Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is it OK to Legislate Morality?

Here is another question I recently received:
1)      When talking about Christianity and politics you will always seek to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  How can a Christian decide which of God’s values should be enforced by law and which should be enforced by other means?

This is a very good question calling for a great deal of careful thought.  We should note first that everybody legislates morality—even the atheist—for morality expresses the values we hold dear and laws are the codification of those values.  So the really important and interesting question is not whether we should legislate morality, but rather which morality we should seek to legislate—your question.

First, some of God’s laws go straight to the human heart and are, for that reason, unenforceable by human law.  These should remain off the books.  I am thinking, for example, of the first and the tenth commandments (“You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not covet”).  There are other  divine laws that address human public behavior and need enforcement for the purposes of limiting human selfishness and cruelty.  “You shall not kill”, “you shall not steal”, “you shall not bear false witness,” and possibly “caring for the poor and marginalized” all belong to this category.  The Christian and the non-Christian can often find common ground in these areas.  But even here it gets tricky: Abortion in my view is a form of killing that should have laws written against it—but what precise form should they take (what form of the law is likely to pass, what should the sanctions be for breaking the law when so many don’t view the unborn as a person, and what provisions should be made in the case of rape and other special circumstances).   How about killing in a war if the war is not a just one (and who decides whether a war is just or not)?  Or take the command against stealing.  What constitutes stealing, and what sorts of stealing should we write laws about (Are excessive interest rates stealing?  Are certain executive salaries outside the range of what is fair and just and therefore a form of stealing from share-holders and employees?  Who decides?). 

Even trickier are laws that pertain to marriage and sexual behavior.  Christians may agree, for example, that gay sex and therefore gay marriage are wrong, but they may in good conscience disagree on the best way to advance the cause of traditional marriage in our culture.  Some may earnestly believe that legislation is not the way to go, that it will only drive gay people from the church; others may be convinced that legislation is the way to go.   And how, even if Christians all agreed that gay sex should be forbidden by law,  would such laws be enforced? 

So the answer to the “which law” question is nuanced.  Christians should think and talk about the question, refining their thinking and knowing that they may well have to live with the fact that they will come out in different places on the question in particular instances.  For this reason, I believe that pastors, speaking on behalf of Christ from the pulpit, should be very reluctant to dictate on the question.   As private citizens, not speaking for Christ, but simply talking about their own view in informal conversation, they can and should speak their mind.