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The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Steps from God…to the Religion of the Self” — Prof. Arkes in The Catholic Thing

In an article titled, “Steps from God…to the Religion of the Self” in The Catholic Thing, Prof. Hadley Arkes traces the transformation of the identification of religion solely with beliefs rather than with a combination of beliefs and reasoned truths. The erosion of the meaning of religion, Prof. Arkes says, can be most clearly seen in the history of jurisprudence on conscientious objection. First granted to objectors of any “well-recognized religious sect or organization” at the time of the First World War, the grounds for conscientious objection eventually expanded to include beliefs about right and wrong that “parallel” orthodox belief and are held “sincerely.” That standard, Arkes argues, has prevented any objective judgement of the truth of religious claims, leading ultimately to a subjective relativism in which religion is reduced to an “individualized, non-cognitive enterprise.” Prof. Arkes points to Pope St. John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and Notre Dame Law Professor Gerard Bradley’s new book Unquiet Americans as past and present counters to this ongoing intellectual crisis.

Some excerpts:

“One by one the Supreme Court began to dismantle these requirements, which made no room for new revelations, and revelations with no connection to that Supreme Being understood so widely at the Founding.”

“In our own day, we see that sense of things reflected among some of our own friends who seek to defend “religious freedom” in the courts by removing, from the understanding of religion, any insistence on the presence of God – or any moral test of the teachings being offered in the name of religion.  All that is asked is whether a person holds to his views ‘sincerely.’”

“Hence, we arrive in the age of ‘identity politics’ when religion is reduced to the religion of the self and its search for ‘meaning.’  Professor Bradley takes it as the purpose of his new book to ‘restore moral truth as the foundation of our law of civil liberties’—and, indeed, of all of our laws. Bradley’s book marks another notable move, even on the part of conservatives, to break away from that lingering reluctance of ‘conservative jurisprudence’ to have judges engage in reasoning about the moral substance of the laws.”

You can read the full article here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790