“You can’t legislate morality.” A common, sharp phrase quick on the lips of the modern political student or thinker, it has been an accepted interpretation of the “wall of separation between Church and state.” While normally in such an essay I review both sides of the issue, I will instead this time dedicate the whole to debunking the complete idiocy of such a belief, starting first with the context of the letter, talk about epistemology, provide a case study, and lastly close reviewing the role a church should have politically within its own congregation.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” so reads the beginning of the First Amendment. More conservative interpretations look at the context from which the founders came, and assert ‘religion’ refers to denomination, thus staking the United States as a Christian nation. Others take it for the more literal interpretation, including all types of religion. In either case, it is pretty clear that the government has no role in church regulations, and the government should not be turned into an institution like the Catholic Church. In absolutely no way does this claim to prevent religion from influencing decisions and laws, and much rhetoric and law back then was made off religious values.
The Jeffersonian letter which contains the oft misconstrued phrase “a wall of separation between Church and state,” was a message to the Danbury Baptists affirming the rights of churches not to be infringed by the state. The historical pretext was one of states controlling and manipulating churches for political control, and the initial letter sent by the Danbury Baptists addressed this. “Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor,” reads the main concern of the letter. Nowhere in the whole of either the initial letter nor Jefferson’s response is there a remote trace of prevention of religious beliefs from affecting legislation.
As Edmund Burke said, “Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.” To try and divide politics and religion is to attempt to separate men and women from their very core beliefs, tell them to be unbiased in any way, and then set them to legislate freedom and justice. Every human being has an epistemology, a worldview by which they make value judgments. Those who subscribe to a religion are shaped by the values prescribed in it, thereby making ethical judgments through that lens. If one does not hold to a particular religion, they too have values, but base them on other experiences. When examined, the absolute absurdity of the notion of “not legislating morality” should come to light; every law that attempts to promote justice or freedom is in its very root moral. When religious values are attacked and prevented from coming into play, not only do you strip a person of their integral values and commit hypocrisy by not doing so for the secularist, but you also prevent such a person from legislating to the best of their ability.
My case study is the legalization of child pornography. A horrible premise, as most people would agree, however, if we are a society entirely based upon the fact that “you can’t legislate morality,” what would be the point of keeping it illegal? Proponents of “morality” legislation, I would hazard a guess, still would not be keen on legalizing such a horrendous atrocity. The facts, however, dictate that if they hold to their beliefs, they absolutely should advocate for such a legalization, due to the studies done in the Czech Republic, Japan, and Denmark. The Czech Republic, for instance, had a strict ban on all pornographic materials from 1948 – 1989, but in 1990 reversed course legalization all materials, including child pornography. In the following years, the number of reported child sexual abuse cases dropped significantly as well as other sexual abuse cases in general. Pragmatically, we should follow those nations and their laws – yet we, as a nation, have a moral prerogative to ban it, to set a standard of what we don’t condone. If we don’t set this standard, we say that as a nation, in essence, that it is okay if someone wants to view child pornography – and this, to me, is a heinous offense. Under no circumstances should such behavior ever be tolerated, it is perverse, abusive, and deficient of any moral value.
As a small disclaimer, this does not mean I advocate for creating laws “because the Bible said so,” but rather upon a basis of a society held to certain morals. We are not, solely, a Christian nation, but this does not mean we can’t hold to certain ethical standards set therein. Not everyone has to agree with those morals, and as a democracy those voices can and should be heard too – but the basis for their dissent should not solely be that a particular religious view holds the same ideals and standards.
Now that we’ve examined one side of the infamous “wall,” let’s take a look at the other, the responsibility of the church in the realm of politics. Politically, to have particular pastors or congregations support a candidate can generally be helpful for them in appealing to demographics, but many churchgoers are irked by the idea of church being too political. Indeed, there is a danger in such a voyage, and as C.S. Lewis illustrates in Screwtape Letters, we must be careful not to “wrap the cross in a flag.” Danger lies in doing so, as the message of the gospel becomes diluted among political motivations, views, and at its worst can pragmatically alienate potential and existing believers from the church.
Yet, this cannot be a universal rule, as there are times when a church must advocate for a position or stance involved in the political realm. To say they are distinct is to ignore the realities of the extent of the law and to altogether throw out the complete pervasiveness of ethics in all areas of life. Churches need not take a stance on every issue or even back specific candidates, but it is important that they take a stand on certain philosophies regardless if they are or aren’t in contention politically. The sanctity of life, for instance, is the most important issue politically which the church should take a stance on, defending the lives of the unborn. How much their involvement goes into the direct political field should vary, and rests in the specific congregation; if such actions were to divide a congregation beyond repair over needless politicizing, it may not be worth it. But those stances must be held regardless of the political repercussions.
The illustration of the wall is a misnomer; though not as eloquent, Jefferson would have done us a favor to use the term “a semi-permeable membrane between Church and state, with pressure built on the Church side.” If religion and morality has no place in politics, we live in a purely pragmatic society, one in which utilitarianism alone should reign. A nation exists to protect its citizens and their interests, and a moral standard is part of the interests of most citizens. To attempt to diffuse them is to attempt to wrench the core of humanity from those who govern it.