Rick Santorum recently criticized Obama’s worldview as a “phony theology not based on the Bible.” A few days ago, the Drudge Report resurrected a 2008 speech in which Santorum warned that Satan has it in for the U.S. Santorum’s blatantly religious comments have already made him an object of ridicule and will doubtless cost him support. My cynicism meter goes as wild as anyone’s when politicians talk like this. Still, I find it invigorating.

Peter J. Leithart Politicians are usually careful to couch their public remarks in a more generic idiom. Romney never criticizes Obama for failing to follow the instructions of 4 Nephi or for not living up to the example of Ether 7:11. Christian though he is, Ron Paul mentions von Mises more than Matthew. It’s an understandable stance. Politicians want votes, and talk in a way that makes sense to as many people as possible. Besides, we are in a delicate moment in American history. We need some common norms to be a functional society, yet no secular consensus has replaced the decayed Protestant consensus of earlier centuries.

For many conservatives, natural law provides the secular grammar we need for debating moral issues in a pluralistic society. John Finnis, a leading “new natural law” theorist, contests the notion that every argument against homosexual conduct is “a manifestation of purely religious, theological, and sectarian belief.” Natural law arguments against homosexuality are instead “reflective, critical, publicly intelligible and rational.” Finnis acknowledges debts to theologians, especially Germain Grisez, but claims that “the relevant philosophical arguments and considerations can be distinguished and detached [from theology] by careful analysis.”

I don’t think so. Natural law theory remains too entangled with the particularities of theology to do everything natural lawyers want it to do. That is the thrust of Nicholas Bamforth and David A.J. Richards’ Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender (2007). Bamforth and Richards argue that “the new natural lawyers’ arguments about sexuality, gender, and the law are religious.” Natural law theorists “meld” secular and religious motivations and norms and are “unlikely . . . to be able to draw a clean distinction between that which is knowable through revelation and that which is graspable by reason alone.”

For instance, Bamforth and Richards trace Finnis’s argument that marriage is a “basic good” back to Grisez. In defending his characterization of marriage as a basic good, Grisez cites the “development in Catholic teaching about marriage” and particularly John Paul II’s magisterial teaching that marriage is “a unique kind of communion and form of cooperation.” Using biblical language, Grisez describes marital sex as “one flesh unity” and marriage as “a covenant” that is “involved in the covenant with God.” Marriage is “not purely secular.” Grisez’s very notion of human good is theologically charged: “Every human good realized on earth will last forever” in some form, enduring after “God creates the new heavens and the new earth and Jesus hands over his kingdom to his Father.”

Finnis directly borrows Grisez’s biblical notion of marriage as a “one-flesh communion” when he says that the biological union of a man and woman “is part of, not merely an instrument of, their personal reality.” Robert George and Gerard Bradley also say that the good of marital sex is “the basic good of marriage itself, considered as a two-in-one-flesh communion of persons.” George knows that natural law arguments will not convince everyone. Anyone who assumes the “modern conception of human nature and human good would be dubious” about restrictions on extra-marital sex. Natural law, though, is “an alternative conception of human nature.” In practice, this “alternative” is inseparable from biblical claims about the Creator and his creation.

On the plus side, the fact that natural lawyers don’t actually put revelation and the gospel to the side is much to their credit. In practice, they resist the pressure to erect a wall between their faith and their public philosophy. On the down side, this “melding” of secular and religious arguments undermines their claim that natural law provides a theologically neutral grammar for a pluralistic society.

Natural law theory has many uses. Using its categories, we explore the contours of creation to uncover the pathways the Creator has laid out for us. Natural law reasoning can demonstrate the “fit” between creation and revelation. The fact that women, not men, bear babies is ethically significant, as is the fact that human beings talk but animals don’t. Natural law is rhetorically useful for advancing arguments and purposes that would be rejected out of hand if stated in overtly religious terms.

Bamforth and Richards don’t accuse natural lawyers of bad faith. They simply conclude that natural lawyers are more dependent on religion than they realize. Critics like Bamforth and Richards sniff out the aroma of theology that clings to natural law arguments, and they are right that Christians should be transparent about the theological sources of our political convictions.

The fundamental Christian political claim is “Jesus is Lord,” a truth that lies beyond natural reason. Christians can’t finally talk about politics without talking about Jesus, and, yes, Satan and the Bible too. We can’t talk politics without sounding like Rick Santorum, and we shouldn’t try to.

Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic) .

RESOURCES


Nicholas Bamforth and David A. J. Richards, Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender: A Critique of New Natural Law

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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