Big Questions

Ethics

Q What’s wrong with imposing Christian morality on our society? God’s laws are right and good for all. Should we let political correctness stop us?

A God’s ethical laws are indeed right and good for all. However, the separation of church and state in the U.S. and Canada means we must avoid crossing the line into imposing our religion on others. The state must not promote one religion over others or jeopardize freedom of conscience and religious freedom, including Christian religious freedom.

Since it is never easy to divorce Christian morality from its religious roots, this should give us pause and make us tread carefully.

The answer is not either/or: either we impose our morality or compel others by legislating it, or we withdraw and keep our convictions private. Apart from imposing our morality or being indifferent, we can exert influence on society by educating, encouraging, building awareness, and persuading. Such influence can help us achieve the same goal while leaving people’s freedom intact. Christians can do a lot of good without resorting to coercive measures.

God’s commands to do justice (Micah 6:8), to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and to do to others as we would have them do to us (Matt. 7:12) should make us avoid coercing others into a morality they have not embraced.

There may possibly be issues and occasions where either legislation or indifference is appropriate. But since the former can deny people the respect and freedom they deserve as God’s imagebearers, we should resort to it only carefully and rarely.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

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Comments

Of course government SHOULD impose "Christian morality" -- just not all of it.  The key to answering this question is to consider what Kuyper talked about that has come to known as "sphere sovereignty."  

"Do not murder" is a  "Christian morality" rule. Should government not impose that rule because it is "Christian," because of the "separation of church and state?"   Of course not.

On the other hand, is it also outside "Christian morality" to take God's name in vain and to worship idols.  Should government enforce those moral rules.  No it should not (I would say at least).  But why not (the critical question)?  Answer: Because enforcing those rules of morality are not part of the task of government (as defined by a Calvinist worldview, BTW).  Again, the key here is discerning what the task of government is and is not, rather than discerning which moral rules are Christian and which are otherwise.

Thanks Shiao for this article or response to the question of imposing Christian morality on society.  And welcome to your new post as editor in chief of the Banner.  I look forward to your leadership and involvement.  I think you got the response right on this question.  The question I often ask is, how would I feel if Muslim or Hindu morality or laws were imposed on me?  Living in a multi cultural and multi religious society, as well as a democracy, necessitates a separation of church (religion) and state.  Otherwise we might fall closer to a government of theocracy where religion sets the rules for the society.  That worked in the Old Testament for Israel but would not work today.  Which religion would be given the precedence of leadership? And certainly it is part of our Christian witness to respect the religious rights of others, in other words, not to impose our Christian views on others.  That is where Christians get themselves in trouble, thinking they know better than everyone else what is good for others.  Christians tend to be “know it alls.”  I even reflect such an attitude in your answer, “God’s ethical laws are indeed right and good for all.”  I take it, by “God’s ethical laws,” you mean Christian morality.

If there is a place in which Christian morality could logically govern people, it would be the church.  But that doesn’t seem to work well, especially with the multitude of Christian denominations, so why would Christians even think it wise to impose it’s unique morality more broadly on society when it can’t even do it within the Christian church?

Doug, I think you picked the wrong example to make your point in regard to sphere sovereignty.  “Murder” is the wrong example to choose as a Christian morality rule.  It is a rule of almost every religion, as well as those of no religion.  Laws against murder is an example of civil or societal justice, rather than Christian morality.  Perhaps you should have picked an example that is more uniquely Christian.  But then the sphere sovereignty part begins to get foggy and iffy.  You could have picked issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, euthanasia, or divorce.  These are issues that Christians have tried to impose their views on society.  I doubt that the sphere sovereignty argument works very well on such issues, because how do you distinguish between spheres of religion and government on such issues?  There are religious (Christian) arguments for or against all of these issues and the church wants the government to act in favor of the church on all of them.  That would be like the more radical Muslim religion wanting the government to legislate rules against the equality of women to men in our society. 

