One does not have to travel far on the information superhighway (or the meatspace) to encounter this sentiment in relation to Christians in politics:

“Well, we can’t just force our morality on others.”

Yes, you can. Actually, that’s what the government is for. Every other domain of human interaction gives you the opportunity to promote your ideas and cajole others into accepting them, but the state is the only thing that can violently coerce them into playing along with any sort of legitimacy. Whether you think that the government derives its power purely from the consent of the elect or you believe in the divine right of kings, government exists in order to enforce moral codes. These moral codes all have histories and legacies of their own—some are explicitly derived from religion, others from less religious philosophy. Every law, no matter how small, has an underlying value that it promulgates and depends on.

Most people who say “we can’t just force our morality on others” probably think that the state can force someone to give up their money in order to feed or house someone else who is hungry or homeless. Or they think that the state can force its morality on a business owner who doesn’t want to perform certain actions for a customer. Sometimes political debates get framed as “religious morality” against “secular progress”, but secularism has its own convoluted moral system that privileges values like autonomy and preventing harm. One can argue that these values are superior to religiously derived values, but at the end of the day there are only a few values basic enough to human ethics that we can all agree on them (e.g. “don’t murder”). The rest of human governance is based on a hodgepodge of squishy moralistic impulses.

It is not easy to do politics in a nation like ours with conflicting values. John Inazu has written some good stuff about confident pluralism, which I think is our best course for now: expressing what we know, debating what we can prove, and building relationships of trust that foster good communication. I think the first step, though, is admitting that we disagree on what’s important, not that certain underlying values are somehow off limits. So go ahead: force your morals on somebody else. It might be good for us all.

Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

2 Comments

  1. This is often in the context of issues which the speaker can’t justify without religion-based reasons. The question, of course, isn’t “can you”, but “should you”, and the full question is “Should you try to force people to follow rules for which they completely disagree about the reasons?” or “…for which they see no benefit?” And that’s really where the problem lies. What’s the point of doing that?

    Reply

    1. I think you should definitely try to force people to follow rules for which they completely disagree about the reasons because otherwise we’re stuck in some anarcho-libertarian hellscape. But for the second half, I think that any policy implemented ought to have some benefit that people from different perspectives can see. In a diverse and liberal society like ours, there is going to be a narrower window of benefits people can agree on (and a narrower window of agreeable people to work with). But despite my flirtations with post-liberalism, I’m still a classical liberal deep down and I think the best way for us go about politicking is for everyone to genuinely take their own convictions seriously and argue for the benefit of governing by these convictions to all in the public square and may the truth win out.

      Reply

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