes, 341. See also Alasdair MacIntyre, “Theories of Natural Law in the Culture of Advanced Modernity,” in Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, ed. Edward B. McLean (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000), 92–94.
  44. MacIntyre, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” 4. Italics mine.
  45. Ibid., 52.
  46. Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012).
  47. Sherif Girgis, “Philosophy and a Life Well-Lived,” Public Discourse, 5 February 2014, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/02/11980/. See also Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2015), 11.
  48. Girgis, “Philosophy and a Life Well-Lived.”
  49. Robert P. George, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2013), 84. See also Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), 7.
  50. George, Clash of Orthodoxies, 69.
  51. Owen Anderson, “Natural Law and Philosophical Presuppositions,” in Christianity and Natural Law: An Introduction, ed. Norman Doe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 206.
  52. Budziszewski, Line Through the Heart, 11.
  53. Anderson, “Natural Law and Philosophical Presuppositions,” 206.
  54. R. J. Snell, The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), x.
  55. Ibid., 189.
  56. Ibid., 111. See also ibid., 109–112; R. J. Snell, “Is the Natural Law Persuasive?” Public Discourse, 18 April 2012, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/04/4871/; and R. J. Snell, “Natural Law is neither Useless nor Dangerous: A Response to Hart and Potemra,” Public Discourse, 28 February 2013, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/02/9233/.
  57. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, st. 51, lines 6–7. See also Alan Jacobs, “More on Natural Law Arguments,” The American Conservative, 20 February 2013, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/jacobs/more-on-natural-law-arguments/.
  58. See Russell Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987); Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003; repr. 2007), 3–38; Matthew E. Cochran, “A Way Forward? Continuing Conversations on Natural Law,” in A Lutheran Reappraisal, 272–73; McGraw, “The Doctrine of Creation,” 68–69; VanDrunen, Divine Covenants, 4–5; and Anderson, “Natural Law and Philosophical Presuppositions,” 205–219.
  59. See Matthew Levering, Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 16–17, 19, 232; Tracey Rowland, “Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism,” Comm 35 (Fall 2008): 374–96, https://www.communio-icr.com/files/rowland35-3.pdf; Greg Forster, “The New Fight for Marriage,” The Gospel Coalition, 6 March 2013, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-new-fight-for-marriage/; and James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 155n7.
  60. Kevin Gallagher, “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism,” American Affairs, August 2018, https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2018/08/the-eclipse-of-catholic-fusionism/.
  61. See, e.g., Levering, Biblical Natural Law, 19–20, 224, 233–34.
  62. Alastair Roberts, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad,” The Calvinist International, 10 March 2013, https://calvinistinternational.com/2013/03/10/why-arguments-against-gay-marriage-are-usually-bad/.
  63. Alastair Roberts, “Can Arguments Against Gay Marriage Be Persuasive?” The Calvinist International, 15 March 2013, https://calvinistinternational.com/2013/03/15/can-arguments-against-gay-marriage-be-persuasive/.
  64. Cochran, “A Way Forward,” 274.
  65. Ibid., 275.
  66. See Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 471–85, and Girgis, Anderson, and George, What Is Marriage?, 53–72.
  67. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 184.
  68. Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2018).
  69. See also Charles, Unformed Conscience, 137n96, 172; MacIntyre, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” 7, 26–27; George, Conscience and Its Enemies, 81–82; and VanDrunen, Divine Covenants, 211–18.
  70. Snell, Perspective of Love, 2. See also Brad Littlejohn, “The Late Great Natural Law Debate: Synopses and Reflections, Pt. 2,” Mere Orthodoxy, 5 April 2013, https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-late-great-natural-law-debate-synopses-and-reflections-pt-2/.
  71. Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law, 23.
  72. Ibid., 21.
  73. Charles, Unformed Conscience, 136.
  74. Ibid. See also J. Daryl Charles, “Burying the Wrong Corpse: Protestants and the Natural Law,” in Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, 23, and Charles, Natural Law and Religious Freedom, 253.
  75. Braaten, “Lutheran Affirmation,” 7.
  76. Covington, McGraw, and Watson, Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, x.
  77. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know, 166–67.
  78. MacIntyre, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” 19–20.
  79. McKenny, “Moral Disagreement,” 196–97.
  80. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 1960; repr. 2005), 24.
  81. Ibid., 27. See also ibid., 24–28.
  82. Ibid., 29, 31.
  83. Ibid., 31.
  84. Ibid., 34.
  85. Ibid., 35.
  86. Ibid., 32.
  87. Ibid., 110. See also ibid., 115.
  88. Ibid., 268–69.
  89. Ibid., 55.
  90. Ibid., 261.
  91. Ibid., 261, 300.
  92. Ibid., 56.
  93. Carlo Lancellotti, “Augusto Del Noce on the ‘New Totalitarianism,’” Comm 44 (Summer 2017): 330, https://www.communio-icr.com/files/44.2_Lancellotti.pdf.
  94. Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (New York: Harper, 2016), 11. For a concise list of cases see ibid., xii–xv, and Erick Erickson and Bill Blankschaen, You Will Be Made to Care: The War on Faith, Family, and Your Freedom to Believe (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2016), 9–14. Apart from these excerpts both books in their entirety narrate many such cases.
  95. Eberstadt, Dangerous to Believe, 26, 28. See also ibid., 22–28, and Erickson and Blankschaen, You Will Be Made to Care, 67–74.
  96. For examples of punitive measures that enforce transgender ideology see Anderson, When Harry Met Sally, 37–45, 178–81.
