Alito on the “Historical Roots” of Rights

November 4th, 2014

The St. Thomas More Society of Maryland honored Justice Alito with its 2014 Man of All Seasons Award. In what was described as his “homily,” Justice Alito offered some insights into the importance of natural law, and its roots, to the protection of individual liberty through limited government:

“In one way or another, all of us are about defending freedom,” he told the lawyers in his homily. “You may or may not be directly involved in constitutional law, but you carry out your daily work with the conviction that we are a nation of laws that guarantees the fundamental freedoms which many people take for granted.”…

“One of the great contributions not sufficiently recognized in modern times of Christianity to political thought is the idea that the legitimate authority of the state is limited,” he said, pointing to Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
“In the west, until roughly the time of St. Thomas More, the church represented an authority separate from the state,” Alito said. “It is still, in the western mind, the idea of limited government. That idea is fundamental to the freedoms that we cherish.”
The American founders understood that freedom wouldn’t be possible unless government was limited, Alito said, and that government cannot be counted on to limit itself. People with power are tempted to increase it.
St. Thomas More understood that God’s law is higher than enacted law, Alito said – an idea shared by America’s Founding Fathers and evident in language in the Declaration of Independence.
“There’s an anomaly about our current situation,” Alito said. “While a great many people believe very strongly that there are rights that government must respect, our understanding of the source of those rights has been obscured. That we understand that they come from our creator has become obscure, and it’s questionable as to whether they’ll be able to endure without their historical roots.”
On religious intolerance, Alito recalled the persecution Catholics experienced in Europe and colonial America, and the importance the Founding Fathers placed on religious liberty and legislative efforts to bolster it.
Despite these efforts, religious liberty cannot be taken for granted, he said.
“Religious liberty and other freedoms are never entirely secure,” he said. “New challenges have emerged in recent years, more are likely in the future. Therefore, it is vitally important for our country to remain true to the inspiring vision of religious liberty that animated the most perceptive of our founders.”
See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.