Q. This is a sort of church and state question that is more theoretical than anything. What I’m wondering is if Christianity is true, and God made the universe according to his nature such that there are objective moral absolutes and so on, should Christians try in any way to impose a Christian moral code on people who don’t believe? In other words, if the best thing for human flourishing is to live in alignment with our God-ordained natures, to what degree should Christians try to make laws that outwardly compel people to live according to more or less Christian values (for their own good)?
For starters, let me say that I believe there’s a practical problem with the approach you’re asking about. Passing a law forbidding something doesn’t effectively prevent it, and passing a law requiring something doesn’t effectively make it happen. That’s because people typically don’t obey a law if they really don’t want to do what it says, or if they want to do what it says not to do. Fear of punishment is only a partial deterrent.
The classic example of this in the American experience is Prohibition. It did not compel Americans to become teetotalers. No one knows the actual effect it had on alcohol production and consumption, because it made those things very difficult to measure. But the general understanding is that consumption went down at first because supplies were limited, but as soon as illegal supplies came on line, consumption increased steadily. On the other hand, there was a significant and measurable decrease in alcohol consumption in the years before Prohibition, through social influences rather than legal force. I think that’s instructive. The most effective measures were persuasive, not compulsory. In our own day, organizations such as M.A.D.D. are having a renewed effectiveness through such persuasion. So this is something of a parable that Christians everywhere, and particularly in America, should bear in mind, as a reminder of the limits of legal force and the power of social forces.
In fact, I think your question leads directly to another one: For any given behavior we want to discourage, are we really better off passing a law against it? Or are we risking driving people who want to continue that behavior into the hands of criminals, strengthening their enterprises? Some things we simply must forbid, and enforce those sanctions as fully as possible, for the sake of social order and the protection of life and safety. I’m not advocating anarchy here. But we do have to consider that it may be better to allow certain things to remain legal and work to address their causes, rather than try to pass laws against them. In fact, even for things that unquestionably should be illegal, the laws against them are only a preliminary step. Those activities won’t go away, either, until their causes are addressed.
The Bible itself teaches us the capabilities and limits of the law. In arguing that Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to follow the Law of Moses, Paul writes in his letters that it did serve the functions of teaching and restraint. It illustrated for people how they should live, and it restrained, with strict penalties, the worst cases of personal injury and social disorder. But Paul also says pointedly that the Law was not capable of giving people the ability or desire to live in the way it specified. That depended instead on the transforming effects of life in a community that was living in covenant relationship with God, and ultimately on the gift of the Holy Spirit to that community and its members.
In our own day, societies can use all aspects of their “law,” from criminal penalties to features of their tax codes, to discourage some behaviors and incentivize others. In the process, they will teach, because this provides a picture of how they believe people should live. Allowing a tax deduction for charitable donations shows that the society encourages generosity to those in need. Creating and enforcing speed limits and other traffic regulations shows that the society does not want its members to endanger themselves or others by driving heedlessly. Societies also use laws to restrain. Having much more serious penalties for things like murder and robbery shows that such activities are dangerous and antisocial above all.
But this isn’t actually compelling people to live in a certain way. People will continue to do whatever they believe they can get away with until the causes of behavior are addressed, and that takes a lot more than passing a law. So the bottom line is that I don’t think we can “outwardly compel” people to live in a certain way through laws, though they can be an important first step.
But here’s the other side of the coin. In a democracy, people get the laws they work for. Otherwise, they get laws they haven’t worked for. So if Christians really do believe that, by God’s very design, certain activities are harmful and destructive, while others are beneficial and life-giving, then they need to be out there in the public-policy mix, at the very least trying to get positive things incentivized and negative things discouraged.
But I need to state some further qualifiers:
• I’m not talking about creating a theocracy, in which Christians take power and enforce the law of God (as they understand it) as the law of the land. For one thing, every time this has been attempted in church history, it has been a disaster. But in more theological terms, I believe that as redemptive history unfolded, the days of theocracy ended when Jesus introduced the new covenant and the people of God became a multinational community. Followers of Jesus now have a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God that is breaking into our world, but an important and continuing secondary loyalty to their own nations, to help them live up to their own highest ideals, consistently with the values of the kingdom of God. As an American, for example, I believe that I should support the ideals of democracy and civil liberties, while at the same time critiquing American culture’s extreme individualism, which (as social observers have been documenting) has caused narcissism to flourish and undermined our social fabric.
• What I am advocating is being in the mix. Pick your battles. Work for what matters most. To reach particular goals, form strategic alliances with people and organizations who might not agree with you about everything. In fact, they might agree with you about only one thing. But if that’s the thing you’re working for, you’ve got the potential to create a limited partnership with them.
• If what you’re really after is what you believe is best for people—human flourishing—then take care that your campaign, through its tone and tactics, doesn’t have destructive side effects. That would be tragically counterproductive.
I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect to be able to pass a comprehensive set of laws that will compel everyone, at least outwardly, to live as Christians believe people should. But if you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God. Probably the best place to start is with practical contemporary expressions of, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Plenty to work for there.
Thanks for your thoughtful question! I hope these reflections give you further food for thought.