Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997):51-54.
Following upon the intense public discussion occasioned by our November 1996 symposium on judicial usurpation, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship and Father Richard John Neuhaus convened a meeting of Christian leaders in Reston, Virginia, to consider the development of a statement on "conscience and citizenship" relative to the American constitutional order. After months of drafting and consultation, it was decided to release the statement on the Fourth of July. Historians of American religion have observed that "We Hold These Truths" represents an unprecedented range of Christian leadership addressing together a question of great public moment. Although many others have indicated their support, the list of names appended here is limited to the original signatories. The text of the statement was agreed upon before the decisions of the Supreme Court discussed in this issue’s symposium were announced at the end of June. However one may evaluate the significance of those decisions, they do not substantively change, and indeed may make more urgent, the questions addressed by "We Hold These Truths."
— The Editors
On this two hundred and twenty-first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we join in giving thanks to Almighty God for what the Founders called this American experiment in ordered liberty. In the Year of Our Lord 1997, the experiment is deeply troubled but it has not failed and, please God, will not fail. As America has been a blessing to our forebears and to us, so will it be a blessing to future generations, if we keep faith with the founding vision.
Invoking "the law of nature and of nature’s God," the Founders declared, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." This Fourth of July Americans must ask themselves whether they hold them still. We, for our part, answer emphatically in the affirmative. We affirm that before God and the law all are equal, "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In recent years it has become increasingly manifest that these truths cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, there is ominous evidence of their rejection in our public life and law.
As leaders of diverse churches and Christian communities, we address our fellow citizens with no partisan political purpose. Our purpose is to help repair a contract too often broken and a covenant too often betrayed. We recall and embrace the wisdom of our first President, who declared in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens." Religion and morality are not an alien intrusion upon our public life but the source and foundation of our pursuit of the common good.
It is in the nature of experiments that they can succeed, and they can fail. President Washington said in his First Inaugural Address: "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." We urge the Christians of America to join us in a candid acknowledgment that we have not been as faithful as we ought to that great trust.
Nations are ultimately judged not by their military might or economic wealth but by their fidelity to "the laws of nature and nature’s God." In the view of the Founders, just government is self-government. Liberty is not license but is "ordered liberty"—liberty in response to moral truth. The great threat to the American experiment today is not from enemies abroad but from disordered liberty. That disorder is increasingly expressed in a denial of the very concept of moral truth. The cynical question of Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?", is today frequently taken to be a mark of sophistication, also in our political discourse and even in the jurisprudence of our courts.
The bitter consequences of disordered liberty resulting from the denial of moral truth are by now painfully familiar. Abortion, crime, consumerism, drug abuse, family disintegration, teenage suicide, neglect of the poor, pornography, racial prejudice, ethnic separatism and suspicion—all are rampant in our society. In politics, the public interest is too often sacrificed to private advantage; in economic and foreign policy, the lust for profits overrides concern for the well-being of families at home and the protection of human rights abroad. The powerful forget their obligation to the powerless, and the politics of the common good is abandoned in the interminable contention of special interests. We cannot boast of what we have made of the experiment entrusted to our hands.
While we are all responsible for the state of the nation, and while our ills no doubt have many causes, on this Fourth of July our attention must be directed to the role of the courts in the disordering of our liberty. Our nation was constituted by agreement that "we the people," through the representative institutions of republican government, would deliberate and decide how we ought to order our life together. In recent years, that agreement has been broken. The Declaration declares that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In recent years, power has again and again been wielded, notably by the courts, without the consent of the governed.
The most egregious instance of such usurpation of power is the 1973 decision of the Supreme Court in which it claimed to have discovered a "privacy" right to abortion and by which it abolished, in what many constitutional scholars have called an act of raw judicial power, the abortion law of all fifty states. Traditionally in our jurisprudence, the law reflected the moral traditions by which people govern their lives. This decision was a radical departure, arbitrarily uprooting those moral traditions as they had been enacted in law through our representative political process. Our concern is both for the integrity of our constitutional order and for the unborn whom the Court has unjustly excluded from the protection of law.
