9. Private Morality/Public Virtue

One persistent area of controversy in political theology is the extent to which private moral decisions can and should be enacted into law. A strictly Utilitarian view of law holds that the purposes of law are purely secular, and that personal morality should not be publicly enforced. This is an invention of the modern world, for in the ancient and medieval world, law was seen as the enforcing agent of community norms. In some respects, Christianity is the reason the modern secular position evolved, for it was among the early Christians that it was first perceive that the law, in this case Roman law, could be used to persecute the truth in the guise of enforcing a pagan morality and the legitimate rights of the state. [1]

In recent years in America, we have seen a change in the views of many people concerning the state and the enforcement of morality. The emergence of a purely secular society and the sexual revolution brought about a vast change in public morality and in the actions of the state related to moral issues. In 1965 in the case of case Griswold v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of birth control products. [2] The Supreme Court found that the law violated the right to marital privacy. Seven years later, in 1972 in the Case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting abortion as the taking of a human life. [3] While the nation accepted the Griswold decision, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and others found Roe an intolerable decision. As one author put it: “Prior to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, in 1972, however, no one had supposed that even marriage would also entitle one to destroy third-party life that one’s own acts albeit acts of marital intimacy-had brought about.” [4] This decision appeared to be a secular state enforcing a pagan morality upon the nation. Christians who had almost unquestioningly supported the United States Government and its policies found themselves at one with the writer of Revelation for the first time since the founding of the nation.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus squarely faces this new social reality and tries to build a middle ground between those who feel that Christianity has moved into the situation of persecution in America and those who support the general direction of our society.  [5] In addition, he helpfully notes the limitations on moral enforcement inherent in a free society. Most particularly, Neuhaus analyzes the restraint required when there is no consensus on what aspects of common morality are most vital to the society’s proper functioning. The fact of religious pluralism means that there is not even a clear consensus among religious leaders as to what might be the fundamental moral requirements for the society. This does not, however mean that there should be no public dialogue, discussion and debate about this important issue.

A “bottom up social thinker” is almost required to have two somewhat different guiding principles in mind as respects this matter. First, the family, as the fundamental social unit, is that part of society that most needs both freedom and protection to function. Second, because of this first commitment, so far is possible families ought to be free to follow their own notions so far as is possible. Buddhists, Christians, Hindu’s, Muslims, Secular Humanists, Taoists, and the like need to remain free to raise their children and conduct their family affairs so far as is possible as they see fit.

There are, of course, limitations. No one is entitled to engage in domestic violence, child abuse, or the like. Not even the freest society can allow any and everything. Violence is never permissible. These limitations are not the rule; they are the exceptions to the rule. One of the likely aspects of a truly postmodern polity is a deep pragmatism as opposed to an ideological orientation. This leads to the base notion that freedom and a free society are to be maintained precisely because such a society is the best way to promote human flourishing.  The difference may seem subtle, but it is important: the first commitment of a free. society is to freedom itself, and especially to the freedom of fundamehtal social units to develop healthily without unnecessary interference from the state.

Along the way, we may find that we have more in common with those with which we disagree than we think. I know very few secular people who believe that the alienation and atomization of modern American society is healthy. Very few believe that their children do not need some moral education—and while we may not completely agree with what that entails, we do agree that children need to be raised to respect others, to make sacrifices for the common good, to reject violent solutions to complicated and divisive problems, and the like. Even among those who fear moral discussion in politics, there may be a dawning understanding that to embrace differences and differences of opinion can create a better and more tolerant society, even if in the midst of the public debate we all must hear and ponder opinions with which we fundamentally disagree.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Romans Paul could urge Christians to respect the emperor and see the Emperor as a God-ordained enforcers of morality (Romans 13-1-3). However, by the time of Revelation, the Roman government had turned to the persecution of Christians, and so had become the embodiment of evil in the eyes of its writer, and evil that Christ would eventually overcome (Romans 17:14). Christian thinking has, depending upon societal realities historically fluctuated between these two views.

[2] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965).

[3] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] William Van Alstyne, Closing the Circle of Constitutional Review from Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v Wade, 1989 Duke University Law Review 1679 (1989).

[5] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 of the book.


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