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The roots of the culture war: The debate over universal law
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
April 26, 2012

Originally published June 26, 2004

Certain aspects of the culture war have ancient roots. One of the central points of disagreement regards the existence of a universal moral law. Political philosophers have been arguing about this for three hundred years. The ideas at stake are ancient.

First, I shall point out some of the ancient and early modern roots of the old argument. Subsequently, I shall discuss the rise of the American consensus. Then I shall consider how the debate has changed and the wells of reason have been poisoned as we moved out of the Modern era and into the Postmodern era.

Pantheism and the universal moral law

Twice in Western history, Pantheism (the belief that everything is god) became popular. The first version of Western Pantheism was the philosophy/religion of Stoicism, which arose in the Hellenistic cosmopolitan Greek world that followed the conquests of Alexander. The Stoics claimed that everything — matter, mind, and nature — was precipitated out of the divine fire. This is a distinctive version of Pantheism. Stoics rejected the old Greek city-state parochialism and regarded themselves as part of the cosmos, part of humanity, and part of the metropolitan city.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the cities became larger and more metropolitan, the Mediterranean culture became more universal, and the appeal of Stoicism spread. The Apostle Paul found the Stoics debating the Epicureans at Mars Hill. Stoicism became popular among the Roman aristocracy in the second century. The "five good emperors" (Trajan, Hadrian, the two Antonines, and Marcus Aurelius) lived during the time of the Stoic Roman aristocrats — who were always talking about virtue and about "logos" or "right reason." The Stoic concept of logos had an influence on Roman law. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher in his own right, and his writings are still considered Western classics.

The Stoics developed the concept of a universal moral law. They were influenced by Aristotle's teaching about natural law (fourth century BC). They may have been indirectly influenced by Christianity. St. Augustine (5th century AD) wrote about natural law, and Gratian (11th century) equated natural law with divine law. The medieval scholastic St. Thomas Acquinas (13th century) systematized the "eternal law of divine reason," in a complex formulation which has been heavily borrowed from since that time by natural law theologians, philosophers, and political theorists.

Notice that during the middle ages, the universal moral law was broken free from its old pantheistic associations and firmly associated with Christianity. It was a good fit.

When Pantheism rose again to favor in the eighteenth century, it contained ideas antithetical to the universal moral law. The rejection by some influential pantheists of the universal moral law resulted in a clash of world views. This marked the beginning of a hostility to Christianity by intellectuals influenced by pantheistic ideals. One of the early signs of this clash came during a debate by leading philosophers over the metaphysical implications of the 1750 Lisbon earthquake. Many of the French "encyclopedists" were also hostile to Christianity, but they were a motley crew — some atheists, some empiricists, some deists, and some pantheists.

A major stream of Western Pantheism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century involved a Romantic worship of nature. Under the influence of Rousseau, some Romantics rejected the universal moral law and replaced it with "the general will" and "democratic values." To this day, we can hear liberals and conservatives talk past each other as the liberals speak of an ethics based upon "democratic values" and "social justice," and conservatives speak of an ethics based upon the moral law.

During the eighteenth century, natural law philosophy was popular among some of the deists and favored by some leading philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Kant. This stream of thought influenced the American founding Fathers. All these philosophers except Kant built their foundation upon nature in order to develop ideas of natural law. Man has a nature. Therefore, there must be a natural law and a moral law suitable to man to govern human conduct. Reason can discover this moral law. Some natural law philosophers such as Locke and Kant had ideas that were not far on some points from the universal moral law of Christian theology and of Stoicism. The similarities were especially noticeable on issues which had political and legal implications.

Natural law — a hybrid concept built upon both philosophical and theological foundations — was crucial to the American founding fathers. In contrast, Romantic ideas about the general will, democratic values, and social justice were essential to some of the factions involved in the French revolution and to some of the liberal democracies established in Europe.

We must not place all the blame on Rousseau or on Romantic Pantheism for the rejection of the moral law. Beginning with the Pauline Epistles, the church has been continually fighting against the heresy of antinomianism, which means "against law." The antinomians thought that those who are in a state of grace could violate the moral law with impunity. All the great theologians weighed in on the subject, including those of the Reformation and those who fought the challenge of theological liberalism in the nineteenth and the twentieth century.

