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Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part III)

September 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Responsibility of Christian Officials and Activists: Benefit of the Law

I wrote two articles on this subject quite a while ago detailing my thoughts on the role of government and how Christians should aim to influence it (Part I and Part II). The recent discussions of Kim Davis’ refusal to allow issuance of wedding licenses in Kentucky reminded me that there are some other aspects of our faith and politics that are worthy of discussion. Namely:

  1. The responsibility of Christian government officials in executing their office consistent with both their faith AND their job description and;
  2. The responsibility of those Christians who choose to lobby, blog and express their opinions for freedom, logic and Natural Law to stand up (charitably) against illogical, uncharitable or inappropriate points of view claiming Christian or Biblical legitimacy.

Let me explain further:

1.)

My previous posts talked about the role of government and what I think Christian citizens should advocate for in that government. There are, however, some additional caveats for those who chose to take a position of public trust and are employees of the State (especially those who are officials of some sort). In America, government employees do have a right to express their opinions and actively seek changes to the law of the land- as private citizens. They do not, however, have the right to ignore their government appointed duties because they disagree with them. This is a responsibility that we, as Christians, should cherish and regard highly. We should love the fact that police officers are required to protect us, regardless of their personal beliefs, when we legally march for the dignity of the unborn. That the prison guard can’t just let a woman go because he feels that she is innocent, or doesn’t like the crime she was convicted of. We had the right to be outraged when President Obama decided that he didn’t like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), so he just wasn’t going to enforce it (before the Supreme Court ruled on it). Deciding not to do your job is not a constitutional right.

If rules, laws or orders change such that a person finds it unethical to perform their duties, they have a responsibility to voice their concern through the proper channels and, if necessary, step down. If the situation is so egregious that they feel allowing anyone to perform said duty would be gravely dangerous to innocent lives and/or an actual violation of laws and rules (Hitler’s Final Solution and the My Lai Massacre come to mind), then they should take a stand in whatever manner they think best, but know that they are breaking the law and subject to its punishments or relief from assignment at the very least.   Generally speaking though, our default should be to obey and enforce the law, even if we don’t agree with it. That’s why Paul instructs us in the letter to the Romans (who were not exactly the most Christian friendly regime in history) “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.   So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.  For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.  The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.  Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.” (Romans 13:1-6

Sir Thomas More is one of my favorite Saints. He was a dedicated family man, intelligent statesman (Lord High Chancellor of England) who kept his honor when all those around him were crooked even though it ultimately cost him is life. A great movie about him was filmed in the 1960s called “A Man for All Seasons”. It’s a bit long, but I found it fascinating. There was one scene though that stuck with me and seems particularly applicable to this case at hand. In this clip, More discusses the idea of the benefit of the Law, and who should receive such benefit. I don’t know if More actually said anything in this movie clip, but I think it’s a valid point either way.

Benefit of the Law

No system of government on this side of eternity will ever have perfect laws. There are some that we are going to disagree with and others that we will be grateful for. We might not like that the Supreme Court determined that same sex marriages must be recognized in all 50 states (I certainly didn’t and expressed my views on the topic here well before that ruling), but that is now the law of the land and officials of the States subject to the constitution have a requirement to uphold it. If a clerk doesn’t feel comfortable with issuing licenses to same sex couples, it should be the prerogative of that office/ governor as to whether to make accommodation for that request and always have another clerk on staff who can issue the license, or to make it a requirement of the job and wish that clerk well on his or her way out the door (or into another position). Either way, if a same sex couple that meets the legal requirements for marriage walks in to the office, they are entitled to walk out with a marriage certificate. They aren’t entitled to any particular signature or any particular person issuing the license, but they are entitled to the piece of paper and associated benefits.

I do understand that Kim Davis was in a bit of a pickle since her name was on the marriage licenses regardless of who issued them in her office. Prison did seem a bit harsh from what I could tell compared to simply removing her from office, and I’m glad that (at least as far as I can tell at the time of writing this) her name was removed from the marriage licenses and all sides seem to be at peace, but the amount of outcry that came up touting her as some kind of hero for religious rights was extremely disturbing to me. We as Christians, and really as Americans in general, must be very careful in glorifying certain acts of civil disobedience. It will likely not be long before the tides are turned and Christians are the ones just asking to be given their legal right with an atheist or Muslim official who chooses his or her own personal beliefs over the law of the land. On that day, people will look back on the way this Kim Davis case was handled/ portrayed and (rightfully) call us hypocrites if we handle it any different. Which brings me to my second point…

2.)

For those who take the time make political comments on Facebook, blog about Christian and political topics or take an active role in your political system (all of which I generally encourage), we have a responsibility to speak up when representation of our faith is being hijacked by viewpoints that fail tests of logic or universal application.

It’s tempting to take the approach of letting things go when people take extreme or illogical arguments that still end up with the same opinion you have. After all, at least they are arguing on the good side, right? The problem with this mentality is that people who are opposed or independent on the issue hear that extreme or illogical argument, and they consider it the best that our side has to offer. So they consider our whole argument BS. The best chance we have is to do what we can to ensure those people hear other Christians willing to speak up and say, “I also disagree with this law, but you’re going overboard in this situation.” Or “I recognize the divine inspiration of the Bible too, but US Constitution doesn’t and we owe a different approach to the legal debates, especially in public forums.” Or “We may consider this or that to be a sin, but that doesn’t mean that we should treat ANYONE with less dignity than they deserve as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.” We will probably not drown out or overpower the voices that we feel are misrepresenting us – Liberal media is way too eager to jump on opportunities to publicize Christian arguments and actions that they know won’t stand up to logical scrutiny.  We shouldn’t set our hopes there though. Our goal should be to remain faithful and consistent (and open to correction ourselves). When we do this, we have the opportunity to convince friends that they are taking the wrong approach in defending the faith that way and will foster an environment that invites rational people with other opinions to see that it is possible for a conservative Christian/ Catholic to be both faithful and rational (and conservative) and maybe even start a conversation with us(usually a REALLY good conversation).

