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Christian Morality and Public Law–Three Secular Arguments

What should be the relationship between Christian morality and public law? This is a quintessentially modern question. In other eras of Christian history, or even the history of Western civilization, to ask what should be the relationship between Christian morality and public law would have been incomprehensible. Most people would have understood morality and law to be either one and the same thing, or else they would have seen public law merely as a tangible structure and definition of Christian morality. Throughout most of Christian history and the history of Western nations, law and morality were conceived as being on parallel tracks, indispensable to one another. Public laws were simply the codification of a moral worldview.

Now we live in a day in which that understanding is completely changed. With the advent of modernity–and now the postmodern age–the view that public law is or ought to be predicated on Christian morals is no longer taken for granted. Not only is that idea questioned–it is even rejected out of hand. There are many in Western societies who are now absolutely convinced that there should be in fact no relationship whatsoever between Christian morality and public law. For these, it is just as axiomatic that public law should be essentially secular, as it was once axiomatic to believe that it must be essentially Christian.

That ideology, properly known as secularism, suggests that there is an oughtness to the secularization of the public space, that the culture indeed ought to be established on purely secular terms without any reference at all to a theistic reality or a theistic accountability. Secularism as an ideology has never been well-accepted in America at the popular level. It has, however, become rather pervasive at the level of the cultural and intellectual elites, a necessary component in the elite class’s struggle to advance their own norms and values system. The persons who sit on federal judiciaries and hold positions of symbolic importance and cultural influence tend to hold this secular worldview, at least with a tenacity and in percentages far beyond that of the general public.

And what do these people say about the intersection of Christian morality and public law? For the secularist who believes that America’s public space should be essentially and irreducibly secular, that question is easy. There should be no relationship at all. Public law should not be dependent on Christian morality, and Christian morality should have no influence on public law. Indeed, laws should never be determined or even shaped by any institution or idea that is self-consciously tied to Christian morality–or even un-selfconsciously derivative of Christian morality.

Let me offer three examples of those who hold to such a position. First is Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. A former faculty member at Harvard University, Reich is a thoughtful person to whom we are indebted for many insightful writings. Recently, Reich has written a new book entitled, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. In this book he identifies the opposition–those who hold the worldview which should be countered and defeated–as the “radcons,” a short compound for “radical conservatives.” The individual who stands as a symbol of the “radcons” is William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and drug czar. The “radcons” believe that morality must be based upon some larger worldview. Christianity should be recognized and respected as the worldview that gave shape to Western Civilization, they argue.

So what should be done with the “radcons?” Reich said this: “It is perfectly fine for radcons to declare strong personal convictions about sex and marriage, convictions often based on sincere religious beliefs. But it is something quite different, it is quite another thing to insist that others must share these same convictions. As I have said, the liberal tradition has wisely drawn a sharp boundary between religion and government. We’ve got to stop the radcons before they impose their narrow-minded agenda any further.”

And then this, as he parodies the “radcon” understanding of descent down a slippery moral slope: “Here is a real slippery slope that does concern me. Once we allow radcons or anyone else to decide how we should conduct our private sex lives, where would it end? If we accept the idea that one religion’s view of proper morality should be the law of the land, how do we decide whose religious views should prevail?” Robert Reich is one example of a person who believes Christian morality should have no voice in the public square.

A second example is Robert Audi, professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska and the nation’s most noted advocate of a pure secular space in terms of public policy. Audi offers three principles for what he calls “civic virtue in a liberal democracy.” The first of these he calls the principle of secular rationale. He writes: “This is a rationale that has as a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct unless one has and is willing to offer adequate secular reasons for its advocacy or support.” Secular reasons, that is, must be the sole point of advocacy. “There must be,” he says, “a secular rationale that is understood to be a secular reason.” The only acceptable rationale is “roughly one whose normative force, that is, its status as a prima facie justificatory element does not depend on the existence of God, or on denying it, or on theological considerations, or on the pronouncements of a person or institution as a religious authority.” In other words, any reason given for adopting any public policy must be irreducibly secular, manifestly secular, entirely secular, with no reference whatsoever to the existence or non-existence of any God.

Second, Audi suggests a principle of secular motivation. He explains: “One has an obligation to abstain from advocacy or support of a law or public policy that restricts human conduct unless one is motivated by a normatively adequate secular reason whose sufficiency of motivation here implies that some set of secular reasons is motivationally sufficient, roughly in the same sense that (a) this set of reasons explains one’s actions, and (b) one would act on it even if other things remained equal or one’s other reasons were eliminated.”

In other words, any religious motivation is ruled out of bounds. Not only must a person advocating a public policy position have a purely secular rationale, but his advocacy must be secularly motivated as well. It is not enough to offer secular arguments for a position, if one’s real reason for holding it is a belief in God.

Finally, Audi offers the principle of ecclesiastical neutrality. He says, “Churches committed to being institutional citizens in such a society have an obligation to abstain from supporting candidates for public office or pressing for laws or public policies that restrict human conduct.” In other words, churches may do whatever churches wish to do, so long as they do not endorse political candidates (a restriction with which most of us would be quite satisfied) or “press for laws or public policies that restrict human conduct.” That is more troubling, for most of us would insist that Christians must, as Christians, advocate laws which restrict human conduct in some ways. Most laws do.

A final example is law professor Kathleen Sullivan. Following the same mentality, she said, “The correct baseline theory is not unfettered religious liberty, but rather religious liberty insofar as it is consistent with the establishment of the secular, moral order.” That is a fascinating statement, one which amounts to a redefinition of religious liberty. The baseline, she says, is not unfettered religious liberty; those God-believers should be granted religious liberty only so long as their liberty does not interfere with the establishment of a secular moral order.

I bring these three witnesses because I believe they are being honest. Reich, Audi, and Sullivan call for a public space that is purely and completely secular. Not only must the shape and content of the arguments in the public square be secular, but the very motivation for making an argument at all must be entirely secular—as Audi puts it, “without reference to whether or not there is even a God who exists.” Any argument based on any premise which might be considered “religious” is categorically excluded. The honesty of these positions is helpful, for it sets the issues squarely—and thus demonstrates immediately the implausibility of such proposals.