We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power. Words like “justice” have emotional throw-weight, so people use them as weapons.
And it can’t be otherwise, because the religious vision and convictions that once animated American life are no longer welcome at the table. After all, what can “human rights” mean if science sees nothing transcendent in the human species? Or if science imagines a trans-humanist future? Or if science doubts that a uniquely human “nature” even exists? If there’s no inherent human nature, there can be no inherent natural rights – and then the grounding of our whole political system is a group of empty syllables.
Liberal democracy doesn’t have the resources to sustain its own purpose. Democracy depends for its meaning on the existence of some higher authority outside itself.vi The Western idea of natural rights comes not just from the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but even earlier from the medieval Church.
Our Western legal tradition has its origins not in the Enlightenment, but in the 11th and 12th century papal revolution in canon law.vii The Enlightenment itself could never have happened outside the Christian world from which it emerged. In the words of Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop — and in contrast to ancient pagan society —
“Christianity changed the ground of human identity” by developing and uniquely stressing the idea of the individual person with an eternal destiny. In doing that, “Christian moral beliefs emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.”viii Modern pluralist democracy has plenty of room for every religious faith and no religious faith.
But we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can keep our freedoms without revering the biblical 6 vision – the uniquely Jewish and Christian vision – of who and what man is. Human dignity has only one source. And only one guarantee. We’re made in the image and likeness of God. And if there is no God, then human dignity is just elegant words.