The U.S. State Department has announced that it will create a commission to promote human rights around the world based on "natural law and natural rights," terms that are often used by conservative religious groups in place of "God's law."
"Natural law" is a term often used by religious conservatives--chiefly traditionalist Catholics--to undermine church-state separation and argue that public policy should be anchored in faith-based rationales.
The phrase gained currency in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Controversy erupted after some of his speeches and writings surfaced in which Thomas talked about his fondness for natural law. Some critics were concerned that Thomas seemed eager to look for sources of law beyond the U.S. Constitution.
A notice in the Federal Register states that the commission, formally known as the Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, "will provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights." The notice states that the commission will meet at least once per month.
Despite the Religious Right's fondness for natural law, the concept actually pre-dates Christianity. Ancient Greek philosophers pioneered a version of it, arguing that there is an order to the universe and that human reason, when appropriately applied, is capable of understanding this order and deducing a system of ethics to govern moral behavior that is in tune with it.
The ancient Greeks were pagan, but their musings on natural law were co-opted by Christian theologians during...