Can we legislate morality
By: Robert E. Meyer
Recently a writer of a letter to the editor opined about a columnist who criticized the pro-life position, smearing it recklessly with predictable stereotypes and mischaracterizations.
The letter writer made an appeal, encouraging a return to a higher level of social moral consciousness. In the “comments” feature of the paper where his letter appeared, he was reliably greeted with a chorus of protests, at least one that claimed we’re entitled to believe as we choose, but can’t impose our morality on anyone else (It should be emphasized such advocacy never actually forces morality on anyone).
While such boilerplate warnings sound appropriate and seem well intentioned, they are ultimately self-contradictory, not reflecting reality. They are as much misguided as they are misinformed.
The often quoted bromide that “You can’t legislate morality,” is literally a fiction, but in addition, the statement’s actual contextual meaning is misunderstood. The real point of the statement is that you can’t make rebellious people into good citizens merely by passing laws. They must have internal moral guidance or they will pervert true liberty into limitless autonomy.
All legislative actions enforce someone’s view of morality on society. Something as benign as a stop sign imposes the common priorities of concern for safety, right of way, and rejection of unlimited personal autonomy. All government’s legislate morality of some kind, but that action is inadequate without wilful compliance.
It is difficult, if not impossible to govern and delegate the blessings of liberty to a lawless people. President John Adams statement “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” reflects the truth that liberty actualized without the guidance of common internal moral strictures, produces dissonance and mayhem.
The clichés referencing the “imposition of morality” tend to specifically target religious convictions, mistakenly equating the right to “religious liberty” with mere “freedom of worship.” Even countries with poor human rights reputations, proudly claim their citizens have “freedom of worship,” which is only a minor component of the many implications of religious liberty. Liberal secularists frequently pooh-pooh claims of infringements on religious liberty by counter-claiming that no religious people have been deprived of their right to worship here in America.
“Freedom of worship” is an issue of personal piety, while “religious liberty” entails more, carrying the assumption that religious convictions have equal access to the marketplace of ideas influencing culture.
Some will want to put a wrench in this argument by asking if I would promote the implementation of institutions like Sharia Law, which are religiously based. The answer is that those beliefs which are too onerous, or do not reflect the national consciousness, will be rejected from the legislative process.
Our Constitution in principle, rather than words, calls for a functional and jurisdiction separation between the institutions of church and state. It does not require an ideological separation of public policy and religious precept. This misappropriation is a common staple of latter day secular mythology.
Anyone who has read Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s treatise “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” must be impressed by the fact that King tied the quest for racial equally to religious conviction grounded in the created order. Would anyone oppose racial equality because King tethers it to theology?
The extended quotation of Dr. King appears below.
“One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality”
Any suggestion that religious conviction should never shape public policy, is, well…unnatural.