  97. I will say that Eberstadt’s attempt to liken our situation to ephemeral moral panics of the past that eventually corrected themselves, such as the Salem Witch trials and McCarthyism, seems severely undercut by her own argument that we are dealing with a rival religion. To my knowledge, when new religions have risen to societal dominance in the past and started persecuting the older, culturally weaker religions, those in power did not suddenly repent of their actions—they carried on with the job until it was finished to their satisfaction. Additionally, Eberstadt’s repeated calls for secular progressives to recognize that people must “agree to disagree” (Eberstadt, Dangerous to Believe, 103) prompts the question: Christianity may have had the resources for the religious toleration that became a fundamental component of classical liberalism, but to what resources can the decidedly anti-Christian religion of secular progressivism turn?
  98. Charles, Natural Law and Religious Freedom, 19, 253. Cf. Anderson, Truth Overruled, 9–10.
  99. Weeks, “Uneasy Politics,” 409n26.
  100. Yves R. Simon, The Tradition of Natural Law: A Philosopher’s Reflections, ed. Vukan Kuic (New York: Fordham University Press, 1965; repr. 1992), 3.
  101. Ibid., 16.
  102. Ibid., 16–17. Italics original. It should be noted that Simon also believed keeping natural law theory completely free of ideology was probably impossible. Ibid., 22–23.
  103. Ibid., 23.
  104. Yves R. Simon, Practical Knowledge, ed. Robert J. Mulvaney (New York: Fordham University Press, 1991), 3, 17, 71. See also ibid., 23–24.
  105. Ibid., 24, 33.
  106. Ibid., 24. Cf. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, ed. Ian T. Ker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 111: “As assent sometimes dies out without tangible reasons … so sometimes, in spite of strong and convincing arguments, it is never given.” Jacques Maritain, Simon’s contemporary and fellow Frenchman, concurred on this point—even as Maritain believed all people could agree on “practical truths regarding their life in common” in accordance with the natural law, he also maintained, “It is not reasonably possible to hope for more than this practical convergence.” In other words, “It would be quite futile to look for a common rational justification of these practical conclusions and these rights,” because “rational justifications are … powerless to create agreement among men.” The implication is that if for whatever reason the pragmatic consensus fell apart it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct it via rational argument. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, ed. Richard O’Sullivan (London: Hollis and Carter, 1954), 69–73. Italics original.
  107. Simon, Practical Knowledge, 97.
  108. Ibid., 72.
  109. Simon, Tradition of Natural Law, 162.
  110. Simon, Practical Knowledge, 74.
  111. Simon, Tradition of Natural Law, xxiii.
  112. Ibid., xxiv.
  113. Hittinger, The First Grace, 15–19.
  114. Peter Escalante, “Who Are You Calling a Modernist?” The Calvinist International, 18 March 2013, https://calvinistinternational.com/2013/03/18/who-are-you-calling-a-modernist/. Italics original.
  115. David VanDrunen, “Natural Law for Reformed Theology: A Proposal for Contemporary Reappropriation,” Journal of Reformed Theology 9 (2015): 120.
  116. VanDrunen, Divine Covenants, 490. See also ibid., 487–96, and Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, 106–115.
  117. Eberstadt, Dangerous to Believe, 22.
  118. Bradford Littlejohn, “The Benedict Mandate and the Need for Faithful Presence,” Bradford Littlejohn, 23 March 2017, https://bradlittlejohn.com/2017/03/23/the-benedict-mandate-and-the-need-for-faithful-presence/.
  119. Peter J. Leithart, “The World Can’t Hear Us on Marriage,” First Things, 15 March 2013, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/03/the-world-cant-hear-us-on-marriage.
  120. Roberts, “Can Arguments Against Gay Marriage Be Persuasive?”
  121. Brad Littlejohn, “The Gay Marriage Debate: Tactical Withdrawal or a New Paradigm?” Mere Orthodoxy, 11 April 2013, https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-gay-marriage-debate-tactical-withdrawal-or-a-new-paradigm/.
  122. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 93. See also ibid., 78–99.
  123. Ibid., 118. See also ibid., 117–19.
  124. James Matthew Wilson, The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 74–75.
  125. Ibid., 128.
  126. Ibid., 32.
  127. Girgis, “Philosophy and a Life Well-Lived.”
  128. Ibid. See also Ryan T. Anderson, “Calling and Witness, Holiness and Truth,” First Things, 14 July 2013, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/07/calling-and-witness-holiness-and-truth, and Anderson, Truth Overruled, 180–82.
  129. Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 59. See also ibid., 55–60, and Micah Watson, “C. S. Lewis as Natural Law Evangelist: Evangelical Political Thought and the People in the Pew,” in Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought, 213–14.
  130. Matthew Lee Anderson, “Natural Law at Christianity Today,” Mere Orthodoxy, 23 March 2011, https://mereorthodoxy.com/natural-law-at-christianity-today/. See also Nathan Hitchen, “Don’t Try the Same Marriage Debate Again,” Mere Orthodoxy, 24 June 2013, https://mereorthodoxy.com/dont-try-the-same-marriage-debate-again/. Though Hitchen stresses the importance of “emotion” rather than beauty, his warning against an immoderate reliance on rational arguments still pertains.
  131. Anderson, Truth Overruled, 179–80.
  132. Dyer and Watson, C. S. Lewis on Politics, 145.

Posted by Guest Writer

  • Physiocrat

    Interesting article. I think the persuasion point with respect to Natural Law is a red herring since even professing Christians these days will use innovative exegesis to justify their progressive political views.

    If you were not reasoned into a position, you can very rarely reason them out of it. This goes for all methods of rational discourse from the Bible to casuistry. Beauty is certainly a way of convincing many people however the relevent artists will need the natural law to produce true art which is finally compelling.

  • CPT

    I think you touch on this somewhat at the end, but it worth thinking a little more about how “persuasion” actually works for most people. Presenting something as desirable is more effective than presenting it as true, particularly in our contemporary anti-rationalist era.

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