White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Legislating Morality

Published Monday, August 27, 2007 By John Warwick Montgomery

In the earlier days of our nation’s history, this dilemma, though always present in theory, was not especially troublesome in practice, since the vast majority of people–the “men on the street”–at least gave lip service to the biblical faith. But now religious and philosophical diversity has reached such a point in the United States that attempts to promote any particular religious position are sure to draw fire from adherents of other views. And the Supreme Court, in its school prayer decisions and other similar judgments, has made plain that it will not tolerate even indirect means of “establishing religion” in subversion of the First Amendment.

This is precisely the agonizing situation which encourages Professor Singer in his Theological Interpretation of American History to argue that in choosing democracy we departed from biblical faith and that the only genuinely scriptural form of government is theocracy! He at least recognizes a very real problem: in any democratic society, the number of non-Christians can conceivably come to exceed the number of Christians, thereby permitting the elimination of biblical standards and the inevitable collapse of that society. Even the constitutional exclusion of “certain unalienable rights” from democratic revision does not solve the problem, for–as in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, where the court redefined “person” in nonbiblical terms so as to exclude the unborn child from constitutional protection of his right to life–a non-Christian Supreme Court can reinterpret the Constitution so as to alienate the very rights supposedly removed forever from alienation. The answer, however, is hardly a theocracy, for the problem of “watching the watchers” is just as real there, and the possibilities of hypocrisy are considerably greater. But how can we deal with the secularization process in our existing democratic society, where the climate of opinion becomes less distinctively less Christian as every day passes? I suggest three fundamental ground rules.

(1) It is no solution to institutionalize Christian values, even if our Constitution permitted it, which it does not. America cannot be considered a Christian land in the sense that a specific corpus of doctrine has been incorporated into its founding documents: these documents establish a concept of freedom and of inalienable rights which is thoroughly biblical, but they expressly disavow the establishment of religion. If, therefore, misguided rightist Christians try to argue that nonetheless the founding documents do make Christianity our national faith (on the basis of general references to the “Supreme Being” and eternal principles), they end up promoting, not historic, biblical Christianity at all, but what Robert Bellah calls “civil religion,” a vague national cult virtually indistinguishable from Deism–and that does Christianity more harm than good, for it obscures the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Moreover, as such widely diverse writers as Cushing Strout, Martin Marty, and Justice William O. Douglas have observed, the establishment of Christianity in England and elsewhere has done Christianity irreparable harm, since people no longer come to regard Christianity as a matter of free decision but as a state obligation, and therefore turn from it.

In The Bible and the Schools, Douglas noted quite properly that “what the Roman Catholics, the Baptists, or the Presbyterians can command of the public treasury, or in other public support, so in time can the Moslems or the Mormons as they grow politically stronger.” A few years ago I gave politically conservative Harold John Ockenga some worrisome moments when at his “historic Park Street Church” in Boston I declared, as a Christian Education Conference speaker, that I fully agreed that prayer in public schools should be banned. It is perfectly obvious that such prayers either open up the possibility of Mormon or Moslem prayers, or promote “non-sectarian” prayers which are just as bad, since they are not Trinitarian prayers in the Name of Jesus (Col. 3:17). If we want to integrate historic Christian worship with the educational task, the parochial school is the remedy. We cannot expect the state to do the church’s business. Where it attempts to do so or is made to do so, the result is utter confusion of Law and Gospel and the mixing of the Two Kingdoms. In C. S. Lewis’ terms, Aslan (the Christ-symbol) and Tash (the Antichrist) are syncretistically blended into the monster “Tashlan.” Marty is correct that ours is no longer the “placed” Christianity of Constantine or of the medieval “Corpus Christianum“; we have both the agony and the privilege, like the early Christians, of functioning in a pluralistic society as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” having “here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.”

(2) It is no solution to legislate non-revelational mores in the name of revelation, or to legislate even genuinely scriptural moral teachings when they do not have direct and demonstrable social necessity. Christians have as much a right as non-Christians to speak out and to influence legislation in our democratic society. The question is: how far should we go in exercising this right? On the negative side, they do neither the society nor the Gospel any service when they endeavor to legislate their own temporal values (such as prohibition, local liquor options, specific Sunday closing laws, and the like) as if these derived from Scripture. The result can only be a loss of respect on the non-Christian’s part for the Scripture if he becomes convinced that the non-revelational idea really does come from the Bible, or a loss of respect for professing Bible-believers if he discovers it doesn’t. And if Christians employ their majority status to legislate genuine biblical teaching which, however, cannot be demonstrated to the non-Christian to have social necessity (such as anti-profanity ordinances), they will surely drive the unbeliever away from the Cross by giving him the impression that Christianity is a religion not of the Gospel but of tyrannical legalism in which Christians force their peculiar beliefs on others whenever the political opportunity arises. As I stress in my book, The Law above the Law, Christians often forget that there is a Last Judgment coming that will right the wrongs which human legislation is incapable of rectifying. We must not get the idea that every moral truth in Scripture is to be implemented on earth by human sanctions. Our task in a secular society is not to force the society, come what may, into a framework for God’s Kingdom, but rather to bring it as close as we can to divine standards consistent with effective Gospel preaching to the unbeliever.

