Christian Morality and Public Law–Five Theses

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a three-part series. Click here for Part One. Click here for Part Two.]

Even though the law must deal with ultimate issues, the argument is still being made that Christian morality ought to be shut out of the public discourse. As Christians, we must face the fact that we enter a public square which many expect to be purely secular. So what should we do? I offer five theses for understanding the relationship of Christian morality to public law.

First, a liberal democracy must allow all participants in the debate to speak and argue from whatever worldview or convictions they possess. A liberal democracy should say yes to the entry of all citizens into the public conversation. Those citizens will come from many different backgrounds, and they will represent many different worldviews, some more religious and some less, some more secular and some less, some more Christian and some less. But all should be allowed equal access to the conversation. This is a principle that lies at the very heart of a deliberative democracy. Each citizen must be allowed to speak from his deepest convictions, and to identify those convictions without fear of prejudice or of being eliminated from the public debate.

Second, citizens participating in public debate over law and public policy should declare the convictional basis for their arguments. This is where intellectual honesty enters the national conversation. When I debate these issues in the public square, I try to find some way to make clear that I am speaking as a convictional Christian, and that I come to my conclusions by following a certain train of argument that begins at A and ends at B. It is not always possible to articulate such a moral argument comprehensively, but one should at least be honest about the basis for the argument and, insofar as one knows himself, about its motivation as well.

Third, a liberal democracy must accept limits on secular discourse even as it recognizes limits on religious discourse. Of course there are limits on religious discourse. We cannot, for example, take the church covenant of any particular church and make it municipal or national law. The First Amendment to the Constitution disallows the government from establishing a religion. We cannot codify something immediately into law simply because some authority or another says it; there is a deliberative, democratic process in this nation, and there are limits upon the imposition of a religious worldview. But even as we all accept that there are limits upon religious discourse in a liberal, deliberative democracy, we must also recognize that there are limits upon secular discourse. Most importantly, secular discourse does not have the right to eliminate Christian discourse.

Fourth, a liberal democracy must acknowledge the commingling of religious and secular arguments, religious and secular motivations, and religious and secular outcomes. This commingling takes place because we as Christians will argue from a normative moral basis and about moral content, but we will also make arguments about social effects, about the likely outcome of making one moral decision over against another. Even as we base our policy arguments in the moral norms of God’s Word, there are also political and social implications to be considered and included in the discussion.

Fifth, a liberal democracy must acknowledge and respect the rights of all citizens, including its self-consciously religious citizens. One would think such a statement would be unnecessary, since the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically protects religious expression. But as Robert Audi and Kathleen Sullivan understand it, that amendment only protects religious expression insofar as it does not interfere with a purely secular political state. In other words, religious people may talk among themselves about how they would structure society, but they are not free to air those ideas outside the walls of their churches. Christians and their religious, moral arguments ought to be excluded from the national conversation. That idea, however, cannot possibly be reconciled with the founding vision of America, nor with the language of the Constitution, nor with how human beings actually think, act, and speak.

Speaking from Christian conviction, I would finally suggest two principles for our consideration that come directly from the Word of God and from the command of Jesus. In the greatest commandment, we are told to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. The second is like it: We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. A Christian’s motivation for entering the public square and advocating public policy is love of neighbor. Our concern in political, moral, social, and cultural engagement is not simply to impose Christianity–as if the mere imposition of a Christian moral code would be sufficient. Rather, our concern is love for our neighbor. We are motivated by love for other human beings, believing that health and welfare and happiness and commonweal are dependent on society’s being ordered in such a way that the Creator’s intentions for human relationships are honored and upheld–and that will inevitably require restrictions on human conduct. Only when the Creator’s intentions for human society are upheld will His desire for human happiness also be realized among us.

As Christians, we understand the law of the harvest–as we sow, so shall we reap–and thus we must make arguments about action and consequence that deal not only with demographic and economic and cultural realities, but with issues far more important than any considered in the secular world. Love of neighbor means we are compelled out of concern for our fellow citizens to see the law and public policy rightly ordered in such a way that maximum human happiness will be achieved.