You Actually Can’t Avoid Legislating Morality

posted in: Philosophy, Politics | 0

Postmodern philosophy in the West tells us we must avoid legislating morality at all costs.  I couldn’t disagree more. Not only can we legislate morality, we can’t help doing so.

A Gentlemen’s Disagreement

I recently got into a couple of friendly debates with Phil, an old buddy of mine from high school about the candidates running for President in 2016, specifically Senator Ted Cruz who I had just recently endorsed on the blog.  My old friend is a sincere Christian, but he’s also a bit of a libertarian.  One of Phil’s chief concerns is that given Ted Cruz’s outspoken faith in Jesus, as President he might impose Christian morality on America with a heavy hand.

Phil assures me this would prove worse than fruitless as non-Christians not only failed to successfully follow a Christian morality they don’t themselves believe, but would then come to resent the United States government, sincere Christians, and Christ himself even more than they already do, dismissing us all as a lot of legalistic oppressors and cruel tyrants.

My position is that someone’s morality is going to prevail, it’s only a question of whose. As Christians, we should be more concerned with offending Almighty God than with incurring more of the resentment of our fellow man which Jesus assured us will be ours as a natural consequence of being his followers.  Especially in a nation like America where the population has historically been and arguably still is comprised by a majority of people who at least profess to be Christians, we can make no other choice in good conscience when we have the ability to vote.  We must prefer candidates who shares our beliefs and convictions about what constitutes good and evil, wisdom and folly.  This is how every other demographic approaches their decision of who to vote for, and Christians should feel not the least bit of guilt for having the same attitude.

Now Phil and I have debated these and related questions in general terms off-and-on for several years, and I’ve greatly enjoyed our debates.  I still look back often on the long discussions we’ve had about these things as thought-provoking opportunities for my own opinions and convictions to be challenged, improved, sharpened, and in many ways matured as a direct result of our dialog.

Yet the fundamental differences in view held between Phil and I have remained largely the same after years of debate.  Though I respect and regard him as a sincere Christian brother, Phil and I continue to have a gentlemen’s disagreement on the question of what government’s role and responsibility should be in relation to morality, especially when there is a Christian in charge of that government, or when there is a body of Christians capable of choosing a Christian to be in charge.

You Actually Can't Avoid Legislating Morality

Separation of Church and State

In America, “Separation of Church and State” is a phrase loved most ardently by secularists and those who object to any hint of Biblical beliefs or the Christian faith in particular in government or the public square.  This phrase, mistakenly supposed by many to be a direct quote from the United States Constitution, is played often as a trump card in the face of arguments that make mention of what God says or what is universally good and evil.  The proponents of “Separation of Church and State” would have us believe that all things must be debated and resolved only in relation to their naturalistic consequences, whether positive or negative.  There is for these secularists no room for legislating morality because there must be an insurmountable wall enforcing the “Separation of Church and State.”

“America is not a Christian nation” is another statement that usually comes into play in conversations about legislating morality in the United States.  Similar to the secularists insisting on “Separation of Church and State”, those who make this assertion believe that, regardless how many Christians live in America, our society and system of government is not and should never be inherently Christian.  After all, it is true that many Americans do not subscribe strictly or at all to the Christian religion.

Even if we were a Christian nation, those who consider themselves Christians in America are divided into many different denominations.  There are Protestants and Roman Catholics. Many Americans are Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and so on and so forth.  So which denomination’s interpretation of Christian morality would America choose even if we were a Christian nation? This is a fair question.

As a consequence of these prevailing attitudes, God-talk in politics is rarely welcome these days, except insofar as candidates or pundits refer panderingly to voters and citizens subscribing to many faiths, believing in and worshiping God in many different ways, or not at all.

The vapid phrase “God bless America” is bandied about frequently in political speeches and on our currency.  Yet strangely, for all the talk of how we supposedly want God to bless our nation, hackles are raised anytime the suggestion is given that we should actively seek God’s blessings on our country by honoring Him as a nation.

Case-in-point: if you as an individual American object to a proposed action or law being put forth by this or that candidate, official, or party on the grounds that God tells us in the Bible this or that thing which is contrary to the underlying presuppositions of said action or law, every effort will be made to shout you down with a chorus of angry assurances that you cannot legislate morality.  

When I take to social media to castigate the Pro-Choice movement for defending infanticide, my opponents can smell my Christian faith from a mile away even before I’ve brought it up.  That’s why they immediately rush to head me off at the pass by abusing both me and my faith in God and the Bible.  Their knee-jerk reaction is to tell me that it doesn’t matter whether either Christ or Christians like and approve of abortions because we can’t legislate morality in America.  Case closed, end of debate, everyone pack up and go home.  In their minds, my argument is invalidated by bearing the slightest relation to my deeply held religious beliefs.

But is that really true?  Can we not legislate morality?

Why Can’t We Legislate Morality?

