I have come to realize a defining issue for Christians is the Church’s relationship to the State, particularly in matters of morality. The Constitution is a pluralist document. It does not go “on the record” for or against one particular religion, though Christianity certainly loomed large in the philosophical and moral shaping of the founders by dint of their culture. Instead, it guarantees religious freedom of conscience for all.
That much isn’t too controversial. The controversy comes with this question: what moral values should therefore inform legislation?
Every piece of legislation, every value judgment by the State, comes from some objective or otherwise “authoritative” and recognized moral standard. The line that “we cannot legislate morality” is both true and false. It’s true in that we can’t change people’s hearts, but every criminal law on the books in local, State and Federal jurisdictions recognizes the deterrent value in having penalties to curb otherwise “immoral” actions (e.g. murder, sexual assault, etc.). As long as there was a broad, implicit consensus about the content of morality (in America’s case, a generic Christian-ish deism), then people could reasonably be on the same page. This is no longer the case.
Morality is legislated all the time. It certainly was in Bostock v. Clayton County, this past summer—a decision akin to Roe v. Wade for the transgender issue. The difference is we have competing and antithetical moral value judgments in our society; judgments that come from very different philosophical worlds. In this sense, I’m not certain pluralism is really tenable. It seemed like it could be if people operated from a common moral and epistemological foundation, even something as generic as a Christian ceremonial deism. But, that isn’t the case today.
Consider this excerpt from the splendid book by Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. He recounts what ensued after yet another attempt by Christian lobbyists to amend the Constitution to proclaim explicit allegiance to Jesus as King in 1896 (p. 109):
For me, this is a true puzzle. I am doing research right now for a short book about the evolution of sexual mores in American society by examining key U.S. Supreme Court decisions from Roe v. Wade to Bostock v. Clayton County. I plan to examine each decision, and the accompanying transcripts of oral arguments and legal briefs, and provide a succinct analysis from a conservative Christian perspective. Of course, this means I’ll immediately come up against the Church’s relationship to the State regarding moral legislation.
I have much to read on Christian political philosophy and natural law. But, right now, these are my thoughts:
- Every State must identify a foundation from whence it draws its ideas about morality. After all, we will always legislate someone’s morality. We should be honest about that.
- Pluralism is a chimera unless the people have some shared epistemological foundation from which to argue, even if that foundation is something as generic as a Christian-ish deism.
- The United States used to have such a generally shared foundation, but no longer does. So, the public square arguments about morality will continue to escalate.
- Therefore, I am not certain an ostensible pluralism is a viable way forward in today’s Western culture, where morality is largely determined by majority consensus.
- But, I am uncertain what a Christian response to this environment ought to be. Here is where the concept of soul liberty clashes with the imperative to advocate for future kingdom values. Should Christians, for example, really be “for” something God hates (e.g. drag queen “story hour”) in order to uphold pluralism and religious liberty for all?
I don’t have answers to any of this. It’s some measure of comfort to me that Gaines Foster, author of Moral Reconstruction, didn’t have the answer, either. He ends his book with this line:
The fundamental tension built into the moral polity of the early republic thus persists two centuries later: a democratic republic needs a moral citizenry but cannot force its citizens to be moral.Moral Reconstruction, p. 234