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Should the secular state legislate morality?


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#1 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 02:32 AM

As Christians we have a view of what actions (or thoughts) are sinful. The question is do we want the State to make sinful actions illegal, when these actions do not hurt our neighbor or anybody else for that matter.

Lets not forget that when the State legislates behavior, it has a tendency to also force Christians to do things they find sinful, such as forcing Catholic Hospitals to perform abortions or Catholic adoption centers to give babies to Homosexual couples.

What is the Orthodox position on this. Should behaviors like smoking pot, prostitution, gay sex, adultery be illegal or the State should let people exercise their free will as long as what they does not hurt others??

#2 Olga

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 02:44 AM

Ah, but behaviours like smoking pot, prostitution, gay sex, and adultery do indeed hurt others.

#3 Jason H.

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 07:23 AM

This is a little misleading as morality is usually judged by a person's spiritual/theological point of view.

And exactly which "moral" teachings would the State take it's guidance from? Christianity? Judaism? Hinduism? Buddhism? Jainism? Taoism? Paganism? Islam? Humanism? Alienism? :-)

#4 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 09:46 AM

It's a very interesting question. Clearly scripture teaches general conformance with the norms of society - not sure if I have formulated this quite as well one could - pay taxes, acknowledge that rulers keep us safe from brigands and invaders etc.. But should the state go any further than this? I wonder what a society would look like if most of the laws were repealed except perhaps for simple laws against theft, murder, and a few other crimes held to be so by most sane people; and of course the taxes needed to police them and protect the state from invasion.

If you go down the route of thinking about this it's difficult to see that we would be very far away from where we were in the West by about 1950 (after universal suffrage anyway).
Perhaps we need to consider ourselves "Legalising Man" as opposed to "Thinking man" (my Latin is not up to a translation).

What is clear is that the Roman Emperors, and all rulers since, clearly thought that they could 'legislate' compliance with religious principles, as many heretics/martyrs know to their cost/glorification, depending on your point of view.

Since this was put as a 'should' question, I have to say that I lean to the: only legislate when absolutely necessary - all statutes should lapse after 5 years point of view.

Love, Richard.

#5 Olga

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 09:50 AM

There are plenty of physiological/biological consequences in the behaviours listed in post #1, even if we choose to disregard the moral objections.

#6 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 11:14 AM

If civil government truly acts as “God’s servant" and whoever resists civil government as such resists "what God has appointed" as we read in St. Paul's letter to the Romans, then the political order can hardly be amoral, or morally neutral. Precisely BECAUSE we obey it as a matter of conscience, the State must be conscientious-- it cannot force us to do ungodly things and claim our obedience.

The State is under a positive obligation to encourage good and discourage evil. It MUST legislate morality. That DOESN'T mean that EVERY moral stricture needs to be instantiated in law, but a State that claims no moral authority is not a State at all.

Civil government provides both a negative and a positive service to the moral order. Negatively, it restrains evil men from doing evil. Thus, it punishes murderers, not because murder adversely affects the census report, but because the murderer violates the moral law in a very grave way. It is precisely to vindicate moral principle that the civil authority “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).

Positively, civil government also serves the moral order by encouraging the good. “Do what is good and you will have praise from the same." Government does not exist solely for the restraint of evil, but also for the advancement of the good, appreciating and fostering such things as tend to improve the moral existence of men. Thus, the U.S. tax code embodies a special respect and concern for the married state, the latter being the foundation of civil society itself. For the tax code to extend a comparable respect to the households of homosexual unions would be a most serious perversion, because it would encourage moral evil, and moral evil is never in the best interest of society.

With Olga, I think it's obvious we should reject the proposition that there's any private sin that doesn't hurt absolutely everyone. We are called to be members one of another. Christ died for all. What the drug addict does in the privacy of his own home concerns all, because he is engaging in behavior that puts his soul at hazard. Insofar as it is possible, the State should seek to discourage such behavior. How precisely it does so is a proper matter of debate. We must not be indifferent to the negative impact of the law on those whom it is ordered to protect. But neither should we deny that the State has a claim on our conscience, so long as the State doesn't actually force us to disobey God. St. Paul rendered honor to Nero. He didn't worship him.

