Some wag once defined a conservative as a liberal who has been mugged. He had probably noticed the fact that all human beings are conservatives (at certain points at least) whenever they are forced to leave the cloistered halls of academic Theory and deal with Reality. It is easy to be a moral relativist, for example, because this abdication absolves us of the onerous responsibility of making moral judgments which might offend our fellow citizens (or cramp our own lifestyles). Relativism is thus a most comfortable path of least resistance. We can say it is all a matter of culture or upbringing or perspective and pretend there are no absolutes and get along just fine-until it is our sister who was raped, our money that was stolen, or our Trade Tower that was blown to bits full of innocent people. Then suddenly we are all absolutists. There are some things that are right and some things that are wrong, period, whether anybody sees it, agrees with it, likes it, or not. This conclusion is unavoidable, and reality has a nasty habit of rubbing our noses in this fact from time to time.
It follows that the Moral Law is not just a set of cultural conventions, a bundle of inhibitions we picked up from our parents, a list of self-serving rules devised by the Dead White European Good Old Boys Club to advance their own interests and keep women and minorities in subjection, or anything else that human beings just made up. It has its own prior, independent, and objective existence, and whenever we ignore this fact or fail to respect it, somebody is going to get hurt. This is true whether we fail to respect the Law by breaking it ourselves, or whether we fail to respect it by pretending that it does not matter whether others in our society believe in and respect it as well. As Dr. Johnson said of the skeptic David Hume, "If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses, let us count our spoons."
Many of us believe that the best explanation of this state of affairs is that a transcendent Moral Law requires a transcendent Lawgiver. Christians and Jews agree that God is not only the Source of this Law but has written it in the human heart and given an even more precise, because less subjective, summary of it to us in the recently displaced Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. It is as just such a widely acknowledged summary of the higher Law that the Decalogue has often been displayed and honored in our public buildings. Even Muslims, who also accept Moses as a prophet of God, should have no problem with this acknowledgement, which can hardly therefore be viewed as sectarian. But even those secular citizens who have not been granted the faith to believe these helpful truths must deal with the rock-hard reality of this Law which inexorably confronts them.
The amazing unity and clarity of, not only the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and Greco-Roman, but even the general human tradition on such matters stands in stark contrast to the superficial and perverse muddiness that passes for wisdom in too many circles today. C. S. Lewis has documented the unified voice of mankind on the Moral Law in the appendix to his brilliant little book The Abolition of Man. And J. R. R. Tolkien has admirably summarized it: "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men," said Aragorn (The Two Towers 48), speaking with the united voice of the race before the advent of late Modernism.
Richard Hooker describes the proper relation of this higher Law to human law in a classic passage. "The being of God is a kind of law to his working; for that perfection which God is giveth perfection to that he doth. . . . Now, that law which, as it is laid up in the bosom of God, they call eternal, receiveth according unto the different kinds of things which are subject to it different and sundry kinds of names. That part of it which ordereth natural agents we call usually nature's law; . . . the law of reason, that which bindeth creatures reasonable . . .; that which bindeth them, and is not known but by special revelation from God, divine law; human law, that which out of the law either of reason or of God men probably gathering to be expedient, they make it a law" (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity).
Surely this set of relationships ought to mean that no one should be trusted with the important charge of interpreting human laws who does not believe in the higher Law which stands above them and gives them their validity. In a civilized society, the absolute trumps the expedient, no matter how desirable the expedient may seem at the moment, and in the long run one wants the people who evaluate the expedient to know and honor this fact. Yet since the United States Senate rebelled against that higher Law by rejecting Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court on the grounds that he, horror of horrors, believed in its existence, such a belief has amazingly been rather a disqualification than a qualification for the bench.
The muddy perversion of much current thinking is also manifest in the ubiquitous complaint that conservatives are trying to "impose their morality on others." Their morality? There is no such thing as my morality or your morality, our morality and their morality. There is only morality and immorality. It behooves us to know the difference.
Do we wish to know the difference? Then, despite the perverse muddiness of state and federal judges who seem to be under the incomprehensible illusion that showing public honor to a document as ancient and widely respected as the Ten Commandments is somehow an establishment of sectarian religion, that ancient summary of the Law would be a good place to start.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is Director of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of Northeast Georgia.