Maybe the church should be more concerned with its own morality within the church.  Then maybe the church would have a greater influence on our society by its own example.  But of course, if the church tried to impose or legislate its own Christian morality on its members, then the church would be reverting back to a Pharisaical Jewish legalism, the very thing that Christ opposed.  Christians, in contrast to legalisms, are to be governed and led by the Holy Spirit.  Until the church can get its own act together it should be less concerned with our society getting under the thumb of Christian morality.  Thanks Shiao for a good response.  And again, welcome aboard.

Roger: You suggest I picked the wrong moral rule, "do not murder," for my example because all religions have that rule.  You then suggest I would have difficulty in my analysis if I used the other examples, indicating abortion as one of them.

I quite disagree.  Unborn babies are people, even if the Christian faith regards them as such and other faiths might not.  And if they are people, and if one of government's tasks is to protect human life from the unjust termination by others, then Christians ought to advocate that government protect unborn people, the claims by some that "Christians are trying to ram their religion down the throats of others" notwithstanding.

Worshippers of Baal sacrificed their born children to their God.  Should that be cause for Christians to say government should permit child sacrifice?  

Lest you claim this ecample represents only an OT state of affairs that no longer exists, I would refer you to that New England Journal of Medicine (I think it was that publication) article of several years back, where two "medical ethicists" of international respectability  (writing in a highly respected journal) proposed that infanticide was no different in essence than abortion, given than born babies, like preborn babies, had no sense of the future and therefor suffered no loss if they were "terminated" prior to gaining that sense.

The logic of these authors is pretty solid of course, but they take no account that children, before or after born, are woven by God as his image bearers.

So the question, Roger, is whether you would encourage Christians to oppose governmental acquiescence in infanticide in order to avoid the accusation that "Christians are trying to cram their religion down the throats of others"?

Doug, your argument may sound solid at first blush, but it has done nothing to convince our supreme court justices that abortion should be outlawed.  And the argument has been made on several occasions.  The question, as to the legality of abortion, hinges on the point of development at which human life is considered viable.  For the courts that apparently means the point at which a fetus has reached a stage of development as to be capable of living, under normal conditions, outside the uterus.  Up until that point, the courts for legal purposes do not consider the fetus a viable living person.  So in the courts eyes they are not considered as people, having the same rights as fully developed people.

Of course, such an answer does not satisfy many Christians. The Christian position is that human life begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage is sin or wrong and should be illegal.  Christians can show Bible proof texts to show that this is the Biblical position. 

But the Christian argument goes further.  I think that most cultures, certainly American and Canadian culture, put a premium on human life.  But our culture, as well as our justice system,  does not put the same premium on human life that Christians do.  Christians consider human life, not only valuable but sacred, because humans have been created in God’s image, unlike any other living creature or animal.  That’s why the taking of an animal’s life or its unborn offspring is no big deal even in the mind of Christians (maybe especially in the mind of Christians).  Only human life is sacred and therefore supremely valuable.  That is why abortion is considered as a sin by many Christians.  This is the Christian argument against abortion.  Even a severely handicapped baby or a baby conceived as a result of rape should not be aborted because it too is an image bearer of God.  But this is a distinctly Christian teaching which the courts will not consider because of a separation of church and state.  A distinctly Christian argument will not hold sway in our courts, just as the religious arguments of other religions will not hold sway. 

Christian “right to life” advocates have tried to accommodate the courts by dumbing down their arguments, trying to sound less than Christian.  So we end up preaching a distinctly Christian morality from our pulpits, but arguing a different and lesser rationale in court.  The courts, having a different understanding of the point in time when viable human life begins than Christians, and having a different perspective on the elevated value of human life, believe that the mother and her choices take precedence over the rights of the unborn fetus, who has little or no rights.  Of course that all changes once the child is born and takes on the status of being a viable human person.  That is why abortion and infanticide are considered as two distinctly different issues. 