In Christ,
Evan

Edited by Evan, 31 January 2011 - 11:41 AM.


#7 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 12:23 PM

Thus, the U.S. tax code embodies a special respect and concern for the married state, the latter being the foundation of civil society itself. For the tax code to extend a comparable respect to the households of homosexual unions would be a most serious perversion, because it would encourage moral evil, and moral evil is never in the best interest of society.


Fascinating, my opinion of the Infernal Revenue goes up a notch. UK tax law takes the complete opposite view. Indeed in the UK it is, I understand, illegal for anyone to favour married heterosexuals over civilly-unified homosexuals, and equally old vs. young, male vs. female, melanin-challenged vs. well-tinted, etc..

I have trouble formulating a view on this, myself, which is why I find this thread intriguing.

Richard.

#8 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 12:25 PM

Evan,

I found your reply very articulate. Just let me clarify. According to your thinking, should adultery be illegal? After all, it clearly hurts (and in most times destroy) the whole family. How about fornication? Pornography? cursing/blasphemy?

If the State is truly "God's servant" we would all live in a utopia...but we all know that in reality the State is not "God's servant" We also know, due to the sinful nature of man, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A despot could argue that opposing him is blasphemy, since he is God's annointed servant, (using the scripture you quoted) and thus execute his political opponents. Is this the society you want to live in?

We tried the society you describe before it's called a Theocracy, it always led to tyrannical and corrupt regimes, due to the sinful nature of man. As James Madison said " If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by (sinful) men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Also, Thomas Jefferson in his 1st Inaugural Address, 1801 said "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

Evan, if we find Angels to govern us I'm with you, until then be careful because you might get what you wish for



#9 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 02:42 PM

Evan,

I found your reply very articulate. Just let me clarify. According to your thinking, should adultery be illegal? After all, it clearly hurts (and in most times destroy) the whole family. How about fornication? Pornography? cursing/blasphemy?



Angelos,

To clarify: I did NOT say that every moral conviction can feasibly be instantiated in civil law. We must be prudent and know the limits of the law. To the extent that enacting moral principle into civil law would bring about more negative consequences than withholding from doing so, we should withdraw. On balance, blasphemy, although abominable, is probably something that it would not be prudent to legislate against in a society that's largely given over to blasphemy in many different contexts. It would likely be ineffective and widely resisted, thus denigrating the State's legitimate authority and casting doubt on the moral principle sought to be instantiated.

My point is this: St. Paul recognized a moral obligation to obey Roman law under Nero, to the extent that he would not violate his own conscience in so doing. The Roman state that St. Paul spoke of in his epistle to the Romans had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before and about four years after writing the epistle, Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years after that, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. His attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle.

St. Paul recognized the necessity that men must be governed, and he recognized that the state has a moral duty to discourage evil and promote good. That does NOT mean that we should slavishly obey whatever Caeser says, nor draw the conclusion that Caeser should enact every moral stricture Christians recognize into law. The Church is not the State, and the State is not the Church. But the State has a moral duty to its citizens, citizens have a moral duty to the State, and the Church has always recognized that.

What FORM of government is best suited to discouraging evil and promoting good without, as you say, allowing too much free reign to those in power, is, I think, a different question altogether. There is I think room for differing opinions on this. I wouldn't say that democracy as such is necessarily always and everywhere the proper mode of government, even as I think, as you say, that it can be structured so as to avoid the potential for certain abuses associated with totalitarian regimes.

But denying the State the ability to legislate morality isn't tenable. Insofar as it is a State, it must protect its citizens and nurture virtuous conduct. In order to achieve these goals, it MUST act morally. Or, rather, those who constitute it must be subject to conscience, even as we are subject to them for the sake of conscience.

In Christ,
Evan

Edited by Evan, 31 January 2011 - 03:02 PM.


