Continuing our series on Christianity and the State, we’re going to look at the concepts of Liberty and Morality. In our last article, we looked at politics and activism as it relates to the Christian and the State. In that article, we noted that it is perfectly acceptable for the Christian to be involved in the political process to work for the betterment of society as long as he or she works within the legal system set up by the State. That’s going to look very different in a Democratic-Republic like the United States than it would under the Communist-Totalitarian state that was the USSR. This was all based on the passage in 1 Corinthians 7:21 where Paul writes, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” In other words, Christians aren’t supposed to upset the social order — that’s not our calling as individual Christians — but if the situation avails itself to improve one’s lot in life, then take it. Our application of that passage was that if the opportunity is available for the Christian to improve the social order through legal political activism, then that is an appropriate use of his time and talents.
I often think of the example of William Wilberforce in these contexts. Wilberforce was instrumental in ending the African slave trade in the British Empire in the 19th century. Wilberforce was a member of the British Parliament and fought for the abolition of the slave trade for 26 years. I think the example of Wilberforce is the perfect model of Christian political activism. His Christian morals prompted him to see the African slave trade as immoral and a violation of the natural rights of Africans — a view that is perfectly in line with an understanding that all human beings are made in God’s image and that all human life is precious and sacred. Wilberforce wasn’t a revolutionary in the sense of taking up arms to change the system, but his ideas were revolutionary and based on principle, and that allowed him to work within the system to win the war of ideas.
OK, with that as an introduction, I want to get into the idea of Liberty and Morality. In that last article, I wrote the following:
I believe it is neither desirable nor acceptable to use the power of the State to enact a political agenda, no matter how well intentioned that agenda is. It is never right to force someone to do something either charitable or moral. I would advocate a direction for political activism that promotes the limitation of the power of the State and gives more freedom to the individual. A just, moral and charitable society never comes from a “top-down” approach through the strong arm of the State. Rather it comes from a “bottom-up” approach as people become more just, moral and charitable. The freest societies are the best societies.
The idea that I was trying to advocate here is that Christian political activism should be based on the principle of liberty. This might shock some Christians because some might think that the underlying principle of any Christian activity — political or otherwise — should be Christ or building the Kingdom of God. Here are my thoughts on that. The Kingdom of God is something that Jesus promised to build when he said that He would build his church and the gates of Hades will not prevail. The Church is the Kingdom of God. Right now the Church is the Kingdom of God in absentia. In other words, the King (Christ) is not here right now, but he has promised to return to fully consummate his Kingdom program. Right now during this inter-advental period, the Church is like a “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Furthermore, I believe that the mission of the Church and the mission of the State are different missions. The mission of the Church is to make disciples through evangelization, instruction and fellowship. The mission of the State is to administer justice and protect the rights of its citizens. So while our political activism can be informed by our Christianity (and it should be), our political activism is not to be confused with our mission as the Church.
Secondly, some Christians might think that Christian morality should be the basis for our political activism. As much as I would love to see the whole world embrace a Christian morality, embracing a moral code does not necessarily make a person moral. Furthermore, to use the power of the State to enforce such a code is unethical. Consider again, the words of the Apostle Paul, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Christian morality is only to be enforced within the church. The world cannot be expected to follow a biblical morality since it has no faith foundation with which to do so.
That is why I believe that liberty is a much better foundation upon which to engage in political discourse and activism. Based on our common humanity and based on the fact that the freest societies are the best societies, I think liberty is the only basis upon which our political activity should operate. Furthermore, if the mission of the State is to administer justice and secure the rights of the the citizens, then this is best done in a free society with individual liberty as the founding principle.
Having said all of that, a conflict arises — a conflict between liberty and morality. The conflict is this: In a free society where individual liberty is the fundamental principle, you will have instances in which people use their liberty to do immoral things. I’m not talking about doing illegal things, for which they would run afoul of the law, but immoral things — there is a difference between legality and morality. For example, adultery is immoral according to the bible, yet in a free society, people would be free to commit adultery. Homosexuality is also immoral according to the bible, yet in a free society, people would be free engage in homosexual activity. We can go on with numerous examples; the point is that in a free society, people would have the liberty to engage in immoral behavior. As such, social conservatives would argue that to allow for immorality in society would eventually lead to societal decay. Therefore, we must legislate a biblical morality.
There are two flaws in this argument as I can see it. First, what’s the alternative? Enact a law to cover every moral situation? I know social conservatives want to ban gay marriage, but is doing so going to stop people from engaging in homosexual activity or living together in committed relationships? Additionally, do we want to have laws against adultery, pornography, lying, etc.? What would that look like? What would the penalties be? Gay marriage (and everything else) is a fruit problem, not a root problem. In other words, gay marriage and homosexuality are the fruit of a much deeper problem — namely, sin. The law will not make us more moral because the law cannot stop sin; it cannot deal with the sin problem. The law only points out sin; it does nothing to solve it.
Secondly, the flip side to individual liberty is personal responsibility. We are free to live our lives as we want to, but we also must face the consequences of our actions. All sin has consequences — not just from an eternal perspective, but also from a temporal perspective. If I commit adultery, I should be prepared to face the consequences of a failed marriage, possible divorce and the eventual psychological effects that it will have on me, my wife, my mistress and my children. If I lie, then I should be prepared to face the consequences of broken trust and relational isolation as people will not want to associate with a habitual liar. The bottom line, if I act in a foolish or immoral way, I cannot, in a free society, make any claim to the government to bail me out of my folly. Therefore, I have the incentive to act responsibly.
Again quoting from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). As it applies to our discussion, in a free society all things may be permissible, but not all things are helpful or desirable. Some things we do in the exercise of our liberty are actually enslaving. Sexual addictions, substance abuse, lying, cheating, gambling, anger, etc.; each of these things are examples of a slavery to sin. We may think we’re free when we exercise our liberty to do them, but the truth is there is a deep-seated psychological need to satisfy these desires (i.e., sin).
The point being, we don’t need to criminalize such behavior. No amount of laws will solve these problems; they will only drive the behavior underground. As such, in a free society, we need to be tolerant of those who will use their liberty in foolish and self-destructive ways. Thanks to God’s common grace (which restrains the depths of our sin) not everyone will be drawn to foolish and self-destructive lifestyles. Most people are basically good, moral people. By saying this, I am referring to good on the horizontal plane — human to human action, or what Francis Turretin would call “the virtue of the heathen.” Because of God’s common grace which restrains our sinfulness, many people who are not believers in Christ can and do many things which can be called ‘good,’ but they have no saving value.
What this means in regards to the Christian and the State is that a more moral society is one in which individual liberty is maximized along with allowing people to face the consequences of their poor, immoral or illegal choices. If we try to force morality by rule of law, it simply forces sinful behavior underground and increases the risk of illegal activity to deal in that behavior. Furthermore, we cannot be a free society if we enable people to continue in their bad behavior. Justice demands that people face the consequences for their actions. If their actions are illegal, then they must face the just legal penalty. Justice is also perverted if we attempt to ‘get people off’ on technicalities because of extenuating circumstances. If people’s actions are foolish, we should not bail them out and enable them to continue their folly.
All in all, if individual liberty is fundamental along with personal responsibility and the fair and equitable administration of justice, there is no reason why we cannot have a free and moral society.
Next: Christianity and the State — What’s the best form of Government?