Further thoughts on liberty, law, virtue, and faith

Editor: Kevin Miller’s forum on “Liberty & Christianity: Allies or Adversaries?”, held at CCU on 8/28, continues to stir discussion. After Greg Schaller weighed in on 8/30, Bill Watson countered on 9/8. Schaller now offers his rebuttal to that Watson posting, keyed to the following italicized quotations:

BW writes: If Christians in the West were even able to impose their morality, the result would be a rejection of Christianity similar to what is happening now in Iran.

GS comments: Dr. Watson lays out a very compelling case on the great evils of the radical Islamic theocracy in Iran. But does that mean that Christians who seek to employ a Biblical morality in the secular world are attempting to also establish a Christian theocracy. Of course not. An attempt to impart Judeo-Christian ideals into secular society need not equate to the establishment of a theocracy. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for it is the Judeo Christian tradition that insisted upon a respect and tolerance for religion. We can see the realization of this in our Constitution with the free exercise and establishment clauses, as well as the refusal to have faith requirements for those seeking elected office. In this, we can see that God’s ordering of free will has been codified in our laws. Quite the opposite of the establishment of a theocracy!

The fact is that for over 200 years (not to mention tracing the origins of the Common Law through the millennia), our country’s laws have found their roots in the Judeo Christian tradition. The laws handed down by God to Moses have been a remarkably effective basis for the establishment of civil society. Is the usage of these codes equivalent to the establishment of a theocracy? The command against thievery, for instance, and the punishments against it are a proper respect for the right of property ownership. This right of property is, as emphatically stated by Jefferson in the Declaration, endowed by the creator. We certainly are not establishing theocracy by insisting that our God-given right to property be protected by the state.

BW also writes: We should present the gospel, rather than enforce morality.

GS comments: This statement invites further confusion in two ways. First there is the dubious suggestion that by seeking to influence secular law, we are ignoring the Great Commission. Second, there is the implication that our activity in the secular law is ultimately a failure, as we should only be concerned that Christians do what is right following their conversion to Christianity. And those outside the faith will not do what is right for the right reasons, so they are not our concern. Aristotle discussed the progression of how a man becomes magnanimous and virtuous, ultimately doing what is right for its own sake. According to Aristotle, very few will achieve this and most will only be obedient out of habit or fear of reprisal. He, of course, does not suspend the state’s role in encouraging virtue and discouraging vice simply because most will never do right for right’s sake. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense that as Christians, we should give up on encouraging Judeo-Christian values because most will not subscribe to them for what we consider the proper reasons.

Watson’s and Miller’s reference to Jerry Falwell and the Great Commission implies that by attempting to impart Judeo-Christian values in the public square, we are ignoring Christ’s order. Just as in the first case, this is a false choice. We agree completely that the role of a pastor (in this case the late Rev. Falwell) is indeed to be concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with evangelism and discipleship. Our original premise in this discussion, however, and the focus of Kevin Miller’s original lecture, was on the role of Christians in the public square. The argument that Christians should be active in civil society is in no way a suggestion that we ignore our primary activity as presented by Christ in the Great Commission. Nor is there any suggestion that seeking to impart Christian morality in the public square will result in the salvation of lost souls.

When we look to our laws (even those based on the Judeo Christian values), do we consider whether we are attempting to enforce morality or simply establish good practical laws? Does a potential murder victim whether the heart of the person threatening him is “right with God”? No, he simply wants the would-be murderer to consider the consequences of his actions and think twice before acting. Our punishments for the murderer are based on Judeo Christian values. We don’t accept or reject these punishments because of, or in spite of, their Biblical origins and the morality they are based on. So why must we reject other laws that have their basis in the Judeo Christian tradition? Is it simply the issues that are “controversial” or the issues where public opinion is eroding away from the traditional Christian values?

One final point: both Watson’s and Miller’s arguments are grounded in the primacy of liberty. But where does this command to preserve and protect liberty come from? God. If they remove God from the equation, what is their admonition to protect liberty based on? Are they simply basing it on public opinion which today places a high value on liberty? What happens when this changes? If public support for liberty diminishes, will they then adopt the argument that public opinion is wrong? I don’t see what ground my colleagues ultimately have to stand on, other than to point to God as Jefferson did, identifying Him as the Creator or Nature’s God. Which returns me to my original point in the previous post: when God is the source of liberty, there is a duty and obligation to the author of that liberty.

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