#10 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 02:59 PM

Evan,

Does what you say implie that if a sin is very popular we should not legislate it (like adultery and blasphemy; both part of the 10 Commandments), but if a sin is only done by a minority (especially by a poor minority without much influence - like drug addicted inner city blacks) we should legislate it, because it's easy to enforce it?

Edited by Angelos, 31 January 2011 - 03:21 PM.


#11 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 03:24 PM

Evan,

Does what you say implies that if a sin is very popular we should not legislate it (like adultery and blasphemy; both part of the 10 Commandments), but if a sin is only done by a minority (especially by a poor minority without much influence - like drug addicted inner city blacks) we should legislate it, because it's easy to enforce it?


It only implies that we should have regard for the practical consequences of enacting laws in deciding whether or not to enact them. That people won't obey a particular law and may come to resent both the authority that enacted it and the moral principle that it seeks to instantiate strikes me as a powerful consideration in whether or not to pass that law.

In my opinion, the history of divorce law in the US provides an excellent illustration of this. We have no-fault divorce in large part because fault-based divorce became a sham that denigrated the legal process and the moral norm reflected in divorce law. Denied the ability to voluntarily divorce, couples would stage adulterous episodes designed to create grounds of "fault" that judges could recognize as such. Judges knew about the collusion, lawyers knew about the collusion, everyone knew about the collusion. Such a regime doesn't really reinforce the moral norm that marriage ought to be a lifelong bond in which husband and wife become one flesh, even if that was the driving force behind it.

We should, I think, know the limits of the law. Some battles are ultimately not worth fighting, even if animated by a noble purpose, because fighting them actually does more harm to that purpose than good. Others are, in spite of very heavy costs, because they reflect an overwhelming state interest and they do produce positive results. In my humble opinion, our current laws prohibiting murder fall into that category, notwithstanding the fact that people continue to commit murder. I would make the same claim regarding our current drug laws, notwithstanding their unpopularity in certain circles. But I think articulating my reasons would take this discussion far outside the scope of this forum.

The question posed was whether the secular state should legislate morality. I follow St. Paul. It should, and indeed it must. How it should is a different question. I think the importance of legislating against some of the activities you've described is obvious and there shouldn't be diversity among Christians concerning them. As to others, I think there's room for substantial disagreement, not as to the immorality of the activities, but as to the prudence of instantiating our moral condemnation of them into law.

In Christ,
Evan

#12 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 03:41 PM

Evan,

I think in the end it comes down to whether you trust (or not) the secular State to legislate according to God's will.

Right now in the US/UK the State has made it illegal for: a) Christian adoption agencies to give babies to gays; b) Churches to refuse to rent out space to gays; c) Christian Hospitals to refuse to perform abortions. This is the morality our secular leaders legislate in practice. I would rather give them less power to impose their arbitrary "moral" values on the rest of us than more.

#13 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 03:51 PM

One can approve the principle while criticizing (and, indeed, holding in utter contempt) the practice. To affirm that men must be governed is not to approve of Nero. Those who pass immoral laws make use of the just authority of the state to do evil on a scale far outstripping that which they could achieve otherwise. They will answer to God for it, having betrayed their collective vocation as "God's minister." (Romans 13:4).

In Christ,
Evan

#14 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 04:28 PM

Evan,

In all fairness to St. Paul what he advocated was for Christians to respect the laws and secular authority (I completely agree with that).

On the other hand, St. Paul, said nothing about how much authority should the secular State have. Of course he said nothing about how much authority should the secular State have, since back then Christians had no say at all in the matter. So lets not quote him to support something that he never meant

This thread is about whether the State should have the power to legislate behavior that the State considers "wrong" even if such behavior harms only the adult who's engaging in it, not whether Christians should obey existing laws

#15 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 05:12 PM

If that's the question, I would say that it is perfectly consistent to affirm the moral authority of the State while refusing to sacrifice to idols or perform abortions, simply because the State affirms it to be the right thing to do.

Perhaps these selections from St. John Chrysostom's homilies will be of use.