So again, this “sphere sovereignty” perspective becomes foggy and iffy on such an issue.  It might be a legal issue for Christians, but only if they understand the issue of abortion from a Christian religious perspective.  It would make more sense to see this issue as a moral issue within the church and not within society.  But yet the church (CRC) wants to impose its unique Christian perspective on society.  This is very different from the case of murder, of which all people in our culture would consider as unlawful and should be prohibited. 

If the church wants to legislate its morality on anyone, it should be within the church, the group that holds common values.  But again, as said earlier, that (imposing laws) would be following the pattern of Pharisaical legalism rather than being led by the Holy Spirit.  So as suggested by our new editor, the separation of church and state means we must avoid crossing the line of imposing our religion on others.

Roger.  You seem to be changing the initial question, giving an answer to some other question.  I'm well aware that a majority of the US Sup Ct has disagreed with me, but that is no cause to say that those five justices are correct, nor that Christians should not argue for the correct government perspective, using biblically based reasoning.  

Nor does the perspective of Kuyperian sphere sovereignty suggest that Christians should declare a biblical perspective of government and its duty to protect human life merely "an inappropriate attempt to shove our morality down the throats of others" when 5 justices disagree.

All theories of government emanate from faith.  Why do you so badly want Christians to abandon their faith as a foundation from which they define good government when that perspective encounters disagreement?  (Non-christians don't do that).

Hey Doug.  The original question asked if it was wrong to impose Christian morality on our society?   Our editor answered that it is important to keep in mind the principle of the separation of church and state.  Further he said it is difficult to divorce Christian morality from its religious roots.  To this, I agreed.  Wasn’t that the original question? 

Living in a democracy, made up of many religions, as well as those of no religion, our country attempts to govern justly for the good of all without weighing on the side of any one or any religion.  Our government is not allowed a religious bias when establishing law.  If a source is to be considered as a guide in establishing law, it would be the constitution, not the Bible, the Koran, or the book of Mormon.  As to establishing abortion laws, religious principles are not considered as a criteria for making law. 

Both the viability of human personhood beginning at conception, and the “sacredness” of human life are Christian principles that should be recognized as religious in origin.  Considering the separation of church and state, such religious principles are not considered in making law.  And yet Christians (CRC) cry “foul” because lawmakers will not consider their religious grounds for making abortion illegal at all stages of pregnancy.  It all comes back to this “separation of church and state.”  How have changed the original question?

You ask, Doug, “why I want so badly for Christians to abandon their faith as a foundation from which they define good government when that perspective encounters disagreement?”  The simple answer is that I believe in the separation of church and state.  I don’t want other religions forcing their moral and religious beliefs on me, even when they are totally convinced that their proposed laws and beliefs are for the good of everyone.  That same principle applies to Christians.

As I said in a previous response, the place where Christian beliefs should be lived out is in one’s personal life and in the church, without forcing those laws and principles on others.  As I also said, legislating law for the church would seem like a backward step into the system of religion that Jesus was opposed to (a Jewish Pharisaical legalism).  Such a system dismisses the leadership and compelling character of the Holy Spirit, which seems to me to be one of the fundamental differences between Old Testament and New Testament religion.  I hope I didn’t miss answering the original question this time.

You are confusing "separation between church and state" with "separation between religion and state" Roger.  Seems slight but it is in fact great.

All theories about anything are rooted in prerational presupposition, also referred to as faith, or religion, including the theory of government, that is, what government should be and do and what it should not be and do.  Thankfully, the implemented American theory of government historically emanates from Calvinism, not purely but more that than any other worldview.  One of the results of that history is that we do have "separation between the (institution of) church and the (institution of) government."  But this principle is in itself a Christian (Calvinist, to be specific) idea.

Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Musilini, and many others who were able to create governments out of their worldview (faith), in their time and place, created something very different than the American system of government.  None of these theories about what goverment is and should do exists without a faith (worldview) foundation.  To repeat, there can be no such thing.

