Opposing Injustice through Natural Law

by Napa Institute
Published In January 15, 2017

In his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King said:

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. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

He explained further:

The fact is that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.

There are few projects more important today than understanding natural law and the great tradition of reflection on natural law to which Dr. King expressly appealed in making his case against racial injustice. As I tell my students, reading and re-reading the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and contemporary thinkers in the tradition to which they so notably contributed) is not a bad way to begin.

Where today are the heirs to King and the tradition of moral reflection he invokes? They are, I believe, in the pro-life movement and the movement to rebuild a flourishing marriage culture on the basis of a sound understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

It is a tragic irony that critics of these movements try to smear them by identifying them with “discrimination” and even “bigotry” while, preposterously, claiming for themselves the mantle of Martin Luther King. These critics themselves typically embrace forms of expressive individualism and other post-modernist ideologies that could not be more alien to the spirit of King’s teaching in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And yet THEY claim to be faithful heirs to Dr. King. To see how false that is, just have a look at the websites of NARAL, the Human Rights Campaign, or Black Lives Matter, and compare what you find there to King’s teaching in the Letter.

King was a Christian and a firm believer in Judeo-Christian morality. Like other mortals, he sometimes failed in his personal life to live up to the moral principles he believed in, but he never repudiated those principles. And it was in the name of those principles that he called our nation to repent of injustice and truly strive to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”


Dr. Robert P. George is a Professor at Princeton University and the Former Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

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