On the State's God-given moral authority (from his homilies on Romans):

"He is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that does evil. Now lest you should start off at hearing again of punishment, and vengeance, and a sword, he says again that it is God's law he is carrying out. For what if he does not know it himself? Yet it is God that has so shaped things (οὕτως ἐτύπωσεν). If then, whether in punishing, or in honoring, he be a Minister, in avenging virtue's cause, in driving vice away, as God wills, why be captious against him, when he is the cause of so many good doings, and paves the way for yours too? Since there are many who first practised virtue through the fear of God. For there are a duller sort, whom things to come have not such a hold upon as things present. He then who by fear and rewards gives the soul of the majority a preparatory turn towards its becoming more suited for the word of doctrine, is with good reason called the Minister of God."

On the limits of that authority (from his homilies on St. Matthew):

"But you, when you hear, Render unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's, know that He is speaking only of those things, which are no detriment to godliness; since if it be any such thing as this, such a thing is no longer Cæsar's tribute, but the devil's."

As a secondary point, there's no behavior that only harms the person who is engaging in it.

In Christ,
Evan

#16 Angelos

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 05:17 PM

Evan,

Do you see that the two quotes, the way you interpret them, contradict each other? It goes something like "Yes the ruler has God given authority, BUT I will decide whether he uses that authority properly and if I disagree (based on my interpetation of God's will) then I will disobey!!" The second part, annuls the first.

Interestingly, if my memory serves me right, St. John Chrysostom was quite a rebel and was forced into exile by the secular authorities of his time.

It seems to me that you wish to live in a Theocracy were a saintly ruler aligns the State's laws with God's will. What I'm saying to you is that due to the sinful human nature, everytime you give a ruler so much authority, you're going to end-up with a corrupt tyrant.


As a secondary point, there's no behavior that only harms the person who is engaging in it.


who else do I harm when: a) I'm smoking in my own home; b) buy a happy meal at McDonalds (actually illegal in San Francisco)?

Edited by Angelos, 31 January 2011 - 05:46 PM.


#17 Evan

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Posted 31 January 2011 - 05:43 PM

who else do I harm when: a) I'm smoking in my own home; b) buy a happy meal at McDonalds (actually illegal in San Francisco)?


Angelos,

Everyone owes everyone a morally upright life. That being the case, any moral failure on anyone's part affects everyone else.

I think we must say that buying a happy meal would not be sinful, considered in itself. However, disobeying the law would be sinful. You'd be harming the rest of us by disobeying a law for an illegitimate reason, as we depend upon the State for the proper ordering of society and we should not undermine its God-given authority without a grave and overriding claim on our own conscience to support it. That moral failure affects everyone.

One might respond: It's a silly law. Yes, but is it an unjust law? Would you be betraying your conscience by obeying it? If not, I think we must give Caeser his due. If you don't like it, petition your legislature, but don't undermine the social fabric with irresponsible civil disobedience.

Drug use is, however, sinful, independently of whether or not it is illegal. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. That's a difficult thing to do when you're closed up in your home, distorting your perception of reality. That moral failure affects everyone.

I'm concerned that this discussion is becoming unproductive. I think I've stated accurately the Church's understanding of the function the State has in discouraging evil and promoting good, and its authority from God to act in that function. Generally speaking-- proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order---the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience. They are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God.The nuts and bolts of how the State should perform its role as God's minister is I think a matter of debate outside the scope of this forum.

In Christ,
Evan

Edited by Evan, 31 January 2011 - 06:06 PM.


#18 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 12:32 AM

Evan,

Do you see that the two quotes, the way you interpret them, contradict each other? It goes something like "Yes the ruler has God given authority, BUT I will decide whether he uses that authority properly and if I disagree (based on my interpetation of God's will) then I will disobey!!" The second part, annuls the first.

Interestingly, if my memory serves me right, St. John Chrysostom was quite a rebel and was forced into exile by the secular authorities of his time.


So do you also claim that St. John was contradicting himself? Or perhaps you are simply not quite understanding the nuances.