Our concern is by no means limited to the question of abortion, but the judicially imposed abortion license is at the very core of the disordering of our liberty. The question of abortion is the question of who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility. Our goal is unequivocal: Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. We have no illusions that, in a world wounded by sin, that goal will ever be achieved perfectly. Nor do we assume that at present all Americans agree with that goal. Plainly, many do not. We believe, however, that democratic deliberation and decision would result in laws much more protective of the unborn and other vulnerable human lives. We are convinced that the Court was wrong, both morally and legally, to withdraw from a large part of the human community the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and due process of law.
The American people as a whole have not accepted, and we believe they will not accept, the abortion regime imposed by Roe v. Wade. In its procedural violation of democratic self-government and in its substantive violation of the "laws of nature and of nature’s God," this decision of the Court forfeits any claim to the obedience of conscientious citizens. We are resolved to work relentlessly, through peaceful and constitutional means and for however long it takes, to effectively reverse the abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade. We ask all Americans to join us in that resolve.
The effort of "we the people" to exercise the right and responsibility of self–government has been made even more difficult by subsequent decisions of the Court. In its stated effort to end the national debate over abortion, the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) transferred the legal ground for the abortion license from the implied right of privacy to an explicit liberty right under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court there proposed a sweeping redefinition of liberty: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." The doctrine declared by the Court would seem to mean that liberty is nothing more nor less than what is chosen by the autonomous, unencumbered self.
This is the very antithesis of the ordered liberty affirmed by the Founders. Liberty in this debased sense is utterly disengaged from the concepts of responsibility and community, and is pitted against the "laws of nature and of nature’s God." Such liberty degenerates into license for the oppression of the vulnerable while the government looks the other way, and throws into question the very possibility of the rule of law itself. Casey raises the serious question as to whether any law can be enacted in pursuit of the common good, for virtually any law can offend some individuals’ definition of selfhood, existence, and the meaning of life. Under the doctrine declared by the Court, it would seem that individual choice can always take precedence over the common good.
Moreover, in Casey the Court admonished pro-life dissenters, chastising them for continuing the debate and suggesting that the very legitimacy of the law depends upon the American people obeying the Court’s decisions, even though no evidence is offered that those decisions are supported by the Constitution or accepted by a moral consensus of the citizenry. If the Court is inviting us to end the debate over abortion, we, as Christians and free citizens of this republic, respectfully decline the invitation.
The Court has gone still further in what must be described as an apparent course of hostility to democratic self-government. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court seemed to suggest that an ethic and morality that "transcend human invention" is what is meant by religion that is constitutionally forbidden ground for law. In Romer v. Evans (1996), thousands of years of moral teaching regarding the right ordering of human sexuality was cavalierly dismissed as an irrational "animus." It is exceedingly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Court is declaring that laws or policies informed by religion or religiously based morality are unconstitutional for that reason alone. In this view, religion is simply a bias, and therefore inadmissible in law. Obviously, this was not the belief of those who wrote and ratified our Constitution. Just as obviously, the Court’s view is not accepted by the people today. For the Founders and for the overwhelming majority of Americans today, ethics and morality transcend human invention and are typically grounded in religion.
If the Supreme Court and the judiciary it leads do not change course, the awesome consequences are clearly foreseeable. The founding principle of self-government has been thrown into question. Already it seems that people who are motivated by religion or religiously inspired morality are relegated to a category of second-class citizenship. Increasingly, law and public policy will be pitted against the social and moral convictions of the people, with the result that millions of Americans will be alienated from a government that they no longer recognize as their own. We cannot, we must not, let this happen.
Questions of great moral moment for the ordering of our life together will continue to demand deliberation and decision. The Court’s justification of the abortion license under its debased concept of liberty has brought us to the brink of endorsing new "rights" to doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia which threaten those at the end of life, the infirm, the handicapped, the unwanted. We are confronted by a radical redefinition of marriage as courts declare marriage to be not a covenanted commitment ordered to the great goods of spousal unity and procreation but a mere contract between autonomous individuals for whatever ends they happen to seek. Under a specious interpretation of the separation of church and state, our public schools are denuded of moral instruction and parents are unjustly burdened in choosing a religious education for their children. These are among the many urgent problems that must be addressed by a free and self-governing people.
Washington spoke of "the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." We cannot simply blame the courts for what has gone wrong. We are all responsible. The communications media, the entertainment industry, and educators bear a particular burden of responsibility, as do we Christian leaders and our churches when we fail to instill the hard discipline of ordered liberty in the service of the common good.