(3) We should actively strive to legislate all revelational standards whose societal importance can be demonstrated to our fellow citizens, and where we are unsuccessful in legislating them we should do all in our power to create a climate of opinion in which they will eventually become acceptable.In many instances not only are the ethical concerns of the day pronounced upon by Scripture, but the validity of the scriptural position on them is independently demonstrable to a non-Christian audience. Thus, for example, open housing and equal pay for equal work (Acts 17:26; Gal. 3:28), stringent narcotics laws and rigorous enforcement of them (1 Cor. 6:19-20), anti-abortion laws (Ps. 51:5; Luke 1:15, 41, 44)–in all these instances a powerful case can be made on scientific, social, and ethical grounds meaningful to the non-Christian, apart from the biblical justification for these same values. Christians have a holy responsibility to serve as lights in the world in such instances, and where they succeed in bringing about an elevation of societal standards they can point the non-Christian to the revelational source of their beliefs, thereby creating a powerful impetus for the unbeliever to consider the claims of Christ. Seeing their light so shining, the non-Christian will be impressed by their good works and glorify their Father in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).

Tension remains, however, and it cannot be overcome in a secular society; it is the price of living in a fallen world. On the one hand, we must not permit the non-Christian to conclude from our political or social actions that Christianity is a religion of legalistic compulsion. Thus, in matters such as divorce legislation, we may well conclude, as I have argued elsewhere, that a parallel no-fault divorce ought to be available to those who want it, since to compel non-Christians to divorce according to Christian standards when they have married according to pagan standards is to lay upon them a burden they may not be able to bear. “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” Yet, on the other hand, short of creating a stumbling block to the non-Christian that would keep him from the Cross, we need to push pluralistic America toward biblical values until it says “uncle”–for only by the maintenance of God’s standards can we counteract the “leveling” process which brings us to lowest-common-denominator secularity and jeopardizes our very survival as a free people.

We must not, for example, conclude that because Christianity cannot be preached in the public schools, we can do nothing to prevent the teaching of Deistic civil religion, evolutionary secularism, Transcendental Meditation, or the latest religio-cultic fad. The same Constitution that protects obnoxious Mrs. O’Hair from having Christianity rammed down the throats of her offspring protects the Christian school child from metaphysical poison. Christians should scream bloody murder at school board meetings where their constitutional rights are being trampled and should litigate the issues in the courts when they do not obtain satisfaction. Positively, Christian teachers in the public schools have every right, as well as a clear moral obligation, to introduce the facts of biblical history and the objective accomplishments of the Christian church into their instruction, and they should encourage open, free, and non-evangelistic discussion of religious issues (in which the merits of Christ’s Way will readily surface!) as a necessary part of liberal education. After a careful discussion of the legal and constitutional issues involved, attorney Christopher Hall rightly argues:

The manner in which educators evade a discussion of values indicates that there is danger of overemphasizing discretion. Given the nation-wide misunderstanding of the nature and extent of the court rulings in this area, it is all too easy for the Christian teacher to utterly fail to share his or her faith because they “do not want to stir up trouble.” Put in these words, no Christian anywhere would want to “stir up trouble.” Had the early Church thought of it in that way, Peter would not have defied the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-20 and 5:27-29) and Paul would not have offended the “devout and honorable women, and the chief men” of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:46-50).

Harold O. J. Brown does not exaggerate when he speaks of the “passivity of American Christians” and the gutless manner in which so many professing evangelicals abrogate their responsibilities to their society in the interest of “not offending.”

If we have any reason for existence as a nation, it is surely our historic stand for freedom–freedom without which living becomes mere existence–that freedom which is a necessary condition for the meaningful proclamation of the eternal riches of Christ. In Lincoln’s most famous evocation of freedom, he did not limit himself to his own country, but declared: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” And Julia Ward Howe, a year earlier, made the essential connection between God’s redemptive work in Christ and the national purpose to which we are (or should be) committed: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Christians must not be content with their own freedom; nor should they be even remotely perceived to be out to undermine the freedoms of their unbelieving neighbors, but must never be satisfied until their neighbors enjoy the same peace, safety, and freedom as they. When we, as freedom-loving people, no longer are willing to die for the freedom of others, we shall no longer merit freedom for ourselves.

For Further Reading

For examples of such argumentation relative to the abortion issue–which Professor Witherspoon of the University of Texas School of Law rightly considers the gravest moral and constitutional issue of our day–see the Human Life Review, and my contributions to Birth Control and the Christian, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Jurist.

Gary Scott Smith, ed., God & Politics (P & R).

  • John Warwick Montgomery