I should take a moment to point out directly, that the Bible is a fantastic resource for us as Christians to shape our moral compass and determine what we think should be a rule for our society. It is not, however a very good tool for convincing anyone with even the faintest idea of our Constitution, how to proceed in determining the law of the land. When we are talking about civil laws and government responsibilities, we should be arguing from universally acceptable (or nearly universal) precepts of natural law, ethics, and reason. We must acknowledge that the United States of America is not a Christian nation. Officially speaking, it never was.

The Bible and teachings of the Church may have had enough clout to pass a bill 50 or 100 years ago, but those days are long gone and that’s not entirely a bad thing. God gave us minds that can reason and dissect situations and he wants us to use them. The aspects of morality and society that have a place in civil law can and should be deduced from reason. The Bible is meant to be a light guiding us, not a crutch supporting us.

AMDG

Secular Law and Religious Morality Part I and Part II

P.S. If the clip piqued your interest, you can watch the full movie here……“A Man for All Seasons”

P.P.S. I probably should take a moment to be clear that I hold no particular educational qualifications for submitting my thoughts above and much more accomplished, learned, and dedicated theologians hold a different opinion. Here is one of the more logical and at least dogmatically justified opinions on why Kim Davis should be regarded as a hero. I agree with most of his foundational logic, just not the application as it applies to a government official conferring a civil right. Tim Staples: Kim Davis is a Hero If you read this far and also think I’m wrong, please leave a comment and convince me!

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Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part II)

March 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I left off in the first part of this post with the statement that the primary role of government should be to protect its citizens.  This is where a government MUST legislate morality. I often hear people say, “You cannot/ should not legislate morality…” and you may have gotten the impression from Part I of this blog that this was my view as well, but I actually disagree wholeheartedly with that mentality. Morality is the ONLY thing which a government should legislate. Morality is the only metric which can be consistently applied. I should be clear though, morality and religious faith are two different things. Morality refers to the actions which logic and natural law dictate are acceptable or unacceptable. Religious faith is that which we choose to believe because of revelation by God (or a prophet).  A government cannot effectively legislate virtue or faith, but it can and MUST legislate to minimize vice. A law which requires all citizens to be kind and forgiving would be impossible to enforce, but a law which prevents citizens from murdering each other is about as basic and fundamental as we can get for legislation. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong. Even those who don’t acknowledge or understand the bible will still generally agree with that statement.  The society needs to determine a baseline of conduct which can be applied universally – a set of morals that all citizens can be held to. The purpose of this baseline is to offer citizens the freedom and safety to act virtuously according to their own beliefs and callings.

A secondary role of government is to empower its citizens in the direction of the morally good beyond that baseline and/or contribute further to the betterment of society as a whole.  There is a big difference though, between empowering people and coercing people to do something.   When the government wishes to promote a certain good, the most positive way to do that is to remove the road blocks which keep people from doing it to begin with and incentivize the action where possible. The US government already does this in some cases, for instance providing tax deductions for raising children or for making donations to charitable organizations or for buying energy saving home accessories. I think it can do more though and it would do well for our current politicians to make this the central focus of most legal policy.

Government has a constitutional right to levy taxes. I don’t always like it, but I get it. They need money in order to pay the bills that they incur to protect us and maintain order in our society. I think though, that the government would do well to use taxing power for positive reinforcement instead of punishment and coercion. For instance, instead of an individual mandate to get health insurance with increasing tax penalties, why not just offer tax incentives for signing up which decrease over time?  The government has a vested interest in people getting health insurance, because uninsured citizens usually end up sending the bill to the government through ER visits, not to mention higher chance of spreading disease etc. If the government is going to save money by a person’s actions, it makes sense to incentivize that action.  I think that statement could be applied to much of the tax structure. The government has certain fixed costs which can’t be reduced by individual actions (i.e. legislative overhead, military, emergency services, inspection and regulation etc) but much of the money that is spent by governments can be greatly offset by individual actions.  Parents who school their own children are providing a service which relieves the government. They should get a tax credit. A millionaire who hires a full time staff to take care of his estate should not be getting taxed on the money that he uses to pay those employees. The government is already getting tax money from the staff, and the millionaire is fueling the economy and putting cash in more people’s pockets who might otherwise be collecting unemployment (instead of stashing it in his hedge fund).

NOTE: I am not a huge fan of straight tax cuts for the rich with the expectation that they will spend it on things which will boost the economy. That may happen, but I think it’s more likely if you tie the tax cut directly to purchases and hiring which definitively boost economy.

To this point I’ve focused mostly on the government side of things, but religious organizations have a lot to do on their side as well. I think much of the confusion which has come about in this arena is due to the fact that there has been little to no discussion in churches about the role of government and its limits. Groups are eager to promote possible laws that can support their religious agendas (virtuous or otherwise) and horrified when laws are proposed or passed which seem to advocate conflicting views. In many cases, these reactions are well-founded, but I don’t hear too much conversation about why it is the government who should be handling the issue instead of individuals.

I think the goal of Christians and the goal of government officials should be to work the government out of as much of its job as possible. The more that individuals contribute to the betterment of society, the less the government will need to do. The more that the government promotes and fosters those activities, the more prevalent they will become.

AMDG