My teacher, Harry Jaffa, has a piece in today's OpinionJournal (Wall Street Journal Online). Jaffa is a tireless advocate of the idea of natural rights. He believes, rightly, that such rights are the only secure and reasonable foundation for self-government. Here is his sharp and clear expression of this teaching:
According to Abraham Lincoln, public opinion always has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The central idea of the American Founding--and indeed of constitutional government and the rule of law--was the equality of mankind. This thought is central to all of Lincoln's speeches and writings, from 1854 until his election as president in 1860. It is immortalized in the Gettysburg Address.
The equality of mankind is best understood in light of a two-fold inequality. The first is the inequality of mankind and of the other, nonhuman, classes of living beings that comprise the order of nature. Dogs and horses, for example, are naturally subservient to man. But no human being is naturally subservient to another human being. The second is the inequality of man and God. As God's creatures, we owe unconditional obedience to His will. By that very fact however we do not owe such obedience to anyone else.
The power of this account is that it presents a committment to individual rights as the flip-side of piety. To rule others without their consent is tantamount to claiming the authority of God, which ought to horrify one to the degree that he or she takes God seriously. How does this help us in Iraq?
The great difficulty in forming legitimate governments is in persuading those forming the governments that those who are to be their fellow citizens are equal to them in the rights, which their common government is to protect. Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century Europe looked upon each other as less than human, and slaughtered each other without pity and without compunction. It was impossible for there to be a common citizenship of those who did not look upon each other as possessing the same right of conscience. How one ought to worship God cannot be settled by majority rule. A majority of one faith cannot ask a minority of another faith to submit their differences to a vote. . . .
The United States is engaged today in a great mission to spread democracy to the Middle East, beginning with Afghanistan, and continuing with Iraq. The inhabitants of Iraq are divided into many groups and factions that hate and distrust each other. The attitude of Sunni and Shia Muslims toward each other resembles that of Catholic and Protestant Christians in the 16th century (which persist today in northern Ireland), each regarding the other as heretics. Under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the minority of Sunnis persecuted the majority Shias. It is understandable that the minority Sunnis are today resisting majority rule, while the majority Shia favor it. The Sunnis clearly believe that majority rule by Shia will be used as a means of retribution and revenge. The Sunnis look upon majority rule by the Shia the way the South looked upon the election of Lincoln in 1860. It is inconceivable to the Sunnis that the rule of the Shia majority will be anything other than tyranny.
Our difficulty in pursuing a rational foreign policy in the Middle East--or anywhere else--is compounded by the fact that we ourselves, as a nation, seem to be as confused as the Iraqis concerning the possibility of non-tyrannical majority rule. We continue to enjoy the practical benefits of political institutions founded upon the convictions of our Founding Fathers and Lincoln, but there is little belief in God-given natural rights, which are antecedent to government, and which define and limit the purpose of government. Virtually no one prominent today, in the academy, in law, or in government, subscribes to such beliefs. Indeed, the climate of opinion of our intellectual elites is one of violent hostility to any notion of a rational foundation for political morality. We, in short, engaged in telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions.
As always, Jaffa is right.