The Scottish Enlightenment — and America

Many key thinkers in the French Enlightenment were anticlerical and some were anti-Christian. The Scottish Enlightenment was not. Francis Hutcheson, who was both a Presbyterian pastor and a professor of philosophy, is hailed by some as the Father of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hutcheson emphasized the moral aspect of Christianity. He taught 1) natural law philosophy based upon the study of man in a state of nature, 2) the Greek Classics, and 3) Christian theology — and emphasized the areas of harmony of these three.

(To indulge the reader's curiosity, Hutcheson probably comes from of the same Scottish clan which I do as a Hutchison, and there is a remote possibility of a distant blood relationship.)

Among the many influential voices of the Scottish Enlightenment, the ones most familiar to us are Adam Smith, David Hume, James Boswell, Thomas Reid, James Watt, and Edward Gibbon. Gibbon was an Englishman but intellectually was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The most skeptical voice of the Scottish enlightenment was philosopher David Hume. But Hume developed his own version of a moral law and he did not view Christianity as an enemy of the Enlightenment.

Both the French Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment had an influence on the American founding fathers. But even Jefferson and Franklin, the founders who were most charmed by things French, sometimes spoke in a voice that sounded more like the Scottish Enlightenment than the French. There was heavy immigration by poor but remarkably well-educated Ulster Scots and the Scots from lowland and border precincts of Scotland during the period 1745–1800. This introduced a bias for the Scottish Enlightenment in the American colonies and the early Republic. As a result, Francis Hutcheson's vision of Christian morality in alliance with natural law theory and the classical virtues became the working mainstream reality of American politics.

American politics of the Modern Era: 1800–1970

There was a general consensus about the universal moral law in America from 1800 to 1970. This contributed to the political stability of America — a stability that many other democracies lacked. The conservatives and the moderate liberals were in general agreement about morality. Many who believed in natural law thought that Christian morality, the universal moral law, human rights, and democratic values all come together in a package — which essentially was Hutcheson's insight. The modernist/progressive liberals put more emphasis on the "general will," "democratic values," "pluralism," and "social justice" than did the conservatives, of course. But in mainline American politics, there was no great disagreement about basic moral values. "Social justice" and morality were not in conflict except among those of the far left.

There were transcendentalists, socialists, radicals, free-thinkers, mavericks, and bohemians on the left who rejected the universal moral law — who I shall collectively call "the old left." The Communists in America were an extreme faction of the old left. They carefully developed ideas of "revolutionary justice." What was good for the "revolution" is "moral," they said, and what is bad for the revolution is "immoral." The socialists spoke of "social justice" as the measure of what is moral or immoral — and tried to supplant the old moral law with this new morality.

Such ideas were circulating on the campus in the fifties and sixties, but did not enter the mainstream of the two-party system in America until after 1970. The far-left mavericks were exiled to third parties. The McGovern candidacy of 1972 had hints of the new postmodern leftist sensibility. There was a landslide against him because of a taint of radicalism which hung over him. In spite of this, the rising postmodern left was destined to gradually take over much of the Democratic party.

Postmodern culture in the arts

There was an old Romantic-bohemian tradition of antinomian pantheism in the arts and literature — which finds its origins in the courtly romances of southern France in the twelfth century and had a revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The bohemians thought that whatever was in accord with "love" and "nature" is good. Whatever is against it is evil. They promoted the notion that love and nature rise above the claims of petty bourgeois morality and social conventions. This is why a portion of the arts and literary community have been captured by the political left. However, such persons were seldom handed a political megaphone until the culture war began.

There was a tension between freedom and form in the arts in the nineteenth century. The revolt against the moral law in the name of love and nature went hand in hand with the revolt of freedom against form.

French impressionism struck a rough balance between freedom and form. The impressionist movement burned itself out during the 1880's. The work of the postimpressionists reveal that freedom had triumphed over form. Van Gogh captured the feeling of movement in forms of fluid construction. The forms of Monet's water lilies dissolve into the free expressions of light and color. The Stag at Sharkey's by American postimpressionist George Bellows is about a boxing match in which the painted boxers seem to be moving.

