Home > Christian, politics, virtue > Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part I)

Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part I)

There has been a great deal of controversy and discussion over the years in circles at every level of society about the role of religion in politics and government. I think the central cause of this controversy is that we have forgotten the purpose of both institutions and ignored the potential and dangers (and historical faults) of each of them.

Government exists for the protection of its citizens and to ensure order in society. Today in America (and even more in Europe) government has become the catch-all institution for handling the needs and wants of its people. Some consider this transition to be major advance in society. The upgrade in a sense from your basic run-of-the-mill government.  In many senses, it is easy for a Christian to appreciate this view since many of the services which the government ventures into are ones which the Church pioneered (i.e. public health care and education).  Isn’t it wonderful that the central authority of the land is now providing such altruistic services which were previously only available in the isolated locations where religious orders were available and had capacity? Now it’s available to the masses! What could be more charitable than wanting that? What could be more heartless than wanting anything else if that was an option? But I think that perspective misses a central aspect about Christianity, and humanity at large.

A truly Christian nation, by its very essence, must offer freedom. Freedom of religion and freedom for virtue.  A Jewish or a Muslim nation can look to their religious origins and see that the great leaders of their faith in their sacred writings placed their religion at the center of their civil law. Members of those faiths can understandably look to that as a model for their current times. As a Christian, however, I do not have that option. True, my sacred writings include the same ones that my Jewish brothers and sisters reference, but my faith teaches that those writings are fulfilled in the Gospels – in the life of God incarnate. The Old Testament demonstrated our fall from original grace and freedom, into slavery of sin and the laws designed to show our hearts when they were straying. The New Testament is an invitation to each individual to lead a life of freedom and virtue. Jesus made it very clear that he came to change our hearts. The law was a guide for our actions, but as long as we DESIRE to break it, our heart is where the problem lies. And Jesus came to heal our hearts.  His contemporaries expected the standard of religious rule, but instead he came humbly and offered all people a choice.

I think some Christians (myself included) don’t think about this fact in the context of modern government. I can logically see that many Jews didn’t accept Jesus because he didn’t come as a military and government leader to reestablish the kingdom of Israel on earth, but then I catch myself rationalizing that the gospel could have spread so much faster if it was part of the government. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, God didn’t want it to spread faster. If Christ wanted his religion to be a civil law, he would have shown us that in his life and the lives of his apostles would have continued that legacy.  Instead, we find that Jesus told his followers “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” We find that early Christian communities who most fully understood the gospels, “kept everything in common… no one was rich and no one was poor”   but they didn’t do it because they were forced to by the government, they did it because they were compelled by love. Christianity is a call to holiness – a call to be set apart – a call to virtue. And you cannot legislate virtue. It would be like taking a picture of a $100 bill. You can make it look the same, but it would lose the original value. The $100 bill has value because it’s backed by the U.S. treasury. The picture is not.  Similarly, acts only have value as virtue when they are backed by the intent and desire of the actor. A man held at gunpoint and forced to give someone money is not being virtuous, he is being mugged.

Now, some would argue, “OK, maybe it’s not virtuous if you are being forced into actions which we would otherwise consider good, but at least we get the result. Forcing rich people to feed the poor still results in people getting fed. Isn’t that good enough? Aren’t we achieving the proper end-state?” to that, the only Christian answer is “No, we’re missing the point.” Sure, it’s good to see that poor people get food, but Christ did not instruct us to go forth and legislate feeding of the hungry, he told us to do it ourselves.  Now, I’m not implying that the government has no responsibility here, I’m simply implying that it is not where Christians should be assigning the responsibility.

The part that really irritates me about many recent legislative attempts at solving social woes is that the generally favored solution is to pawn the sacrificial aspect off onto someone else.  Imagine if a man were driving home from work one day and saw a kid on the street starving and homeless. In the kindness of his heart, he decides that no child should endure such suffering. So he gets out of his brand new Mercedes walks over to the little one and says, “Child, I don’t know what your past is or what your problems are, but you will never starve or sleep on the street again.” With that, he grabs the child by the hand and walks down the street into a small inn. He asks to speak to the owner and when he meets her, he tells her that this child was out on the street and he would like her to make sure that this child has food to eat and a bed to sleep in for as long as necessary.  The owner is touched by the man’s generosity and, after discussing the details of expected care and supervision, asks how he would like to set up payment for this arrangement. With that, the man looks at her and says, “Oh, you seem to have misunderstood. I won’t be paying for this, you will. You see, I was generous enough to recognize the child’s need and the fact that you could provide a solution. You get to be generous enough to provide it J  By the way, if you fail to provide the standard of care we discussed earlier, I will see to it that your business fails (and yes, I have those kinds of connections).” With that, he smiles, walks out the door struts down the street and hops back into his car and drives home to his 8 bedroom mansion where he tells his wife and three cats about how generous he was today.

