America’s Constitutional Sovereignty—What Makes the Difference?
When “Representatives of the United States of America” first declared the dissolution of the tie that bound the American people to the people of Great Britain, their declaration cited the authority of God as the warrant for American claim “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” However, at the time they made the claim, it was not at all clear that the American people had the power to do so. This they would have to prove, by prevailing, after years of arduous warfare, against armies sent by the monarch they had previously acknowledged to be their sovereign ruler on earth.
In the absence of that empirical proof, on what grounds did the people of the United States assume they had the power to overrule their sovereign? They did so appealing to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”; the Creator, whom they acknowledge to be the “Supreme Judge of the world”. Thus, contrary to all the modes of political thought in vogue these days, America’s Founders did not, even implicitly, accept the age-old maxim of tyranny, which tells us that, humanly speaking, “Might makes right.” They looked rather to the supreme authority of God, by whose power all things are made, including human beings. They relied, therefore, on the existence God’s measures, which all human beings must rely upon to preserve and perpetuate the existence of humanity.
Respect for these measures is thus seen to be the first premise of human right, which is to say, the aim or end in view of which it is right for human beings to do what their nature requires in order to preserve and perpetuate humanity. Obviously, as humanity as a whole is not preserved but by preserving human existence in particular instances, so also it is not preserved if human beings disregard the measures that, by way of being especially tailored for humanity, distinguish human existence from that which is not human.
In this respect, the laws of Nature are not simply the rules that account for its activity. They encompass the measures taken to inform that activity in view of specific outcomes, outcomes that correspond to the existence of distinct forms and ways of being, fully conceived and understood before they exist, by the supremely self-actuating and self-conscious intelligence whose substantive apprehension of existence constitutes the will in and by which it comes into being.
Such is Nature’s God. The will of God, expressed in the provisions of the laws of Nature, encompasses not only what happens, or what is to be done, but the ultimate perfection for the sake of which it is done, from which all existing things, and all the relations that subsist among them, derive meaning. This meaning absolutely depends on the intention of God’s Being, without regard to any other. All outcomes that depend on merely human will, however powerfully they prevail, if severed from that intention, have no authority that those who act for God’s sake are obliged to respect. Indeed, when the use of human power diverges from God’s intention, it is their right, it is their duty, to resist that abuse.
Thus, the sovereignty of God trumps merely human sovereignty, however powerfully expressed in human terms. This thinking is why it made good sense for Martin Luther King to write, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham jail, that
…there are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Imprisoned in the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King appealed to the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, exactly as the people of the United States did in 1776. Powerless to defend himself against the supposedly lawful power that imprisoned him, he nonetheless asserted the understanding of right that made that action a lawless abuse. Like those first citizens of the United States, Rev. King rejected the notion that might makes right. He looked, as they did, beyond all human sovereignty, to the sovereignty of God.
In doing so, he relied on the Christian understanding of God’s rule that also informed the Founders of the United States—the understanding that sees the power of God at work in the moment when Christ, vilified unto death by the sovereignty of human rulers, nonetheless embodied the Supreme authority and power of the universe because he voluntarily enacted the will of God. Human sovereignty declared him a criminal. But by the sovereignty of God he was exalted to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The sovereignty of God makes all the difference. It was with this understanding that the Founding generation of the United States dared to justify the assertion of right that would, in its consummation at Yorktown, reflect the truth of the Scripture that proclaims, “The Almighty has done great things…He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly”. But many in that Founding generation understood that this was and would be true, only so long as the people of the United States acted in the same spirit as the one who speaks those words in the Gospel, the humble spirit that exalts God by accepting His will, even as Christ accepted it on the Cross.
This past Sunday marked the 230th anniversary of the date on which representatives from the 13 original United States, who participated in the first Constitutional convention, signed the document they had agreed to submit to the people of their 13 States for ratification. People these days who profess their continued loyalty to the self-government the Founders meant the U.S. Constitution to establish, need to remember that the human powers it organizes were never understood to be a function of unlimited human sovereignty.
From the beginning Americans understood that the sovereignty of the people ultimately subsists as a reflection of the sovereignty of God over humanity and all creation. It is not the greatness of our power that sustains our authority as a people (which is why we do not make military might the focus of our national celebrations.) It is the greatness of our determination to respect God’s will, using the power our respect for His provisions enables us to possess, to deal justly with one another, and with all other nations. We are, in this respect, a nation that cannot be what we are except by striving to be what God intends for our humanity. Nothing trumps that.
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