Picasso, who pioneered postmodernism in art, took form through descending stages of deconstruction and disintegration. Jackson Pollock brought abstract expressionism into formless chaos. All this was done in the name of freedom. Yet, I can sense no mood of freedom in Pollock paint drippings — as I can in Van Gogh impressions and Monet's watery expressions and Bellow's vigorous boxers. I feel trapped and suffocated while looking at Pollock's chaos. I learned from Pollock that chaos is the antithesis of freedom. The postmodern impulse to abolish form goes hand in hand with the postmodern impulse to abolish reason and the moral law — and is equally futile in its results. They promise us freedom but would deliver us into bondage.

Postmodern ethics

Not all postmodern liberals are pantheists. Some are nihilists or atheists. Some are nominal or liberal members of Christian churches. Many are cultural determinists of a quasi-Marxist or socialist kind. However, when it comes to ethics, many are influenced by the ethics of nature pantheism — thanks to the ubiquitous influence of the New Age Movement. If everything is part of god, everything is good and nothing is evil. Everyone must be included and almost every kind of behavior must be accepted. The only evil thing is exclusion.

Those who believe in a universal moral law wish to censure or punish those who violate that law. But if evil is an illusion, the censuring and the punishing excludes those who are falsely branded as evil, and wounds the organic wholeness of the body — like cutting off a toe. It is like saying that to cut off the toe with gangrene is evil because it cripples the foot. After all, the appearance of gangrene is just an illusion, is it not? We must learn to be more tolerant and inclusive towards gangrene.

Logically, if everyone and everything is good, then even those who believe in a universal moral law must also be good. But postmoderns sometimes demonize, harrass, and exclude conservative Christians who believe in a universal moral law. This is logically contradictory and hypocritical, of course.

The secret agenda of postmodernism is to include everything except for a moral law. The personal rebellion against morality, especially sexual morality, is one of the core ingredients of postmodernism. It is the heir of the old rebellion of freedom against form, and freedom against higher truth, and freedom against the moral law. A life lived according to these unstable principles is likely to be one of self-absorbed narcissism lived in moral and intellectual anarchy. A life without boundaries. A life out of control. A life with no hope.

Poisoning the wells

Those without hope are bitter and fearful. They will often strike at their enemies with a shocking ferocity. And who are their enemies? They regard their enemies as those who are "exclusive," and "intolerant," especially those who speak of a universal moral law. Why is this?

Well, if one is a depressed narcissist and has no hope, he will live a dismal existence in cramped psychological quarters. He will want to hang onto whatever consolations he has to avoid despair. A universal moral law might threaten the more sensual consolations and some of the more obnoxious traits of his anti-social narcissism. Therefore, he feels he must discredit those who talk about a universal moral law. Let them be insulted, demonized, and intimidated.

Reasonable discourse is not possible with the diehard postmodernist. He is not interested in hearing a logical challenge to his contradictory beliefs, his personal hypocrisy, or the liberal myths he has embraced. Reason is a threat to his postmodern defenses.

Thus, the wells of reason are poisoned. Any appeal to reason will be met by polemical war, complete with ad hominum attacks, ideological slogans, red herrings, and conspiracy-theory allegations.

Tragic outcomes

The breakdown of the American consensus concerning the universal moral law is a tragedy for our nation. We no longer have the stability or the resilience as a nation we once had. Our society is less orderly and our communities are more fragmented. Our families are in trauma.

The poisoning of the wells of reason has placed enormous strain on the political process. Political compromises are more difficult to navigate because the communications have become gamy. The common ground which the left and right may share has shrunk drastically. The belief in a universal moral law, which used to unite our political discourse, now divides us.

The postmodern liberals have lost confidence in the democratic process and have used the courts to make an end run around the legislature. The left — which once devoutly believed in democratic values and the rule of law — has subverted the process of law and the idea of law itself. When judges reinvent the law and rule by fiat, the law is dead. Arbitrary law is the mask of tyranny.

In order to restore democracy and the rule of law, we must fight for the definition of law itself. A starting place might be Francis Hutcheson's idea that the universal moral law is not in contradiction with natural law — and that natural law may be understood through reason. The universal moral law is an objective reality which we discover, not a pragmatic accommodation or an arbitrary innovation. Constitutional and statutory law at its best honors the prior law of nature and the higher law of God. In this light, judges seek to discover the meaning of a law brought on appeal, and not to create law from the bench.

The Scottish Enlightenment came quickly — in not much more than a generation. If we allow our minds to be enlightened with Truth, we can throw back the darkness of Postmodernism in the coming generation.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31