Should Christians Attempt to Legislate Christian Morality?
This is an example of an overly simple question. It has to be fleshed out before being answered. First, a story.
Many years ago I was invited to serve on a panel at a denominational meeting. The panel was discussing, in front of a large audience of very conservative evangelical Christians (of which I was then a member) issues related to how Christians should relate to secular society. I was given the assignment to deliver a brief talk (no more than 10 minutes) about Christians and pornography. This was at a time when many conservative Christians of many traditions were attempting to criminalize the making, selling and even viewing of pornography.
During my admittedly “wet-behind-the-ears” presentation I argued that although pornography violates Christian morality and Christians should avoid it and even perhaps demonstrate against “adult stores” and “adult theaters” in their neighborhoods (something that was happening at that time before the internet), Christians should be very careful about attempting to “legislate morality.” I meant and tried to say that Christians should not attempt to criminalize behavior that has no victims. (I made clear that some production of pornography does victimize especially women and, in that case, the law should protect unwilling or coerced participants in the making of pornography.)
When I was finished, there was a hush in the audience. I sensed disapproval. Nobody clapped. After each panelist’s presentation there was a few minutes of response from members of the audience (almost all ministers of the denomination). One woman, who I knew well, the wife of a denominational executive, stood and berated me, declaring that all laws are based on morality. I asked the moderator for a moment to respond but my request was denied. The woman was obviously very angry at me; her face was red and she almost shouted her response. That was one experience that told me my time in that denomination, the one in which I grew up, was probably over.
As I said, the question of whether Christians should attempt to legislate Christian morality is a complicated one. What does it even mean?
Here, and then, I meant this: Should Christians attempt to criminalize by pressure on law makers acts that are considered sins by Christians but not by others?
A case study today (2023) is homosexuality in predominantly Christian countries in Africa. Uganda is a case study. In Uganda, homosexual activity is not only illegal but punishable by death. This policy, law, stems from the majority’s interpretation of homosexuality as sin and even “perversion” (to quote one Ugandan Christian who spoke in favor of the law to an American investigative journalist).
It is true, beyond doubt, that all laws, everywhere, are based on some communal perception of morality, if “morality” is defined broadly enough as to include any and all beliefs about right and wrong. However, if “morality” refers to a particular religious community’s rules for behavior that cannot have any secular support or support by the majority of people, even people of a different religion, the question changes meaning. By “the question” I mean “Should Christians attempt to legislate Christian morality?”
I finally belong to a Christian tradition that historically and theologically has NOT attempted to legislate specifically Christian moral norms on the larger society BECAUSE we regard ourselves as, in some very real sense, OUTSIDERS to “the world” outside the church. In a way, though, I am returning to my roots. I grew up in a Pentecostal church and denomination that was what I half-jokingly call “Urban Amish.” In my earliest years, most American Pentecostals regarded our form of religious life as distant (but not geographically) from “the world” outside our communities. “The world” was a mission field but not a context for our interference in order to control.
Then something changed in that religious community. With the advent of “the Religious Right” in the 1970s, suddenly, many Pentecostals jumped on that bandwagon and began to seek to impose their (and other conservative Christians’ moral norms) on “the world.”
I never believed in that change and regretted it. As I studied the history and theology of Anabaptism I came to more than sympathize with its “outsider” mentality. Mission to the world is important and right and good, but it does not for us include imposing our moral norms on society at large. We are not called by God to attempt to practice church discipline on society at large. We are “resident aliens” in every country where we live—just as the ancient Christians were in the Roman Empire before Constantine.
Becoming Anabaptist (specifically Mennonite) is in some ways a return to my spiritual roots—American Pentecostalism of the mid-20th century and before. Although, of course, it means giving up belief in certain Pentecostal doctrines which I gave up long ago in order to become (non-cessationist) Baptist. I call myself an “Anabapticostal.” But I do not believe in the key Pentecostal doctrines about speaking in tongues.
Back to the question of this blog post. My answer is an emphatic no, insofar as the word “morality” in the question refers to specifically Christian morality NOT accepted or believed in or lived by non-Christians and that is based solely on our Bible and our Christian tradition.
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