By David Quinn
In his letter from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King asked the question, “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” He answered: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
King believed in God. He was a Lutheran minister. If he read the preamble to the Irish Constitution, what would he think? He would probably agree with every word from a philosophical point of view. His letter was written in America in April 1963. America was and is a Republic which refuses to establish any particular religion. But would Luther support our preamble being part of the Constitution? I don’t know. He might have agreed with its worldview, but at the same time believe the constitution of a country should not be so overtly and explicitly Christian.
I think an argument can be made for altering the preamble to reflect the fact that Irish society is now far more multi-cultural and secular than it was in 1937, so some of the direct invocations of Christianity could be removed. In fact, given how aggressively secular Ireland can sometimes be, and some of the changes that have taken place in the last few years, maybe the pretence that the Irish State believes it is somehow under the authority of the Trinity, when it thinks no such thing (on the contrary) almost requires the removal of those invocations from a Christian point of view, and not just a secular one. But the preamble at least raises the questions of who or what is the ultimate source of law. A pluralist, secular society might say ‘the People’. But if the People throw their weight behind something that would appear clearly unjust to someone like Martin Luther King, and the People are ultimate, then what would he say? How would he judge the People to be wrong? What higher authority could be appeal to? I think secularists have huge difficulty with this question. The American Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
But are these truths “self-evident” from an atheist point of view? We might point to something like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. But this is essentially a Christian Democratic document, something the legal scholar (and non-Christian), Samuel Moyn acknowledges in his book, ‘Christian Human Rights’. The Declaration is suffused with natural law thinking. It simply assumes we have natural rights. Thinkers like Charles Malick and Jacques Maritain, both Christians, had a huge influence and they deeply believed in the natural law. Malick said in 1951, “In Christianity, the individual human person possesses an absolute value. The ultimate ground of all our freedom is the Christian doctrine of the absolute inviolability of the human person”. Why do Christians believe this? The answer is that we believe we are made in the Image and Likeness of God, so no matter how low- born or high-born we are, we are all absolutely morally equal. We have not come from nothing, as materalists believe. In fact, as Moyn says, ‘human dignity’ in its modern form was first properly set out by Pius XII in WW2 and the first Constitution it appears in is the Irish one.
It might be responded that the modern idea of human rights comes from the French revolution’s declaration of the rights of man. The preamble to the French Constitution of 1958 explicitly says: “The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789”. But as Luc Ferry, the French philosopher (a non-Christian) says in his 2011 book, ‘A Brief History of Thought’: “The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man owes to Christianity an essential part of its egalitarian message.” How can this be? Wasn’t the French Revolution a revolt, in part, against the Church? It was, but as Ferry also has the honesty to admit: the “idea of the equal dignity of all human beings” makes its first appearance with Christianity. He also writes: “We see today how civilisations that have not experienced Christianity have great difficulties in fostering democratic regimes because the notion of equality is not so deeply rooted.” This thesis is strongly reinforced by ‘The Weirdest People in the World’ by Harvard’s Joseph Henrich (an atheist). Even the Guardian understands that the idea of the moral equality of all human beings come from Christianity.
An editorial from a few years ago said: “A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.” This theme is extremely well developed by Tom Holland in ‘Dominion’ and by Larry Siedentop in ‘Inventing the Individual’. Neither of these writers is Christian. What I am saying is that our idea of human rights is rooted in a Christian view of the infinite and equal worth of all human beings to an extent we barely see anymore, and sometimes even outright reject.
These writers show its origins even though they are not believers. Yuval Noah Harari (also an atheist), author of ‘Sapiens’, writes: “The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in the free and eternal individual souls. Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens”. He adds: “Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist convictions that all souls are equal before God”. Where does this leave us? It means, I think, that any future preamble should grapple with the idea of what human rights are based on, where they come from. We cannot simply handwave away the debate and assume certain things are self-evident, especially if we reject belief in God.
At an absolute minimum, any new preamble would have to acknowledge our Christian heritage, which the EU point-blank failed to do in the preamble to its abandoned Constitution. Instead, it spoke of Europe’s “spiritual and moral heritage”, and how “the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity”. But it did not property consider where these notions ultimately spring from, which was an act of total historical amnesia. In my view, a mature country confronts these questions and answers them honestly. A good place to start is the preamble to the Constitution no matter what form it takes in the future. ENDS Wording of the Preamble to the Constitution “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.”