One of the great things about a Calvinist worldview based system of government is that is has and does result in "separation between church and state," but you ought not confuse that, as you are, with the suggestion that a theory of government can exist without an underlying worldview. Certainly, Christians can forget, not be aware of, or abandon what government is and should be (as derived from a Calvinist worldview), and when they do, they often try to "control others" with the power of government as to matters where they should not.  To require that all citizens be Christian would be such an abuse, and perhaps some Christians would want to do that (and I would oppose such efforts).  But that would be inconsistent with a Calvinism worldview based theory of government.

Of course, many governments did require "religious unanimity," or something akin to that.  Some Muslim nations do.  European nations used to.  We are past that now, not in spite of religion but because of the particular (religious) worldview that happened to produce the separation between institutional church and government that you and I both agree is part of good government.

So what are the other parts of good government?  We can argue about that of course, but will continue to insist that figuring that out is best done by reaching back into the Calvinist worldview perspective, and not by merely taking a vote.  The latter approach  (whatever people say in sufficient numbers is right) was the basis of the French revolution (condemned by Abraham Kuyper).  In contrast, the American revolution (praised by Abraham Kuyper) presumed a source for law (government) other than the will of a sufficient quantity of the people.

Thus my perspective about infanticide and abortion.  It's proper for government to prohibit both, even if worshippers of Baal or Hitler or even a majority of Americans think otherwise.  Call it "shoving my religion down the throats of others" if you like.  It's not.

Thanks Doug, for the lesson on the philosophy of governments.  I’m not disputing what you suggest about the theories or worldviews of all governments and the Calvinist roots of our American government.  If it is indeed a Calvinistic and Christian idea to maintain a separation of the institution of the church and the institution of the state, then why would Christians impose its unique Christian principles into the government’s laws for society?  You do suggest that a separation of church and state is one of our government’s fundamental principles.  What that means and doesn’t mean is fleshed out by your suggestion, “To require that all citizens be Christian would be such an abuse, and perhaps some Christians would want to do that (and I would oppose such efforts).  But yet, Doug, you want to make society comply to Christianity by legislating laws (such as Christian abortion laws) based on Biblical Christian principles. And yes, this is as you say, “shoving my religion down the throats of others.”  That’s how the majority of our population, as well as our supreme court, sees it.  That’s why our courts and government will not legislate laws prohibiting abortion from the time of conception.  Unlike many Christians, the courts do not consider early stage pregnancy fetuses as viable human persons, nor do they consider human life as sacred.  As determined by the courts, as well as the medical profession in general, a fetus is not considered viable until, under normal conditions, it is able to live outside the uterus.  You have to disregard the separation of church and state (a Christian principle of government) to push the Christian view on the state.

As I have been saying all along, the place where Kingdom principles are best applied is in the individual Christian’s life, as well as in the church.  Such a perspective certainly has the backing of Jesus, who said his kingdom is not of this world.  The Holy Spirit (in Reformed thought) enables and compels God’s chosen ones, not only to bow before Christ for salvation, but to live the Spirit directed life.  Aren’t Christians promised that the Holy Spirit will lead his church?  But this promise is only for the chosen, the church.  Those outside the church are not given that promise of the Holy Spirit.  So the natural place to apply Christian principles is in the lives of individual Christians and in the church.  So why not compel Christians to live by kingdom principles?  Why would you try to legislate laws for society without first doing the same thing for Christians and the church?  You must see the animosity that Christianity creates when a separation of church and state is not recognized by the church and it tries push Christianity on those who are not necessarily Christians.  Then society feels as though Christians are trying to shove the Christian faith down its throat.  Again as our editor has suggested, it is difficult to separate Christian morality from its religious roots, so Christians should tread carefully. 

I think, Doug, you must think it is a good thing to push Christian principles and laws on unbelievers.  Do you really think the animosity that non Christians feel is part of a good witness?  Why would you want to do something that is so unchristian? 

This Christian perspective advocating a separation of church and state applies to all religions.  Aren’t you glad for that?  I think your argument would change if it was the more extreme Muslim religion trying to advocate for the suppression of women in our society.  No?