It seems to me that you wish to live in a Theocracy were a saintly ruler aligns the State's laws with God's will. What I'm saying to you is that due to the sinful human nature, everytime you give a ruler so much authority, you're going to end-up with a corrupt tyrant.


Um, well, duh?

who else do I harm when: a) I'm smoking in my own home; b) buy a happy meal at McDonalds (actually illegal in San Francisco)?


ME! Because if you come down with lung cancer or arteriosclerosis you help drive up medical insurance costs for everybody, thank you very much.

Is that so hard to understand?

#19 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 12:41 PM

As Christians we have a view of what actions (or thoughts) are sinful. The question is do we want the State to make sinful actions illegal, when these actions do not hurt our neighbor or anybody else for that matter.

Lets not forget that when the State legislates behavior, it has a tendency to also force Christians to do things they find sinful, such as forcing Catholic Hospitals to perform abortions or Catholic adoption centers to give babies to Homosexual couples.

What is the Orthodox position on this. Should behaviors like smoking pot, prostitution, gay sex, adultery be illegal or the State should let people exercise their free will as long as what they does not hurt others??


The discussion throughout this thread is very interesting.

One thing very evident is that few of us anymore remember when society did legislate morality. This general state lasted up until about the 1960s or so when as it was said in Canada (for example) the state should not be in the bedrooms of the nation. This sounded very convincing. But it goes completely against a Christian understanding of society as it existed for about 1600 years.

The basis of this was never to create a utopia. This would have been seen basically as heretical from a Christian point of view (ie chiliasm- the Kingdom is already established). Rather the idea was that we live in a community made up of those of similar mind & ideals and that sin does affect the life of the whole community (no man is an island was also a popular saying at one time).

In other words what was behind this is how unity of mind holds together the community (this was a reworking of the Roman/Hellenist ideal). And that the ideal is defined in terms of sin and virtue which also was the chief moral norm until about 40 years ago.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#20 Angelos

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 04:33 PM

The discussion throughout this thread is very interesting.

One thing very evident is that few of us anymore remember when society did legislate morality. This general state lasted up until about the 1960s or so when as it was said in Canada (for example) the state should not be in the bedrooms of the nation. This sounded very convincing. But it goes completely against a Christian understanding of society as it existed for about 1600 years.

The basis of this was never to create a utopia. This would have been seen basically as heretical from a Christian point of view (ie chiliasm- the Kingdom is already established). Rather the idea was that we live in a community made up of those of similar mind & ideals and that sin does affect the life of the whole community (no man is an island was also a popular saying at one time).

In other words what was behind this is how unity of mind holds together the community (this was a reworking of the Roman/Hellenist ideal). And that the ideal is defined in terms of sin and virtue which also was the chief moral norm until about 40 years ago.

In Christ- Fr Raphael


Father,

I think the model you are describing could work in small homogeneous countries where observant Christians are the large majority. However, as you also mentioned, we do not live in such countries (I'm including the US, the UK and Canada). We live in countries where the Federal Government is explicitly secular (as you mentioned). So, what I'm advocating is that Christians will be better off with less Government power.

That way we could at least live in an environment where we are not forced to perform abortions in our Hospitals, rent Church space for gay functions, or give babies for adoption to gay couples. Even better if the State gets out of the "marriage" business, the only marriages performed will be in Churches (and Temples)...and if someone was to create a private contract (not subsidized by the State) to regulate their sexual relationship outside the Church, let them call it "civil union"

What is far worse if Obama gets his way, now that ALL Americans are forced by law to buy Insurance, if that insurance covers Abortion, Christians in the US will be forced to pay and finance the killing of unborn babies (I think in the UK and Canada this is already happening).

I think the only way for Christians to live as Christians in our Western European/North American countries is for the Government to get out of the business of legislating behavior. The Government has an important function: keep everyone safe from outside enemies and criminals...they should stick with just that narrow Constitutional mandate.

Edited by Angelos, 01 February 2011 - 04:48 PM.





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