Murray’s We Hold These Truths: 1960 and Today

Bruce P. Frohnen

We Hold These Truths is about “the American Proposition,” that is, the American public philosophy that once shaped our civil social order. More importantly, it is about truth, about the reality that shapes our lives as persons and as Americans. Catholics in particular refer to the principles derived from this reality as natural law. The question we face, sixty years after publication of Murray’s book, is whether there remains any place for natural law in American public life, as well as whether American public life can survive without it.

Murray’s natural law argument has three central elements: first, that we can know what is good and what is evil; second, that we can reason together about how we should pursue the one and shun the other in both public and private life; and, finally, that the American constitutional order has begun to crumble because we no longer possess these understandings. What makes this argument necessary today is the very fact that it seems foreign to contemporary discourse. Our intellectual classes in particular no longer consider such views worth discussing, let alone considering as they consider public policy and cultural reformation. As for Americans more generally, their attitudes and habits show ever less recognition of essential truths regarding human nature and the social order.

The typical American today inhabits a false reality that screens from him the true nature of himself and the world around him. In today’s false reality, each of us lives our “own truth.” We look at the world through the lens of our own dreams of perfection and resentment, then emote. All this to make ourselves comfortable as autonomous individuals in a sea of all-but-random choices and impersonal power relations. In such a world, talk of natural law seems odd, if not downright mad. Few know John Rawls’s name but our political class has been steeped for generations in his story of society as the product of an original contract forged by individuals with no ties, no history, no goals higher than security, well-being, and a self-esteem rooted in common dependence on a state that relentlessly calibrates “fair” life chances for all.

Rawls’s false reality is a caricature of the already-thin philosophy of John Locke. That philosophy assumes that we choose civil society. It assumes that the civil social order is not the product of a natural drive for community and of the interaction of reasonable persons with their natural associations, their circumstances, and the traditions that shape the world in which they are reared. In We Hold These Truths, Murray denies these falsehoods and offers in their place a genuine vision of reality. He describes the person as he is, a social being possessed of the capacity to know much of the truth regarding the order of existence, including, most importantly, his duty to live by that truth.

It is common for those who reject natural law to claim that it demands an inhuman perfection at odds with our animal nature and spiritual desire for individual flourishing. But this is mere excuse for self-indulgence. Murray points out that natural law promises no paradise on Earth. Nor does it require saintly virtue. Rather, it is a guide to basic decency rooted in recognition that we live in an objectively real world made according to a pattern we must seek to understand and follow. Natural law, Murray tells us, “promises only to prescribe for the purposes of law and social custom, that minimum of morality which must be observed by the members of a society, if the social environment is to be human and habitable.” As a priest, Murray obviously knew Christians in particular have higher callings and aspirations. But all men can and should recognize and work toward decency, lest they bring Hell to earth.

Even today, a very different Murray, the broadly libertarian Charles, points out that those with the opportunity to study both functioning and non-functioning communities act on the reality of our social nature and knowledge of the consequences of ignoring it. They preach libertine individualism but practice “bourgeois values”—getting and staying married, prioritizing education and work within stable cultural environments—because such norms are in accordance with reality; they “work” in the practical sense that they make a stable, decent life much more likely. In his day John Courtney Murray observed that those who propounded the moral relativism at the heart of contemporary society also were wise enough to eschew practicing what they preached. They felt the need to live by standards that fostered social trust through the keeping of contracts, promises, and social conventions demanding public civility.

We who cashed our government checks while leaving our parents alone in coronavirus-infected nursing homes have fallen far from the common decency of our forebears. Over decades of narcissistic cynicism we have used up the bank and capital of the ages, generated over generations by a people committed to faith, family, and freedom within their self-governing communities. There remains much decency among the American people, but decency among many is not sufficient. As Murray points out, the American public philosophy not only requires but is constituted by consensus regarding substantive truths. The Declaration of Independence, so often referenced as in its essence the font of individual rights, offers no great, new philosophical ideas. Rather, it expresses the American consensus that ours is a people self-consciously under God and natural law. This was the essential starting point for Americans to build on their traditions, applying reason to experience in formulating a constitutional order.

The Declaration was an acknowledgment that Americans at the Revolution already had laid the groundwork for a Constitution rooted in man’s nature as a social and moral being. They formed a government limited by their pre-existing duties to God and community. It built political rights on these natural duties by denying to the government powers that would conflict with them. The free, limited government they forged made possible the development of that virtue inculcated only in more intimate, natural associations yet utterly necessary for a decent civil order among a free people.

The drafters of our Constitution and those who shaped our public philosophy applied a natural law understanding to and within the Anglo-American common law tradition, developed in American circumstances to form a specifically American constitutional order. Unfortunately, having lost our natural law understanding of the person qua person, we also have lost our ability to pursue and nurture virtue in public and private life. And, without this virtue, without this determination to choose the good and avoid the evil, there can be no common understanding, no social trust, and, in the end, no free government or habitable society.

Some Catholics, especially in his own time, criticized Murray for excessive “Americanism.” But history is an essential element of natural law. Eternal principles must be instantiated by specific peoples in accordance with the demands and customs of the time. The customs of Murray’s place and time were American, that is, democratic. This made consent, a term that, broadly defined, underlies political legitimacy in general, especially important within our public philosophy. What do we do, then, when political forms and institutions show hostility toward religion and the natural law tradition it upholds? Crucial to Murray, this question seems inescapable and all but insoluble in our time.

In this context it is fair to criticize Murray for his overly broad understanding of constitutional development. He unfortunately subscribed to the then all-but-universal “living constitution” theory that empowered judges to “validate in law” interpretations of constitutional provisions propelling “dynamic development of judicially enforced constitutions.” But our Constitution is not a custom to be changed over time informally, let alone one to be rewritten by judicial fiat. It is not even a set of common law principles or natural law precepts open to new applications as times change. It is a statute. If we are to maintain the rule of law, we must interpret the Constitution in its own terms as understood by the audience toward which it was aimed. This means defining its terms in light of natural law understandings (e.g. of our social nature) and goals without resorting to any kind of reimagining or rewriting.

It is important to note that Murray makes his interpretive statements in arguing for positions in keeping with natural law understanding. Specifically, he urges government accommodation of religion, especially providing funding for religious schools. As Murray observes, government is not the shaper of society and so has no right to take command over all of life. That the Church shall be free is a principle, enshrined for example in Magna Carta, that underlies any decent, limited government. Thus, to favor non-religion over religion, to undermine the people’s wish and duty to rear their children in their religious understandings, is contrary to both American tradition and to natural law.

Our descent into democratic totalitarianism, slow at first, has picked up steam as Americans become ever less self-governing members of multiple associations and ever more individual subjects of a centralized state; politics have become central to everything we do. Thus, the Declaration of Independence, which Murray pointed to principally for its helpful recognition of natural and American customary law, has become the focus of frenzied ideological manipulations pitting hypertrophic individual rights against various forms of resentment and charges of bad faith rooted in group identity. Both the focus on politics and the false claims made deny our social nature—the first in favor of a “private” life devoid of human engagement, the second in favor of a commanding state. What is needed, then, is a recurrence to Murray’s out-of-fashion argument: that political statements are important principally for the support or damage they do to our permanent nature and to the customs we have built that allow that nature to flourish.  

Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law.

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The University Bookman has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.