Either I am not being sufficiently articulate, Roger, or you are not, or not wanting, to read my posts for what they are saying.  Your above doubles down on French Revolution thinking, claiming that if enough people (or a Sup Ct majority) says government should do this or that, and if Christians disagree, they should give up that disagreement lest they be guilty of wrongfully attempting legislate their morality.

Read your own comments carefully, Roger.  By your reasoning, Christians should acquiesce in all of the following and much more if enough people in society (or a Sup Ct majority) so declares.

    - The killing of full term preborn babies should be lawful

    - The infanticide killing of children up to a certain age should be lawful 

     - Gay sex and adultery should be punished with the death penalty 

     - Fathers should be lawfully allowed to abandon their children

     - Slavery should be allowed

To repeat, religious presupposition underlies everything people do or claim, theories of what government should or should not do being among them.  Christians ignore God's call to be in the world but not of it if they merely acquiesce in whatever a majority says government should be, do or not do merely because the majority says so.

I'm assuming, Roger, you are not a fan of Kuyper's"not one square inch" claim?

Doug, it may be that we are talking past each other.  As much as I refuse to give into your view, you are doing the same, and it feels like you are not listening to my arguments, or responding to them.  So I’ll try one more time, and then let it go.

This whole thing of “separation of church and state” came about first from Martin Luther (not Calvin) and was a reference to his idea of two kingdoms, or the two kingdoms doctrine.  As you suggest it had Christian roots.  The original idea had to do with how God rules the world, either by the sword (law) or by the gospel (the transformed lives of Christians).  But it didn’t take long and Luther’s idea went in a variety of directions, including Calvin’s direction.  It has become much more than simply a freedom of religion idea, the idea that all people have the freedom to choose their own religion, or that the state cannot impose any one religion (a state religion) on its citizens.  And it is much more than that in the U.S.   Separation of church and state although originating with Christians and seen as an idea of preserving the rights of Christians to worship freely or not allowing anyone, including the state, to take their freedom of worship away.  It has also become a foundational principle for those of other religions or no religion to say that no one religion (Christians) can force their religion down our throats.  People of other religions or no religion can rightly expect the government (or state) to protect their rights of religious freedom.  I think, Doug, this is the part you are not getting.

There have been some key political (or religious) issues that have come up in the U.S. that has resulted in talking about the “wall” between religion and the state, the wall that separates and maintains a separation of religion from politics.  How high and how solid is the wall that separates the two?

Prayer in public schools has been a notable example.  Can children be forced to pray in public schools, even if the prayers are turned into generic ones?  What about the rights of those who do not pray or wish to?  Hence, the removal of prayer from public schools.  Another example had to do with the funding of transportation for Christian school children to and from schools.  Was it right for the state to pay for such transportation with state funds or should such funding be reserved only for public education?  If parents choose to put their children in Christian (or private) schools shouldn’t they also pay for such transportation to such schools?  Another big issue has pertained to the teaching of the Christian theory (the Genesis account) of origins in public schools.  It might be fine to teach such a theory in a Christian school, but in a public school wasn’t that infringing on the rights of those who were not Christian?  Should the public schools be in the business of teaching Christian doctrine?     Nativity scenes in front of civil court houses is just one more example that makes the point of recognizing that there should be a wall of separation between the church and state.          The wall of separation between state and church has become a protection as much for those who are not Christian, as for those who are.  You don’t seem to understand this.

And now comes the issue of abortion.  Should Christians be allowed to force their views of human life and when it begins on everyone else?  It’s fine for Christians to have such views, and even impose them on their own church, but they shouldn’t be allowed to impose their Christian views on everyone else.  That human personhood begins at conception and that human life, in contrast to animal life, is sacred are Christian teachings. And it is from these teachings that many Christians believe that abortion should be denied to all American citizens, and that the rights of the mother over her own body should be secondary, as well, in such situations.

