God’s law, or man’s law?

God’s law, or man’s law? July 19, 2015


Muslims at prayer
Muslims praying in the Grand Mosque of Nishapur, in Iran, in a photograph taken back in November 2013
(Click to enlarge.)
Photo by Sonia Sevilla


I’ve occasionally heard and seen comments to the effect that Muslims can’t be loyal Americans because their first allegiance is to Islam rather than to the United States.


But I would hope that, mutatis mutandis, the same thing can also and always be said of me.


Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not proclaiming myself an insurrectionist or a traitor.  Nor, despite my concerns about current legal, political, and moral trends, am I an alarmist who thinks we ought to commence a campaign or civil disobedience or overthrow the government any time soon.


And I’m hardly oblivious to the fact that at least some American Muslims are disloyal and are plotting harm against the United States, its interests, and its people.  We likely saw an example of that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a few days ago.


Do we have grounds for concern about some Muslim extremists?  Absolutely.  We do.


But I want to speak about a more general principle.


It seems to me obvious that Christians, for instance, have a higher loyalty than mere patriotism — high and honorable as patriotism often is.  Consider, for example, what Peter and the other apostles are recorded as saying at Acts 5:29:  “We ought to obey God rather than men.”  (Compare 4:19.)


But it appears plain to me that this principle applies far beyond Christianity, and even far beyond religion itself.


There should be an absolute moral basis, an ethical fundamental, something bedrock, by which we make our decisions and on which we carry out our actions.  But that absolute cannot simply be the State — even if the particular state in question happens to be, on the whole, a pretty good one.


In other words, I cannot say “My country, right or wrong.”  (For the interesting history of that phrase, and some needed nuance, see here.)  It’s conceivable, though I hope very unlikely, that my country could someday go so grossly wrong that it would cease to be my country, that I would be unable to remain loyal to it.


Many years ago, at the end of a radio call-in show in Salt Lake City, a man phoned in, wanting to know whether I would support dropping nuclear bombs on Basra and Baghdad.  This was during the first Gulf War, and at a time when U.S. and coalition troops were going through Iraqi lines like a hot knife through melted butter.


Basra and Baghdad weren’t even involved, militarily.


I said “Absolutely not!”  I could see no purpose for incinerating perhaps 4.5 million innocent non-combatants, and I said that, were we to do such a thing, we would instantly and forever forfeit any claim of occupying the moral high ground.  I also said that I would immediately be out on the streets calling for the impeachment of a president who would order utterly unnecessary mass murder on so horrendous a scale.


The caller replied “It’s spineless liberals like you that cost us the war in Vietnam,” and hung up.  I couldn’t wait to tell some of my Democratic BYU colleagues the next morning that I’d been called a “spineless liberal” for failing to endorse the nuking of millions of civilians for no particular reason.)


That, of course, was an extreme, even lunatic, proposal, and the United States never even contemplated such an act of barbaric mass murder.


But when would an obligation to resist or to disobey kick in?  There is no easy formula.  At the margins, decisions are hard.  There is tension, and, pending utopia or the arrival of the millennium, there should be tension, between loyalty to a state and fidelity to personal moral beliefs.  Moreover, good people will disagree about such things; I would imagine that both the American Revolutionaries who backed General Washington and the Tory loyalists who continued to favor King George III were, very commonly, good people.  And, surely, the threshold ought to be very high.  This isn’t an invitation to mere anarchy, or to light and flippant disobedience to every law that we dislike.


But it seems obvious to me, beyond reasonable dispute, that our moral absolute cannot simply be the State.


If it were, there would never be any moral or ethical grounds for ever objecting to anything done by the State.  It being the absolute, everything it did would, by definition be right.  There would never be a basis, not merely for revolution, but for opposition of any morally-principled kind.  Apart from frank self-interest or factional advantage, there could never be a principle from which one could say that a law was wrong.  And, apart from technical questions of legal exegesis, there could never grounds upon which to argue that a judicial matter had been wrongly decided.


If the Nation, or the State, or the Party constituted the standard by which all things must be judged, and over against which no higher loyalty was legitimate — something that Nazis and Communists did, in fact, often argue, and something hinted at by the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel — then resistance to Hitler or Stalin would indeed be wrong.  There being no other moral standard, no moral grounding would be available to justify dissent.  By such thinking, when slavery was legal participation with the Underground Railroad was immoral.


Benjamin Franklin proposed that the saying “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” be included on the Great Seal of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson liked it so much that he included it on his personal seal.


Plainly, they assumed a basis for moral judgment apart from and above the State.


There must be something — perhaps, to borrow a phrase from the late German-American theologian Paul Tillich, we might call it our “ultimate concern” — that, whether we’re religious or not, provides us a standpoint from which to evaluate even the demands and activities of our country.


And so, in that sense, I stand with the Muslims who profess a higher loyalty than they owe to any earthly government.



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