The United States Declaration of Independence affirms that all men are divinely endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the signatories of this document sought to establish a government whose task would be to secure these rights. In invoking the language of natural law, our nation’s founders purported not to create rights anew, but to uphold those recognized as inherent in the human condition and as independent of any human institution. Human dignity was the acknowledged premise of our democratic order: political authority was to derive from and defer to this transcendent reality.
In light of the principles at the heart of our nation’s inception, it is difficult to justify our legacies of slavery, segregation, and discrimination; it is scarcely easier to account for the persistent prevalence of conflicts between the exercise of liberty and the interests of equality and security. Paradigmatic are “hate speech” disputes, in which claims to expressive freedom clash with demands for equal opportunity; similar tensions arise in debates over abortion and euthanasia, which pit the vindication of autonomy against the preservation of human life. These controversies reinforce a growing perception of the state as antagonist rather than advocate of rights and liberties. For when a court upholds one claim, it essentially discounts its opponents, and such pronouncements require justifications that “neutrality” cannot provide.
Our democratic order, meanwhile, has come to distrust transcendent rhetoric. An ascendant view, as articulated by one skeptical pundit, is that any “normative guidance” we have for conflict resolution “has been fashioned (and refashioned) in the very political struggles over which it then presides.” Liberty as a bare ideal is an inadequate guide in these struggles; for, as legal philosophers admit, “The principle of ‘the more freedom the better’ doesn’t tell us whose freedom must give way.” Absent shared normative premises, then, judicial decisions seem arbitrary and orderly coexistence becomes a zero-sum game; and legal practice, rather than upholding rights and liberties as principled norms, apparently undercuts their integrity.
This situation is the outworking of an atomistic anthropology, born of the Enlightenment, which rejects the traditional premise of man’s transcendent telos and instead equates personhood with possession of finite faculties. On this view, human identity is an artifact of choice and contingency: man authors his life by designating his own ends and executing his will using whatever means he deems proper. Accordingly, the notion of an objective truth based on natural law is replaced by a subjective conscience which is elevated to supreme status, so that each individual becomes, by the power of his reason, the arbiter of his own morality. Liberty, then, amounts to the unconstrained pursuit of one’s desires; rights are social constructs to stake out and defend against neighbor and state.
The corollary of this view is what George Cardinal Pell calls a secular democracy, a “democracy without transcendence,” whose key reference point is the supremacy of the individual and his unconstrained will. Here the quest for autonomy is the reigning ethical paradigm, and the state favors no moral vision, offering only a procedural mechanism for addressing conflicts. True to this scheme, our Supreme Court has declared an inviolable right “to define one’s own concept of existence, of being, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” as well as a fundamental “right to privacy,” establishing regulatory immunity for a rather flexibly defined sphere of self-regarding activity. Thus, within the procedural dictates of our democracy, individual activity enjoys presumptive legal privilege insofar as it reflects individual choice.
Granted, civil liberties, especially the freedoms of conscience and religion, are integral to a thriving polity. Unchecked by shared principles, however, the radical pursuit of autonomy reduces social relationships to power struggles—and when individual pursuits clash, generating antagonistic appeals to constitutional guarantees, the secular state’s adjudicative resources amount to “a sea of rhetoric about individual rights.” Unless political authority rests on a defensible perspective of the rights and liberties at stake, the state’s task becomes not only oppressive but incoherent: if the secular democracy cannot define the “common good” for its citizens, neither can it use that notion to justify judicial decisions, let alone the positive law that should constrain these decisions.
History indeed testifies that regimes not grounded in a premise of human dignity will resort to suppression or manipulation to defuse tensions, catering to the powerful at the expense of those whose rights seem too costly to uphold. This has been the case in Nazi Germany, communist China, and segregationist South Africa; it is no less the destiny of any normless regime that, despite bearing the title “democracy,” promotes tyranny of the will. For, as Samuel Gregg observes, “if rights are ultimately grounded in people’s ever-shifting preferences, they lose all the absoluteness that the word ‘rights’ entails.” Our secular democracy, insofar as it endorses no moral vision, can prescribe no remedies for social fragmentation and no safeguards against political oppression. As such, the widespread rejection of the idea of natural law constitutes a threat to basic rights and liberties in our society; for “without truth claims, there is nothing to which we can morally appeal in order to defend freedom.”
There is hope for redirection, however, in the tenets embodied in our founding Declaration, namely in the transcendent dimension of human existence and the ethical precepts that flow from it. Such are the elements of an imago Dei conception of man which, unlike the atomistic view, both resonates with the conscience and urges it toward ethical excellence. For while the atomistic anthropology equates personhood with faculties, associating human worth with efficacy of will, an anthropology based on man’s divine image-bearing status recognizes each person as inherently, transcendently valuable and as teleological in orientation: to be human is to bear the divine image not only physically but ethically in the context of a commission to love God and neighbor, to be fruitful and multiply, and to steward earthly resources.