Like, with the prayer issue, Christians can try to remove the Christian offense from their arguments, but that doesn’t remove the rationale for permitting abortion (up through a certain stage of pregnancy or viability) that others argue for.  What would be ashamed, would be if the church began to water down its distinctly Christian argument in the church to meet the argument they have begun to use on the state.  So it comes down to this wall of separation between the church and the state.   It’s not only a matter of protecting the rights of Christians and other religions, but protecting the rights of those who are not Christian, as well, hence a wall of separation.

It comes back to Martin Luther and his idea of two kingdoms.  It’s too bad, but many Christians assume that the two kingdoms of Luther are a Kingdom of light and one of darkness, one good and one bad.  That misses the point altogether.  It actually goes back to New Testament teaching, in which Christ taught that his kingdom was not of this world, and to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and Paul’s teaching to respect the civil authorities that govern us.

The O.T. Jewish nation of Israel was a theocratic nation, a nation governed by God’s laws.  It was not a democracy.  Religious law ruled the nation, and of such law there was no dispute.  With the overrun of the Jews on several occasions, the Jews lost their autonomy and right to govern themselves.  But still in Jesus’ day there was the hope that their kingdom would be restored and that God alone would be their ruler, if even through a God appointed king, such as David.  Jesus didn’t buy into such hopes, certainly not in the way the Jews, and even the disciples, were hoping for.  Jesus recognized that God’s rule would take place first and foremost in people’s individual hearts, and for Paul it seemed to be the church where such rule was displayed.  But neither Jesus, nor Paul, sought the overrule of civil government by Christian law or the church.  The civil government was depicted as playing a good and healthy role in the lives of a nation and its people (which seems surprising to many Christians).  The New Testament (especially Jesus and Paul) understood the difference between the two kingdoms, and that Jesus was more concerned with the advancement of the spiritual rather than the civil.  That should also be the concern of the church and individual Christians today.

I think the state, or U.S. and Canadian governments, have made the right decision in regard to abortion law.  As much as I don’t want the principles and laws of other religions imposed on me, I don’t want to impose my Christianity on anyone else through force or law.  So I am thankful for a government that attempts to protect the rights of all citizens.  I still have the right to uphold and practice Christian principles in my life and to even promote such ideas.  The state protects that right.  I just cannot force those ideas on others, nor will my government force those ideas on others.  And that is where the civil government is a servant of all its citizens.  It is indeed great to be an American (or Canadian), as well as a citizen of God’s kingdom (the idea of two kingdoms).

And this all comes back to the original question of, “what’s wrong with imposing Christian morality on our society.

Let's get simple Roger, by using an example you I've already try to get you to respond to.  If the majority of the population and the Supreme Court both decided that it was appropriate for government to allow its citizens to kill their children after birth until they reached the age of 3 months, would Christians be:

    1) inappropriately attempting to cram their religion down the throats of others when they lobby to change that law? or

     2) appropriately trying to get government to recognize its duty as government when they lobby to change that law?

It's one or the other Roger.  I say #2.  And you say?

I’ll keep it simple, too, Doug.  Let’s just say that you can prove anything you want by setting up a straw man, but in reality, you prove nothing.  Definition of a straw man: “a fabricated or conveniently weak or innocuous person, object, matter, etc., used as a seeming adversary or argument.”  Another definition: “A made-up version of an opponent's argument that can easily be defeated.”  If I was to follow your logic, I might wonder why you would pick the age of three months to allow for the killing of children.  Why not say three years, or ten years, or even 21 years.  In fact, as long as we are setting up straw men, why not just legalize murder?  The fact is, Doug, abortion is legal up until the point of viability when a fetus is considered as a person (in the eyes of the law), and the murder of children or anyone is illegal.  That includes infanticide.  That’s the law and the reality.  Why don’t you simply stick to the situation as it is?

OK Roger.  This wasn't a "straw man" tactic as you claim but rather a concrete example that could illuminate the theory behind our positions.

I can't explain more than I have, so I'm done with this exchange.

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