Over and over, our legislature seems to pass laws which it is exempt from (take for instance the Affordable Care Act), and we as voters look to solve our nation’s problems by asking other people to shell out the money or provide the services (i.e. tax hikes only on the rich to pay for our national debt or special programs that effect everyone). It may seem to make sense from a utilitarian perspective, but it does not add up from an ethical or theological point of view. Sure, I may be voting for a solution to the problem, but as a guy who makes less than $250k per year, I’m really just voting for someone else to fix my problem.

I should be clear, I don’t have an issue with tax brackets which increase at certain income levels, but voting on a measure that benefits everyone at someone else’s expense just rubs me the wrong way.

This, I believe, is the great confusion of our political age.  We seek to legislate virtue and in so doing only create a resentment for it. The surest way a government can help its society thrive is by protecting its citizens against foreign and domestic evils and empowering them to exercise virtue to address the problems of their age.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit more about what that looks like, but in the meantime let me know what you think…


  1. March 24, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    I follow what you’re saying, and in some ways agree, but it seems both perhaps a bit too idealistic, and also inconsistent with what is being played out in politics right now.

    Ideally, the church should absolutely be at the forefront of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the widows and orphans, as explicitly commanded in both the Old and New Testaments. Also ideally, there should be no government at all, and instead people should be ruled by God alone (1 Sam 8). However, as the Israelites failed to let God govern them, so too does the church fail to fulfill the fullness of its mission to serve the poor and needy. It can’t, won’t, and doesn’t, on its own. In these times, Biblically, I see God approving of governments stepping in.

    As far as legislating morality, I also agree to some extent, but it is a dangerous argument to make. If we say that charity should not be required by law, neither then should any regulation on abortions, drugs, tv censorship, corporate ethics, etc etc… many of these and more are “legislated moralities” heavily fought for by the church, arguably for good reason. I don’t think many Christians would feel right saying the government should never pass laws regarding any of these moral issues.

    I don’t mean to dump everything you say altogether; it is an excellent topic of discussion, one which I think is far too complex for any of us to solve with any kind of finality in the space of a few paragraphs.

    • March 25, 2014 at 5:21 AM

      Thanks for taking the time to respond and great points! In some ways it probably is idealistic, but I don’t think it needs to be as complicated as many people make it out to be. And I certainly agree that my proposal is inconsistent with what is being played out right now in politics. That’s the point 🙂
      As far as your point about the ideal world of the church being at the forefront of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked etc, I think there is pretty compelling evidence that it is, in fact, at the forefront of these virtuous goals. I would love to see a statistic showing that any organization feeds, clothes or cares for more people than the church does. We obviously have not taken care of everybody, and many of us could stand to be more charitable as individuals, but that should be the focus… becoming more generous as INDIVIDUALS and as a VOLUNTARY group of people. That should be a message of pastors and Christian groups (as it is for many).
      Mind you though, the primary focus of Christianity is love of Christ, not acts of charity. Acts of charity are a natural fruit of that love, but not the only or always the primary one. The only interaction which Jesus specifically commanded be told in the spreading of the gospel was the account of a woman anointing him with expensive perfumed oil. Critics pointed out that it could have been sold to feed the poor, but Jesus insisted that she had chosen a more virtuous expense of that resource. “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 14:7) Christ did not come to end all earthly suffering and he never instructed his followers to even try. He did however perpetuate the example found in the Old Testament and in many ways up the ante of what type of charity is expected out of a follower of God.
      As far as the idea that God does not want there to be any government at all, that may have been the intent for the Jewish people at a time in distant history, but when Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets, he did not teach anything about a return to that standard. Instead, he inspired Paul to write, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)
      As to your caution about the legislating morality part, you are making the exact point which I will elaborate on in the second half of this blog. I finished this one by stating, “The surest way a government can help its society thrive is by protecting its citizens against foreign and domestic evils and empowering them to exercise virtue to address the problems of their age.” Protecting citizens against “foreign and domestic evils…” requires a determination of what is actually evil. This is the aspect where the government MUST legislate morality. Not in trying to force virtue on everybody, but in trying to limit the vices that are permissible within society. I think that we can see a bit of both being requested in this day and age.
      Thanks again for the great comments and please keep them coming!

  1. September 21, 2015 at 6:34 AM

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