God, Not the State, is the Author of Human Dignity

(photo: Register Files)

What do you think of the idea that human dignity is something innate, and not something that the State bestows? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – a Catholic – tried to make this argument on June 26, and ignited an immediate firestorm of derision and protest notable for its ferocity.

New Republic called it “disgraceful”. Alternet called it “horrifying”. Huffington Post said it was the “weirdest”. Fusion was left in a state of shock: “jaw-dropping”. Salon judged it “offensive”. Slate called it “petty, hypocritical, and embarrassing”, though in doing so, they grouped Thomas together with the three other dissenting justices (Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito – all Catholics, incidentally)

The Supreme Court’s decision on Obergefell v. Hodges went 5-4. Each of the minority justices wrote his own dissent — all of them excellent and deserving to be read and re-read. Never has the term ‘dissenting Catholic’ been such a noble epithet. Scalia, in particular, was absolutely magnificent.

What exactly did Justice Thomas, formerly a Reagan-appointed head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, say that was so incendiary?

Thomas wrote:

The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits. The Framers created our Constitution to preserve that understanding of liberty. Yet the majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a “liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect. Along the way, it rejects the idea — captured in our Declaration of Independence — that human dignity is innate and suggests instead that it comes from the Government.

The Declaration of Independence famously states “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”.

Thomas continued:

…human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Obergefell v. Hodges could well grow to become as malevolent in its consequences as Roe v. Wade — and for the very reason that Justice Thomas warns against in his dissent: that we have let the State become not the guarantor of our rights and dignity, but their author.

As the fierceness of opposition to Clarence Thomas illustrates, this philosophical basis has never been more misunderstood by wider secular society.

So Christians are now put in an invidious and deeply tragic situation: they will want to recognize God, not the State, as the author of human dignity, and the human rights that flow from its recognition.  To ascribe attributes properly belonging to divinity to the State (to anything that is not God) is idolatry, and the Supreme Court does not leave much wiggle room for those who had not planned on abandoning their fidelity to the First Commandment anytime soon.

The secular state is, indeed, a jealous god.