Man is uniquely suited for this commission—reason, choice, and will render him able to discharge duties—yet possession of faculties does not exhaust his personhood. It is receipt of ethical responsibility in which dignity inheres; it is satisfaction of this responsibility, conformity to the divine archetype, in which fulfillment lies. Man, then, is not sovereign over morality: as he is created for a transcendent end, he must be directed thereto by a transcendent law, which is specially articulated in divinely inspired scriptures and generally accessible by divinely endowed reason. This reason, in turn, is not to be exercised autonomously but in the service of proper ends, illuminating man’s moral duties and directing his actions accordingly.
Hence, the moral law, as divinely revealed, is the source of true freedom: it prescribes the way to glorious fulfillment of the image-bearer’s commission. It is not mere ignorance but sin—denial of dependence on God, refusal to love one’s neighbor, willful indulgence of self—that hinders the way to human flourishing. It is the radical quest for autonomy that destroys freedom, severing creature from life-giving Creator. Against the modern mindset, freedom exists in harmony with voluntary submission, through wholehearted service to God and to neighbor: liberty is not license to satisfy every desire, but freedom to desire what one ought, in accord with the unique human ability to reorient one’s desires and to pursue them conscientiously. Indeed, creaturely obedience is to the glory not only of God who deserves worship; it is to the glory of persons whose liberty tastes sweetest, whose dignity shines brightest, when they fulfill the calling that distinguishes them as image-bearers.
Accountability, not autonomy, is thus the key to true liberty and the crucial context for nourishing dignity. Therefore, human dignity grounds the rights codified in positive law: rights to be respected, treated justly, and protected from harm. These rights imply corollary duties; as each is entitled to receive respect, justice, and protection, so he is called to exercise respect, to deal justly, and to protect. All these precepts enjoy transcendent status as part of the Creator’s commission. Indeed, human rights are inalienable precisely because the dignity that grounds them is neither reducible to autonomy nor susceptible to subjectivity, consisting rather in dependence upon God, the creative source of human liberty.
But the secular democracy, as based on an atomistic anthropology, seeks to maximize liberty by effacing constraints, leaving self-interested appetites to devour each other in bitter contests for state-defined rights. Hence the dilemma of our political order: the state, ostensibly in the name of liberty itself, forswears the transcendent principles necessary to uphold a robust scheme of protected rights and liberties, thereby invoking the very social strife it is ill equipped to remedy. In the trenchant words of a postmodern critic, “freedom is a coherent notion only in relation to a goal or good that limits and, by limiting, shapes its exercise,” and the absence of such a telos necessarily renders authority arbitrary, setting freedom and submission at odds.
The state’s proper task, in fact, is neither to claim authorship of rights and liberties nor to subordinate them to temporal interests, but to uphold them as reflecting a transcendent reality; legal and judicial practice must acknowledge human dignity, safeguard the rights this dignity entails, and preserve the liberty to pursue noble ends. Thus, undergirding any humane political order is a robust conception of man’s ethical nature and teleological orientation, according to which duty derives from dignity, dependence enhances liberty, and interpersonal respect sustains harmonious coexistence. An imago Dei anthropology, in affirming these tenets, furnishes an objective basis for political authority and a principled guide for judicial decisions—as well as a transcendent motive for the mutual service that is the lifeblood of a free and virtuous society.
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, opening lines.
 Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 115.
 Joel Feinberg, “Limits to the Free Expression of Opinion,” in Philosophy of Law, edited by Joel Feinberg and Jules Coleman ( Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000), 312.
 Alberto Piedra, “Natural Law and the Age of Reason,” in Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 19.
 George Cardinal Pell, “Is There Only Secular Democracy? Imagining Other Possibilities for the Third Millenium,” Journal of Markets & Morality, 7:2 (Fall 2004): 327.
 Samuel Gregg, “The Drama of Human Freedom,” in On Ordered Liberty (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003), 33.
Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992); cf. reference in Pell, 327.
Roe v. Wade (1973); cf. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Eisenstadt vs. Baird (1972).
 Pell, 323.
 Gregg, 37
 Piedra, 26.
 Gregg, 31.
 Cf. Genesis 1:26-30, 9:6-7; Matthew 22:37-40.
 Michael Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology ( Louisville: WJK Press, 2005), 104.
 Cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Romans 1:18-20, 2:14-15.
 Piedra, 24, 25.
 Cf. Lord Acton: “ Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Selected Writings of Lord Acton: Essays in Religion, Politics and Morality, edited by Rufus J. Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund , 1988).
 Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, “ Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” First Things, 76:10 (October 1997): 39.
 Fish, 108.