Evangelicals Examine Natural Law

Westmont hosted a gathering of leading scholars in a variety of disciplines to discuss natural law and evangelical political thought

A diverse group of participants from 18 academic institutions explored the role of natural law in evangelical political thought during a conference at Westmont Feb. 17-19. World-class scholars gave public lectures, including the keynote address, “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity,” by Robert George. McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, George founded and directs the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He discussed the significance of natural-law arguments for creating morally grounded politics regardless of religious affiliation.

Natural law theory describes moral norms common to all humans and intelligible to all. Long a cornerstone of political thought in the broader Christian tradition, natural law has been controversial in some evangelical circles. The conference explored the potential for evangelical engagement with natural law as a shareable basis for politics.

Westmont sponsored the conference, which included a chapel talk and closing address by J. Budziszewski (above, right), professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. He has long worked at the intersection of ethical and political philosophy and ethical and political theology. In chapel, he offered practical advice on how to appeal to moral knowledge of natural law in others even when it has been suppressed and isn’t consciously acknowledged.

Budziszewski based his talk, “Written on the Heart: What Writing? What Heart?” on Romans 2:14-15. When he was younger, he lost his faith and denied God. “I learned to tell myself that I didn’t know what I really did know,” he says. “So for me coming back to faith wasn’t learning something that I didn’t know. It was being brought face to face again with many things that I had known all along but pretended to be ignorant about and then submitting to the Savior.”

He says God has written His law not only in the Bible but in the hidden tablet of the heart “so deeply that even sin, the catastrophe of the fall, even our alienation from God, cannot destroy it. This too is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it is called the natural law.”

Budziszewski explained four types of witnesses to the natural law and concluded by proclaiming that there is hope because people know more than they admit. “Fallow knowledge troubles their sleep,” he says. “They lie under the prickling enchantment of the divine image carved into their hearts, which is stronger than the counter-spell and can never be quite scratched out. … The longing for light, for innocence and for purity that God wrote in the depth of human nature is too great to be altogether quenched even by the fall.”

Jesse Covington, Westmont assistant professor of political science, says much of the evangelical interest in natural law has arisen outside political theory circles. “A good deal of excellent work on natural law within political theory has been done by scholars who might not self-describe as evangelicals,”he says. “There is also some fine evangelical work on natural law outside of political theory. A goal of the conference was to bring together evangelical political theorists, evangelical natural law thinkers from other disciplines, and non-evangelical political theorists already working with natural law.” Covington is gathering and editing papers from the conference to create a book reflecting the thinking and discussion from the three-day gathering.

By hosting the event, Westmont displayed its commitment to social engagement on a global level. “The focus of the conference reflects the heart of Westmont’s identity and mission,” Covington says. “In seeking to faithfully explore natural law as a shareable basis for political morality, the conference aimed to equip Christians to better engage and serve in the political world.”

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