Yesterday's essay was stimulated primarily by the most contentious of all quasi-political topics: abortion. However, the overarching subject -- the proper subjects of legislation -- is far larger. Among the battlegrounds it dominates is one characterized by a two-sentence exchange:
Speaker 1: You can't legislate morality!
Speaker 2: You can hardly legislate anything else!
Ironically, both statements above are about equally true. What matters most is the definition of morality used to justify legislation.
Regular readers will already know that I'm a devout Catholic. Historically erudite readers will know that from about 400 AD to about 1800 AD, much of Europe was governed by states whose law codes were deeply and powerfully informed by Christian doctrine. Quite a number of persons use that aspect of history as a premise for asserting that if we Catholics had our druthers, we'd transform the United States into a Catholic theocracy, with a regime indirectly controlled by the Vatican. Indeed, accusations of that sort were frequent during the 1960 presidential campaign.
Solly, Cholly. We're smarter than that. There are other creeds whose allegiants aren't as smart as we are, but that's another subject altogether.
One of the things Catholics have learned from history is that you cannot use power without being used by power. During the era of Throne and Altar, ruling regimes exploited the backing of the Church specifically to quell resistance among their subjects. The threat of eternal damnation was often as effective a deterrent to resistance as the threat of being chopped in half with a broadsword. The Church, which feared to lose the special privileges that accrued to it from its political alliances, had no choice but to go along.
Indeed, the reciprocal manipulation of the Church by political power frequently determined clerical appointments and elevations in rank. Sometimes it extended all the way to the selection of a pope. Read the history of the Papacy at Avignon, and the Time of Three Popes, and form your own conclusions. That Christian clerics did their best to temper the behavior of the regimes they supported does not completely exonerate them for agreeing to such unholy alliances.
We're done with that, thanks. It didn't do the world a lot of good, and it's tarnished the image of the Church ever since. If you want a legitimate modern specimen of a creed that aspires to political hegemony, talk to the Muslims.
The acceptance of a religious creed is inherently a matter of individual conscience. It cannot be compelled. Equally so, the acceptance of a creed's ethos -- its behavioral code -- must be voluntary to be meaningful. (Just one more thing Muslims fail to understand. Well, they aren't terribly bright.) By implication, for a State to employ temporal power to enforce a religion's ethos is antithetical to the voluntary nature of religious belief. Quod erat demonstrandum.
- American law doesn't attempt to compel religious affiliation of any sort;
- American law doesn't attempt to punish atheism, blasphemy, idolatry, playing golf on Sunday, dishonoring one's parents, deceits that have no material consequence, adultery, or envy;
- The laws against murder, theft, fraud, and perjury have nothing at all to do with the Ten Commandments.
If religious affiliation must be voluntary, it can be no other way. Only in a land where Throne and Altar are united in hegemony will you find such notions in the saddle. Nations derived from the Enlightenment don't qualify.
So why do we have laws against murder, theft, fraud, and perjury, if not because God Himself forbids them?
(You know, I never expected I'd have to explain this. Then again, I never expected to write an essay such as this one. It's a bit like supervising the reading of Fun With Dick And Jane. But recent events, and the tenor of recent email, have made it mandatory, if only to discourage the lamebrains that have recently attempted to monopolize my attention. And yes, before you ask, I'm feeling rather irritated this morning. No, the shoulder thing isn't the reason, though it certainly doesn't help.)
Simple: We have laws against those things because they involve objectively demonstrable harms to individuals: invasions of their rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property. Good laws address nothing but such harms, and prescribe unvarying punishments for them.
Secular government -- the only sort the United States can have, given the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution -- must be based entirely on objective matters. To contend, for example, that abortion must be outlawed because "God forbids it" simply doesn't fly. To contend that abortion must be outlawed because it constitutes the murder of an innocent child has some legs, though the matter will still be fought over long after I'm safely and cozily dead.
Consider a much less contentious subject, upon which American governments once attempted to impose law but on which they've grown passive in more recent decades: gambling. Yes, there are still laws against commercialized gambling (e.g., casinos) in most states. However, when it comes to "less organized" forms of gambling, whatever laws remain on the books that forbid them are no longer enforced. Why?
There are two reasons. First, to attempt to impose a law on a populace willing and able to resist that law effectively is self-defeating: it creates disrespect for law in general, and weakens the State's ability to enforce its other laws. Second, and arguably even more important, laws against gambling were holdovers of the era of Throne and Altar. Christian clerics in pre-Enlightenment Europe forbade gambling for pecuniary reasons; their inheritors in the New World dragged the precedent along with them.
The Western world is still unlearning the attitudes and legal missteps of that time. The Middle East, apart from Israel, has never unlearned them, which accounts for nearly all its self-imposed troubles.
There are many religious and quasi-religious creeds at large in the world; possibly more than ever before in history. Each one promulgates a code of right conduct and a catalog of moral wrongs. When individuals are free to choose among them according to the dictates of their consciences, no harm can issue from them -- assuming the religions don't exhort their allegiants to do harm to others, of course. But when one sect rises to political power, and thus becomes capable of marginalizing the others and of imposing itself on individuals by force, matters change, and not for the better.
Frank Herbert wrote in Dune that when Church and State ride in the same chariot, the individual is dramatically diminished -- to "something less than a man." We have ample evidence to this effect. May we never forget the lessons it has taught us.