What’s really meant by the claim that “you can’t legislate morality” is we shouldn’t impose our beliefs about right and wrong on other people.  What is meant is that we must avoid legislating morality.  But why?  Why must we avoid it?

I’m not an oppressive tyrant in my own home when my Christian faith leads me to require my children to not swear or bludgeon one another over the heads or lie or cheat or steal.  And this fact does not change depending on whether my children know, understand, like, or agree with my convictions about what is right and wrong.  My strongly-held convictions about right and wrong must guide the way I train and discipline my children or else I am a bad parent.  Parenting without conviction is like a ship without a rudder being tossed about on the oceans aimlessly, going wherever the waves may take it.

Ironically, someone saying it’s unfair or unjust to legislate morality must themselves bring morality into the discussion by first assuming that there is a universal standard of fairness or justice against which they’ve measured legislating morality and found it wanting.

In other words, it’s wrong to tell people to do or not do things when they disagree with you about whether those things are right or wrong to do.  So don’t tell people to do or not do things, except when it comes to telling them not to tell people to do or not do things.  Do you see the problem with that line of reasoning?

This is a self-defeating argument, much like saying there are absolutely no absolutes.  By referring to a universal standard of fairness and justice which legislating morality would violate, the opponents of legislating morality have defeated their own argument against applying an absolute or universal standard of morality to other people.

Beyond questions of whether we can or should legislate morality, however, the real question in my mind is whether anyone can actually avoid legislating morality.

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How Christians Should Govern

In Luke 10:27, Jesus said that the greatest command is:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah summarized our responsibilities before God very neatly when he wrote:

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

In light of this, how can a Christian in any of the three branches of American government – legislative, judicial, or executive – approach their governmental duties in such a way that they’re loving the Lord their God with every part of themselves?  Can they know what real justice is much-less “do it” if they’re constrained to only take positions which un-Christian people hostile to the things of God will agree with? No, they can’t.

Furthermore, there’s no difference between, on the one hand, requiring someone to not murder their neighbor because the Bible says murder is a sin against God, and, on the other hand, requiring someone to not murder their neighbor because the global community by and large frowns on that sort of thing.  If the would-be murderer sees no reason why he should be prevented from murdering his neighbor, you are either “cruelly oppressing” him or not either way.

Consider slavery in American history.  Was Abraham Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation the right thing to do so long as he made that decision from purely secular or utilitarian political calculations?  Or will we suppose President Lincoln freeing black slaves was a mistake given the fact that the abolitionist movement in America was largely made up of devout Christians who believed strongly that owning slaves and treating them like so many cattle was a sin in the eyes of a Holy God?  Was Lincoln imposing Christian morality on America by freeing the blacks from oppression and bondage, and was he erring in-so-doing if it was his Christian faith that motivated him to?

Or consider our fight against Nazi Germany during WWII.  Was it a mistake to totally defeat the Nazis and liberate the Jews who were being gassed and shot and buried alive and starved to death and experimented on?  Or was that only okay if America wasn’t motivated to do such things by the Christian character of her people or absolute, universal standards of good and evil, right and wrong?

Or what about abortion?  When 3,000 babies are murdered in America every day, the greater risk to our individual souls or society comes not if Christian morality is imposed on America to stop the perpetual slaughter, but rather if we sit idly by and allow that butchery to continue.  It will be no more or less fair and just if a future American government makes it illegal to continue murdering American babies in their mothers’ wombs if that decision is made through secular reasoning rather than a conviction of God’s eternal truth and justice.

Circumstances such as these make clear that there are moments and situations in which neutrality is not an option, where no man or nation still possessing a soul or conscience can sit idly by and allow evil men to run free and unopposed.  The godless may indeed criticize Christians for trying to legislate morality and acting like prudes and busybodies when they intervene without welcome in wickedness and folly, but if Christians had sat idly by and done nothing in places like Nazi Germany or the slave-holding South, where would the world be?  The world would say Christians do not know God because we care not a whit for the oppressed and the downtrodden.  

Yet whatever the world says, whether it applauds or jeers us, we must not allow it to bid us come and go as it pleases.  Make no mistake, it will jeer more often than it applauds, if it ever applauds in our lifetime, and this is because it sees our claims of absolute, universal truth as fundamentally contrary to its wickedness, folly, and perversion.

Will America Even Tolerate Christians?

Let’s be honest. The question in America right now is not whether Christians will be allowed to impose their morality on others, but whether even Christians themselves will be permitted to live according to their deeply held convictions.  Once again, the question is not whether someone’s beliefs will be imposed on those who disagree with them, but rather whose standard of right and wrong will be imposed on who that disagrees with it.  Once again, you can’t avoid legislating morality.

Think about the debate of recent years over “marriage equality.”  One side in this hotly contested struggle has been decidedly heavy-handed and oppressive, but it hasn’t been the Christians in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage. 

