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March 21, 2010

"Natural Law" and "far right Reconstructionist extremism!"

Those of us working in the field of natural law theory sometimes encounter bizarre and even grotesque misunderstandings or misrepresentations of what natural law theory is all about.  (I tried to clear up some of these in my 2007 John Dewey Lecture at Harvard entitled “Natural Law,” which was published in Volume 52 of the American Journal of Jurisprudence (2007).)  Among writers for popular forums, Andrew Sullivan has produced some rather spectacular misunderstandings, but now I’ve encountered one that makes Sullivan’s errors seem minor.  It appears, as it happens, in a vicious and flailing attack on little ol’ me on the Huffington Post.  The author is someone named Frank Schaeffer.  Here’s the link:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/catholic-bishops-ignore-t_b_505670.html

 

Schaeffer goes off the rails before the caboose is even out of the station by classifying natural law theories as “theological” theories.  Oy vey.  I suppose that what threw him off is the fact that some Christian and Jewish theologians, quite legitimately, have deployed natural law concepts in larger projects of moral theology.  That’s hardly an excuse, though, for failing to see that what a natural law theory is, is a theory about what can be known regarding principles of practical (including moral) judgment by unaided (i.e., natural) reason, that  is, independently of information supplied by scriptural revelation or other authoritative religious sources.  From there, Schaeffer’s misunderstandings and misrepresentations get increasingly bizarre.  Having evidently never read work by John Finnis, Elizabeth Anscombe, John Haldane, or other natural law writers on marriage and sexual morality, Schaeffer characterizes the natural law argument about homosexual conduct and relationships as follows:  “homosexuality isn’t ‘natural’ and therefore it’s wrong.” To multiply errors, he adds that according to natural law theory, “there should be civil penalties against what is ‘unnatural.’” Then he informs his readers that “natural law is supposedly the opposite of positive law.”  It goes from bad to worse, to even worse, to just plain silly.  For example, Schaeffer gives his readers this pair of loony claims:  “Natural Law rests on two ideas denied by the Bible: the self-sufficiency of man's mind and the capability of man to extrapolate moral understanding of right and wrong from observing the world around him.”  Before the travesty is finished, Schaeffer even manages to classify the Marquis de Sade as a natural law philosopher.

 

I suppose no ignorant or mendacious rant about natural law is complete without throwing in a heavy dollop of anti-Catholic bigotry, so Schaeffer adds that in three paragraphs at the end.

 

The stuff about me personally is amusing in a sick sort of way.  Schaeffer claims to have met me several times.  Perhaps that’s true, but I remember meeting him only once.  Admittedly, it was a memorable experience.  We were on a panel together at Princeton discussing contemporary politics in the midst of the 2008 presidential election.  I knew nothing about the man, but he immediately struck me as an odd and, frankly, somewhat creepily emotive character who, as they say, "had issues.”  He seemed pathetically desperate to be important or, at least, to be regarded as important in elite intellectual circles.  I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to decide whether this had to do with his being reared by fundamentalist Christian parents, a fact which, for some reason, he insisted on making a very big deal out of in his remarks.  His speech was an emotional tirade that was perhaps the most self-referential piece of oratory I’ve ever heard.  It was, you see, all about . . . him!  We were supposed to be talking about the election, but what the audience got from Frank Schaeffer was autobiography—an account of the life and deeds of Frank Schaeffer.  (Evidently, he was once himself connected to those dreadful right-wing fundamentlists until he "realized just how anti-American they are," which led him to forums like the the Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post where he warns the Enlightened about the nefarious plans of his former comrades in arms "to derail democracy.")  It was so painfully embarrassing that even people on his side (that would be the pro-Obama side) were rolling their eyes to make clear to the rest of us that they found his behavior as peculiar and embarrassing as we did.

 

At one point, feigning (I think) the righteous indignation of an Old Testament prophet, he launched into a wholesale defamation of his fellow citizens, declaring that the allegedly intense and deep-seated racism of the American people would, in the end, unleash itself to prevent the election of Barack Obama.  While the rest of us were grateful to get a little break from listening to his autobiography, I and some others were outraged.  By no means was it only the conservatives.  My liberal Democratic colleague Sean Wilentz, who was also on the panel, joined me in denouncing Schaeffer’s calumny.

 

Schaeffer describes me as a “far right Reconstructionist extremist.”  I gather that his modus operandi is to hurl such epithets to smear anyone, however reasonable and civil (or, as he puts it in speaking of me, "polite and kindly"), who has the temerity to disagree with the moral and political views of Frank Schaeffer.  What is really going on, I suspect, is that he is trying to make himself into a figure of importance on the left by defaming those on the other side.  Evidently, he hasn’t figured out that the left is not composed entirely or even mainly of people like him.  There are men and women like Sean Wilentz who won’t countenance calumny or demagoguery even against their political opponents, or in the service of political goals they share.

 

Then there is the hypocrisy of it all.  Schaeffer hauls out the defamations (“far right Reconstructionist extremist!”), and the anti-Catholic bigotry, against me and against the Catholic bishops, demanding that we refrain from acting on (or even speaking about) our moral convictions in politics, only when it comes to issues such as abortion and marriage.  When we act or speak against the death penalty, for example, or in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, or when the bishops advocate universal health coverage, Schaeffer is strangely silent.  When immigration or health care is the issue, we hear nothing from Frank Schaeffer about the Catholic Church being “the world’s best organized pedophile network.”  Gee, I wonder why.

 

Catholic readers might be wondering what this “Reconstructionism” is that I am, by Schaeffer's reckoning, "probably the most influential" advocate of (though, “of course, George would disavow being called a Reconstructionist”).  You’ll get a kick out of this.  “Christian Reconstructionism” was the political theology of the radical Calvinist guru Rousas John Rushdoony. who lived from 1916-2001.  Rushdoony maintained that the U.S. should be governed by Old Testament law under a theory labeled “theonomy,” which, as far as I can tell, was merely his own variant of theocracy.  From a quick review of published accounts of Rushdoony's life and thought, I gather than he was a racist and a Holocaust diminisher.  Oh yes, and he didn’t think much of Catholicism or Catholics either ("preachers of a polluted gospel").  Let’s see, that would make him a bit like . . . .

Posted by Robert George on March 21, 2010 at 01:14 PM | Permalink

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