The Danger of the State as a Substitute for Conscience
The Christian Post
1 April, 2009 09
Reprinted with permission from
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission,
Southern Baptist Convention
You have heard it said: "You can't legislate
My response: One of my personal heroes was Martin
Luther King, Jr. I am grateful his morality was
legislated on George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
But what happens if religiously informed moral
values are excluded from public policy debates?
The alternative is allowing only those who have
secularly informed moral values to make the
decisions-or else we have a government that doesn't
make decisions based on any moral values at all. We
eliminate questions of right and wrong from the
government's decision-making process. We don't want
a government that looks like that.
Moreover, as political philosophers have shown,
the elimination of moral judgment from legislative
deliberation is in many important cases literally
impossible. If you are a person who holds
religiously informed moral values, you have a right
to be on the playing field-but not only that, you
have an obligation to be on the field. That is part
of what it means to be "salt" and "light" in the
Those offering the best arguments will usually
rally the support of the majority of the American
people. Is our society better off because of Dr.
King and his convictions for justice and equality?
Are we better off because our nation was 'forced' to
have a moral discussion in which people of religious
values prevailed and we ended segregation? Of course
we are. Is this country better off because we
eliminated slavery? Of course it is. The best team
won. Their moral arguments prevailed with the
Founding father and second U.S. president John
Adams cautioned that the United States has a
government designed "only for a moral and a
religious people." It is "wholly inadequate" for the
government of an amoral or irreligious people. The
government's commitment to freedom is based on the
assumption that the majority of the American people
will voluntarily obey the law and seek to do the
right thing. If the majority are not moral and
religious, there are not enough government
constraints to ensure order, public decency, and
In other words, what we had in the formation of
our country was an attempt to wed Judeo-Christian
values with Enlightenment theories of
self-government. Adams warned us that one won't work
without the other. Without an underlying base of
moral values, self-government will descend into a
morass of self-seeking immorality and chaos.
If the law is not obeyed voluntarily, we will
need a much larger and more intrusive government
apparatus to try to ensure public order and safety.
Without self-government, moral values will be
oligarchic impositions resented by the people and
perceived as quenching the freedom that is the
birthright of every divinely created human being.
Government will present itself as a substitute for
conscience, and we will end up with George Orwell's
nightmare vision of Big Brother.
In a country as religious as America, if
faith-based values are excluded from public policy,
a significant number-if not the majority-of
Americans will be blocked from bringing their
convictions to public life. Excluding the rich mine
of moral and spiritual wisdom that can be provided
by people of religious faith is too high and too
dangerous a price for insisting on a secular public