We saw a clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky thrown in jail last year when she refused to be a party to something she believed would’ve attached her name to a practice that is absolutely wicked and depraved.  All it took was a 5-4 decision from the United States Supreme Court to fundamentally transform what had been Davis’ original job scope when she took the position of county clerk into something which violated her conscience. And when Kim Davis refused to go along to get along, the precedent was made clear for all to see that Christian convictions rather than homosexuality can now place an American behind bars.  This was undeniably legislating morality, only it was a new morality being legislated to wreak vengeance on the old.

For an even more troubling example, look at the Christian bakers in Oregon who lost their business and were pilloried before the nation and the world by a Leftist mainstream media, dragged into court, muzzled by the judge, and ordered to pay over $100,000 in fines for emotional damages to lesbians who were either incredibly overly-sensitive or very opportunistic.  And for what?  Because those Christian bakers felt it would be a violation of their sincere love for and devotion to God to have any part in a wedding ceremony they believe is inherently and irredeemably sinful.  Once again, an example was made of how little tolerance the American government now has for individual Christians living according to their personal convictions.  Once again morality was legislated, only it was a new morality, a new standard of justice and fairness to repeal and replace the old.

Considering these and other similar situations, is it imposing Christian morality on America when a candidate for political office declares emphatically that the government should not be promoting the LGBT movement and punishing those private citizens and groups objecting to it or calling it sinful perversion?  I can think of not a single public figure who is right now even remotely suggesting that homosexuality ought to be outlawed or criminalized, though it certainly used to be in all these United States.  But is it too great a thing for Christians to vote with their conscience for the Federal government to discontinue empowering the LGBT movement, acting as it’s muscle to persecute Christians for merely agreeing with the Bible on what is or is not sin?

There should be no objection from Christians to having a Christian in office who respects the religious liberty of Christians to conscientiously object to affirming or participating in what they sincerely believe to be a sinful lifestyle.  That should be a bare minimum on which we would all agree.

Standing up for both the United States Constitution and the Bible at the same time should mean that a Christian President can respect the religious liberty of those who disagree with him while still refusing to affirm and promote wickedness.  By no reasonable measure is that iron-fisted or oppressive Christianity. Indeed, a brief glance further back than the revisionists of the modern era shows that to be the historical American tradition.

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You Can’t Avoid Legislating Morality

Name one law which does not presuppose a standard of right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice.  The fact is that all legislation assumes one standard of morality or another.  Even the most corrupt laws – such as those which used to ban blacks and whites from intermarrying or which now protect abortion – assume that the law will help achieve a genuine good or stave off an undesired evil.

The only question is whose morality will prevail.  And if you would say morality should not be legislated, you’re essentially saying there should be no legislation and no laws whatsoever.  You’re essentially advocating anarchy when you say there should be no morality, or that morality should not be imposed.

Assuming we must legislate morality, therefore, how will we determine what is right and wrong?  Maybe we can just crowd-source our morality to the world, conduct a poll of all the religions and cultures of Earth to see what common ground we can come to. For instance, everyone at least agrees murder is wrong.

Let’s ask 1.6 billion Mohammedans to decide for us whether it’s murder to stone people when they blaspheme Mohammed or the Koran.

Let’s poll 1.3 billion Chinese on whether it’s murder for the State to kill one of the twins a mother gives birth to when she’s exceeded by giving birth to both of them the permitted number of offspring which the Chinese government said she could have.

There’s just one problem with that plan.  Neither of these two large populations can be trusted to vote that these things are murder, and if morality is a question of votes both Muslims and Chinese will vastly outnumber and overrule roughly 320 million Americans, regardless how much we disagree with them, regardless how wrong they are.

So what if most major religions agree that murder is wrong? Who cares if most of humanity agrees that murder should be against the law because it is evil?  The Devil is in the details. There are many exceptions to what is or is not considered murder depending on which religion, culture, or government you’re asking.  And the issue of murder is just one example, but you can already see the can of worms opened with such an approach to deciding our moral code.

These are the sorts of problems created by crowdsourcing your ethics to the rest of the world.  The world is corrupt and wicked, and its definitions of good and evil are twisted and perverse accordingly.  Therefore it should be apparent to Christians that we cannot look to the world to tell us what’s right and wrong, or to decide for us what our standards will be.

Indeed, it would seem a gross injustice for any Christian to prefer the world’s morality over what God has told us is right and wrong.  If Jesus is as he said, “The Way, The Truth, and The Life,” why would we look to lost and dying sinners to show us another way, to tell us something truer, or to give us better rules by which to live?  The simple answer is that we wouldn’t.

Not only is it okay to legislate morality, we cannot avoid legislating morality.  The only real choice we have is whose definitions of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice we will live under.  And that is a choice we should take very seriously, and only make after much prayer and meditation on God’s Word.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.