While musing on the writings of author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton in his personal notebook, a young John F. Kennedy wrote, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.” Fences hold things in we want to keep close, and protect us from things we want to keep out. But Chesterton and JFK were not making a point about physical fences. They were speaking of the ideas, principles, and institutions that surround the things that make life worth living, and protect us from threats to those things we value and love.
This is the sort of fence we are currently “taking down” in America. Since its inception, America has been surrounded and protected by a unique set of ideas that created the strongest, most prosperous, most secure and compassionate land of opportunity that has ever existed. These ideas were considered by America’s founders to be “self-evident” because they were based on the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (from the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence).
Generations of Americans have lived in security and freedom because our leaders have generally been faithful to the belief that nature’s God, the Creator, imbued all people with unalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The second sentence of the Declaration is all based on the assumption of what we call natural law:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
Our rights as Americans are considered unalienable only because they were inherent in the natural order of life established by the laws of nature and nature’s God.
Natural Law Is How Nature Teaches Us Truth
The idea of natural law, an inherent order to the universe that can provide governing principles reached by human reason, was accepted by thinkers from Plato to Thomas Aquinas to John Locke—although they each interpreted the concept differently. Natural law often informed arguments of both faith and reason even outside of a Judeo-Christian context, as shown by the ancient Roman statesman Cicero:
True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; […] one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.
–Cicero, The Republic, II, 22
Natural law was seen as knowable without divine revelation, but ultimately originating from a Supreme Being. Of course, the divine origins of the natural order are made explicit in the Hebrew scriptures:
Created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27)
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24)
Today, we’re seeing the consequences of a political Left that has rejected the concept of natural law—regardless if arrived at through faith or reason—because it pointed to uncomfortable truths regarding sexuality, marriage, human nature, and a higher purpose. But when we reject the very foundation of our unalienable rights, those rights become arbitrary things granted by government, and very alienable indeed.
Taking Down the Definitions Means Anarchy
For decades, the Left in America has been deconstructing the fence of natural law. It has eliminated any acknowledgment of a creator God from schools and the public square, promoted the idea that the only sin is the belief that there is sin, redefined the nature of marriage, and now is muddling the idea that mankind has two distinct sexes that are determined before birth.
If one would do away with the distinctions of male and female, sin (or acting contrary to one’s nature), and the natural union of man and woman in marriage, one does away with natural law. If there is no natural law, then people were not created equal, nothing is self-evident, there are no unalienable rights, and governments are not instituted to protect rights: they exist to prescribe them. If there is no natural law, there is no common sense—no commonly understood truth.
As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Americans enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity, but because too few of us understand how and why we have these blessings, we have allowed the Left to take down the fence that protects them. Our government is already stepping over the fallen fence and infringing on free speech, freedom of association, freedom to buy and sell according to our beliefs, and the principle of democratic self-governance. In short, it is infringing on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Politicians will not rebuild the fence of natural law. It must be rebuilt by individuals, families, churches, schools, businesses, and volunteer organizations. It will only be rebuilt by We the People if we have the courage to tie our rights back to an eternal natural order.