You have heard it said: “You can’t legislate morality.”
My response: One of my personal heroes was Martin Luther King, Jr. I am grateful his morality was legislated on George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
But what happens if religiously informed moral values are excluded from public policy debates?
The alternative is allowing only those who have secularly informed moral values to make the decisions—or else we have a government that doesn’t make decisions based on any moral values at all. We eliminate questions of right and wrong from the government’s decision-making process. We don’t want a government that looks like that.
Moreover, as political philosophers have shown, the elimination of moral judgment from legislative deliberation is in many important cases literally impossible. If you are a person who holds religiously informed moral values, you have a right to be on the playing field—but not only that, you have an obligation to be on the field. That is part of what it means to be “salt” and “light” in the world.
Those offering the best arguments will usually rally the support of the majority of the American people. Is our society better off because of Dr. King and his convictions for justice and equality? Are we better off because our nation was ‘forced’ to have a moral discussion in which people of religious values prevailed and we ended segregation? Of course we are. Is this country better off because we eliminated slavery? Of course it is. The best team won. Their moral arguments prevailed with the American people.
Founding father and second U.S. president John Adams cautioned that the United States has a government designed “only for a moral and a religious people.” It is “wholly inadequate” for the government of an amoral or irreligious people. The government’s commitment to freedom is based on the assumption that the majority of the American people will voluntarily obey the law and seek to do the right thing. If the majority are not moral and religious, there are not enough government constraints to ensure order, public decency, and freedom.
In other words, what we had in the formation of our country was an attempt to wed Judeo-Christian values with Enlightenment theories of self-government. Adams warned us that one won’t work without the other. Without an underlying base of moral values, self-government will descend into a morass of self-seeking immorality and chaos.
If the law is not obeyed voluntarily, we will need a much larger and more intrusive government apparatus to try to ensure public order and safety. Without self-government, moral values will be oligarchic impositions resented by the people and perceived as quenching the freedom that is the birthright of every divinely created human being. Government will present itself as a substitute for conscience, and we will end up with George Orwell’s nightmare vision of Big Brother.
In a country as religious as America, if faith-based values are excluded from public policy, a significant number—if not the majority—of Americans will be blocked from bringing their convictions to public life. Excluding the rich mine of moral and spiritual wisdom that can be provided by people of religious faith is too high and too dangerous a price for insisting on a secular public square.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.