A most particular responsibility belongs also to our elected officials in state and national government. Too often, legislators prefer to leave difficult and controverted questions to the courts. This must be called what it is, an abdication of their duty in our representative form of democratic government. Too often, too, Christian legislators separate their convictions from their public actions, thus depriving our politics of their informed moral judgment. The other side of judicial usurpation is legislative dereliction. We must believe that the Constitution bequeathed us by the Founders does not leave us without remedies for our present unhappy circumstance.
The crisis created by Roe and its legacy is not without precedent in our national life. Our present circumstance is shadowed by the memory of the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Then the Court, in a similar act of raw judicial power, excluded slaves of African descent from the community of those possessing rights that others are bound to respect. Abraham Lincoln refused to bow to that decision. It was in devotion to our constitutional order that Lincoln declared in his First Inaugural Address that the people and their representatives had not "practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal." Today we are again in desperate need of political leaders who accept the responsibility to lead in restoring government derived from the consent of the governed.
Let no one mistake this statement as an instance of special pleading for Christians or even for religious people more generally. Our purpose is to revitalize a polity in which all the people of "we the people" are full participants. Let no one fear this call for our fellow Christians to more vibrantly exercise their citizenship responsibilities. We reject the idea that ours should be declared a "Christian" nation. We do not seek a sacred public square but a civil public square. We strongly affirm the separation of church and state, which must never be interpreted as the separation of religion from public life. Knowing that the protection of minorities is secure only when such protections are supported by the majority, we urge Christians to renewed opposition to every form of invidious prejudice or discrimination. In the civil public square we must all respectfully engage one another in civil friendship as we deliberate and decide how we ought to order our life together.
The signers of this statement are by no means agreed on all aspects of law and public policy. We are Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants of differing convictions on many issues. We are conservatives and progressives of various ethnic and racial identities and with differing political views. We are agreed that we must seek together an America that respects the sanctity of human life, enables the poor to be full participants in our society, strives to overcome racism, and is committed to rebuilding the family. We are agreed that government by the consent of the governed has been thrown into question, and, as a result, our constitutional order is in crisis. We are agreed that—whether the question be protection of the unborn, providing for the poor, restoring the family, or racial justice—we can and must bring law and public policy into greater harmony with the "laws of nature and of nature’s God."
Not all Americans are agreed on the implications of those laws, and some doubt that there are such laws. But all can exercise the gift of reason to discern the moral truth that serves the common good. All can attempt to persuade their fellow citizens of the truth that they discern. We Americans are a political community bound to one another in civil argument. Such is the experiment in ordered liberty that has been entrusted to our hands. That experiment is today imperiled, but we are resolved that it continue and flourish, for as it was said two hundred and twenty-one years ago so also it is the case today that "We hold these truths."
Bishop Vinton R. Anderson
Dr. Don Argue, President
Hon. William Armstrong
Dr. Gary L. Bauer, President
Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran
Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua
Professor Gerard V. Bradley
Dr. William R. Bright, President
Dr. George K. Brushaber, President
Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz
Rev. Paul F. Bubna, President
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Mr. Charles Colson, President
Dr. James Dobson, President
Bishop Edward M. Egan
Professor Robert P. George
Professor Mary Ann Glendon
Bishop Charles V. Grahmann
Mr. Hendrik H. Hanegraaff
Rev. Dr. Roberta Hestenes
Professor Russell Hittinger
Mr. Donald P. Hodel, President
Very Rev. Thomas Hopko, Dean
Bishop John R. Keating
Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy
Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky
Dr. Richard D. Land, President
Archbishop William J. Levada
Adam Cardinal Maida
Bishop John McCarthy
Bishop James T. McHugh
Bishop George McKinney
Dr. Richard J. Mouw, President
Bishop John J. Myers
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, President
Mr. Michael Novak
John Cardinal O’Connor
Dr. Ralph Reed
Dr. Robert A. Seiple, President
Rev. Dr. Ron Sider, President
Bishop Edward J. Slattery
Rev. Dr. Bennett W. Smith, Sr.,
Dr. Joseph M. Stowell, President
Mr. George Weigel
Bishop Donald W. Wuerl