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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!

Secular Law and Religious Morality (Part I)

March 24, 2014 3 comments

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…

AMDG

2nd Ammendment

February 7, 2013 1 comment

There’s been a lot of discussion about how to control gun violence here in the US. Some say we need more guns in the right hands, others say we need less guns in general. The only thing I would remind everyone is that our second amendment rights exist not for sport and hobby but for “a well regulated militia.” Our founding fathers felt it necessary for the security of the state – for the security of freedom – that its law abiding citizens be armed (or at least have the option). They knew first hand that when the government had no reason to fear its citizens, they would not respect their liberties. 

With this in mind, I wrote the following email to my representatives in government: Read more…