Two days before she traveled to Selma, Ala., to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of a civil rights march that had focused national attention on the injustice of Alabama blacks being denied their right to vote, Hillary Clinton gave a little-noticed speech in Washington, D.C., where she drew attention to the fundamental connection between God's law and man's law that lay at the heart of the rationale for the civil rights movement.
Clinton deserves credit because pointing to that connection has fallen out of favor among American liberals.
"I want to thank you for how every single day you stand up for the basic principle that our country is really anchored on, that we are all created equal and that we are each endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that we should all have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential," Clinton said.
Her words echoed Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," one of the great political declarations of the 20th century.
King, a Baptist minister, looked for inspiration not only to the Founding Fathers, but also to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholic saints whom he believed embraced the same understanding of the law the Founding Fathers did.
"I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all,'" wrote King. "Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a manmade 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 terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law."
King argued, as did our Founders, that men have a moral obligation to obey just laws and to resist unjust laws. Quite plainly, the racist laws of Alabama and other states in the decades preceding the civil rights movement violated the God-given rights of black Americans, and needed to be resisted.
In the four decades since the Selma march, many liberals have abandoned the belief that a just law is a law that is consistent with God's law.
When John Kerry was running for president in 2004, for example, he said it would be wrong for him to try to make American laws consistent with his understanding of God's law when the question is whether you can kill an unborn child. "I oppose abortion, personally," Kerry said. "I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist ... who doesn't share it."
Now, the Christian clergy who led the civil rights movement did not want to impose a Baptist or Roman Catholic "article of faith" on their fellow Americans. However, they did seek to impose a universal moral principle on American law, and they unabashedly affirmed that this moral principle was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, which they insisted formed the foundation of American democracy.
"One day, the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," King said in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
This takes us back to Hillary Clinton's speech two days before the Selma anniversary -- a speech delivered to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's most influential lobby for gay and lesbian interests. To which "sacred values" was Clinton calling America back?
One was the "right" to same-sex adoption. "We are going to make sure that nothing stands in the way of loving couples, gay or straight, who want to adopt children," she said.
This push for legalized same-sex adoption forces a compelling question into the political debate: Do same-sex couples have a God-given right to adopt children? Or do children have a God-given right to both a mother and father?
One need not search long in the Judeo-Christian heritage for a governing principle. The commandment says, "Honor thy father and mother." A child adopted by, or artificially conceived for, a same-sex couple may not even know both his mother and father, let alone be in a position to honor them both.
But then, perhaps Clinton can suggest a better principle for giving children the opportunity to live up to their "God-given potential" than the one embedded in the Ten Commandments.