Monday, September 08, 2008

Is it right for those in government to enforce their religious beliefs and norms on their subjects?

This question is normally raised by secularists, or at least those who disagree with the religious beliefs of the government, but I of course being me, I want to answer it from a Christian perspective.

The question is related to the question of freedom of religion. People generally see that as a good thing, but personally I think it’s meaningless and impossible. The US constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but this doesn’t seem to stop them passing laws against some religiously motivated practices, such as ritual sacrifice or abuse, 9/11, cannabis smoking, or proselytising in certain circumstances. You can get around some of this by redefining the freedom as not extending to things one person does to another, but that is effectively establishing a personalised approach to faith – something that is not entirely compatible with Christianity, let alone many other religions. Freedom of religion is meaningless unless it guarantees you freedom to break the law when your personal faith / morality / worldview demands it, and for that reason, I don’t think any country can or should attempt to guarantee it. The nature of democracy or government at all is effectively that it enforces laws on people whether they like them or not. Even if a democracy only enacts laws which the majority agree with (which in itself is blatantly not the case, and sometimes probably rightly so), it can still pass laws which a minority disagree with. That incidentally is one of the reasons why democracy as we understand it really doesn’t work in countries that are deeply divided on racial or religious lines … but I digress.

So there are times when the government does pass laws restricting people’s freedom, religious or otherwise, and rightly so. That being the case, and me being a Christian, should I support legislation which brings the laws of the land more in line with Christian principles?

There are people who would say I should. One of the arguments goes like this: in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel suffered or prospered according to the behaviour of its citizens, therefore by passing laws forcing to behave in a more Christian manner, we will experience God’s favour on our nation. I think that’s a fallacious and very dangerous argument. Israel in the Old Testament was God’s country, his chosen people. In new testament times, no nation can claim to be God’s country. (To say otherwise is idolatry). God’s people now are not a physical nation but a spiritual one, gathered together from every tribe and tongue and nation (Gal 3:28-29; Revelation 7:9 etc). In the New Testament model, we are not judged and treated as a nation, but as individuals (fulfilling the fantastic prophesy of Jeremiah 31:29-30).

So putting aside that argument, there’s the argument that people are better off following God’s rules for their life. That’s sort of true, but also a bit of a dubious argument; first, because people don’t always obey the laws, and making things illegal can cause problems in itself (for example, drug and alcohol prohibition laws payroll a lot of organized crime and are responsible for a lot of very disorganized crime).

And there’s a bigger issue here. What is the biggest sin a person can commit? Answer: to reject God – i.e., not be a Christian. (If you are a Christian and came up with a different answer, then think again). Should that be illegal? And would you really change anyone’s beliefs or faith if you did? I very much doubt it. And if it’s not worth legislating for that, why bother about lesser things?

There’s a good biblical precedent for this too: that the laws of a state should not necessarily be the same as God’s laws of right and wrong. In the Old Testament, the God-given law for the Jewish people permitted divorce. But this was not because God things divorce is acceptable, as Jesus makes clear (Mark 5:1-12). Rather it was because making divorce illegal would have caused social ills that far outweighed the benefit of the moral guidance such a law might have provided. Lets face it, whatever the law says, people don’t divorce without some kind of sin being involved. The laws of the land are not just about what is ethical; they are more about what is practical.

There is a strand of Christian teaching in the US in particular that runs pretty much contrary to everything I’m saying here. That’s kind of why I’m writing this, because I think those views are wrong and damaging. I was particularly prompted to write by the example of Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin, although not knowing much about either of them (who does?) I can’t comment on how much I agree or disagree with their views in particular. I was interested though in a comment on the news that Republican supporters (who, like all groups mentioned on the news, always think alike) say that Bristol’s pregnancy doesn’t reflect on her mom, but praise Sarah for teaching her daughter well enough that she’s getting married and not having an abortion. Well, you can’t have it both ways. I personally hope that the decisions are Bristol’s and not the result of parental pressure; in particular, I think that getting married because you are pregnant shows a lack of respect for marriage. Marriage is for life, not just for babies – but I digress again.

This strand of Christianity seems to see benefit in trying to persuade people who don’t believe in Jesus to behave as if they did. That for me is the worst thing about this teaching; because that is ultimately preaching a gospel of works, not of salvation by faith. It feeds the common misconception that the essence of Christianity is that if you do the right things, you will go to heaven, and if you don’t you won’t. This is the antithesis of true Christianity, which says that if you try to do the right things, you will fail, but if you do the wrong things, you can be forgiven through Jesus. Campaigning for stronger laws and vilifying those who break them is not Christian, it is anti-Christian. It’s worth remembering that the strongest criticism in the New Testament is aimed not at the pagans, but at Christians who are more interested in making and following rules than in spreading God’s forgiveness (Matthew 23; Galatians 5:12).

For those of you who are US citizens – bear that in mind as you vote on November 4th.


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