Washington -- What if the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who sit in judgment of Clarence Thomas could be questioned on their views of the origin of laws and rights? What an education the American people might get.
A clue to the thinking of the more liberal senators may be found in Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden's op-ed piece last Sunday in the Washington Post. In it, Mr. Biden rejects the idea that God-given rights imply a moral code. Writing about natural law, he says, ''We must never forget that the central natural-law commitment made by this country is the commitment to individual freedom.'' His idea of freedom, though, differs from the Founders'. Their concept of freedom and its limits was clearly rooted outside themselves.
The Founders drew on existing bodies of knowledge and did not create new ideas when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When Thomas Jefferson spoke of ''The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,'' these were not idle phrases -- they had a reference point.
When Jefferson said that ''all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,'' he said something of profound and universal importance. Equally important was what followed. Jefferson wrote, ''That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.''
None of these phrases should be read in isolation from the others. They form a pattern, and each sentence or clause leads )) to the next. Rights are not granted by government. They are endowed by our Creator. It is government's role to secure those rights which the Creator has endowed, and not to make up rights (or remove already endowed rights).
The laws that flow from this world view are known as ''natural law,'' which Jefferson referred to as ''The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God.'' As John Whitehead, a constitutional attorney, has written in his book, ''An American Dream'': ''Here we find expressed what is universal rather than parochial, what is
permanent rather than transient, in the American Revolution . . . . No other political document of the 18th century proclaims so broad a purpose. No political document of our own day associates the United States so boldly with universal history in the cosmic system.''
Because of the relativism that infects modern American thinking, such ideas are nearly foreign to us today. ''Truths today,'' writes Mr. Whitehead, ''must earn their way, as it were, having to submit their credentials to the test of the laboratory and the computer. Moreover, even if they pass these, they are regarded with suspicion and confined to strict limits of time and place. The colonists, however, because of the influence of Christianity, were confident that the reason of man could penetrate to ultimate truth, and that that truth, once discovered (or apprehended), was not only as self-evident as a maxim of Euclid, but was both permanent and universal.''
The historian Henry Steele Commager understood what the Founders sought to establish when he wrote, ''What Americans did was more important than invent new principles; in the telling phrase of John Adams, 'they realized the theories of the wisest writers.' They actualized them, they legalized them, they institutionalized them.''
If Mr. Biden and other senators have a different view of the origin of law and rights than the Founders, if they think natural law means something other than what the Founders believed it meant, they should be required to say so explicitly. Further, they should explain what they believe to be the flaws in the Founders' thinking and why their views are to be judged superior to those of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and others.
, That might enlighten us all.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.