Union University
Union University Dept of Language


"But he, desiring to justify himself . . ."

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

February 2, 2012 - To invoke the rhetoric of natural law while deliberately refusing to offer the requisite obeisance to the reality of its demands is sophistry.  At today’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama offered remarks that nicely illustrate this phenomenon.  

In speaking about the “values” that motivate his public policy efforts with regard to the poor, the President commented on the travesty of the “unscrupulous” who take “advantage of the most vulnerable among us.”  He rightly points out that such actions constitute a failure to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself” a version of the “Golden Rule [that] is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs - from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writing of Plato.”  

As grounds for public policy, the President’s invocation of the natural law could not be more welcome.  In so doing, President Obama aligns himself with such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and C.S. Lewis.  Perhaps this is partly why he marshaled Lewis to his defense when he asserted, “we can earnestly disagree about the best way to achieve these values.”  The President quotes Lewis as saying, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program.  It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.”

If we are speaking about political means, i.e., ways to help the poor, the most vulnerable, or “those who cannot speak for themselves” (Obama’s quotation of Proverbs 31:8), then Lewis and the President are surely right.  Neither the Christian faith in particular, nor the natural law in general explicitly prescribe particular ways to accomplish the good ends about which all people of goodwill agree.  Thus, with respect to means, we can, in the President’s words, “earnestly disagree” while simultaneously “earnestly seek[ing] to see these values lived out.”  

But this is not the whole of the matter.  The President’s unequivocal stance against the life of the unborn and against those private institutions that would, out of a well-formed conscience, seek to protect it should leave the discerning listener wondering precisely who he believes to be included among those who are most vulnerable, who “cannot speak for themselves.”

The answer to this query is rather straightforwardly disclosed by the political philosophy that lies behind the President’s appeal to the neighbor love command.  The utilitarian calculus that maximizes an individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness simply does not apply to human beings who cannot feel pleasure or pain.  Thus, the smallest, most vulnerable among us do not fall within the scope of Jesus’ reply to the sophistical lawyer who asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

Of course, the natural law is clear.  To love one’s neighbor as oneself presupposes that one wills the good for oneself and hence, for one’s neighbor.  Life is good.  Death is not.  Thus, one cannot love oneself or one’s neighbor by willing death.  Yet the President and his administration is emphatically committed to enacting public policies that protect an individual citizen’s right to will the death of other, albeit very small, citizens.

It is tragically ironic that these empty remarks fall within the month in which we celebrate the historic legacy of African-Americans.  The tragic irony of the lip service paid to neighbor love stems from the well-documented (though infrequently reported) fact that the very abortion policies the President wishes to defend (and expand!) are disproportionately destructive in the African-American community.  

In the end, it is difficult to hear such appeals to the natural law as anything other than sophistry.  Such remarks are rhetorical anesthetic against those who “don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.”  Let us pray that the numbing effect will not succeed.