“Getting to Know Your Church-State Jurisdictions” is Part One of this series and “The Biblical Model of Church and State” is Part Two. This third installment asks, What is civil government’s basis for morality?
Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times, describes the way various philosophical traditions understand the “role of religion and public life.” He begins by pointing out that under “Classical Liberalism,” not to be confused with a leftist political philosophy, “policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.” Their reasoning goes like this:
“[I]t’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.”
So what is the basis for law? By what standard? What constitutes “all citizens”? There is no way that “all citizens” are ever going to agree on anything. Ultimately, where does morality find its justification, its jurisdictional legitimacy? Some say that democracy is the source of authority. There is so much talk about democracy that few people have considered what our founders have said about it. Democracy is no moral cure-all. John Winthrop (1588–1649), first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared direct democracy to be “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” John Cotton (1584–1652), a seventeenth-century Puritan minister in Massachusetts, wrote in 1636: “Democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordain as a fit government either for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed?” James Madison (1751–1836), recognized as the “father of the Constitution,” wrote that democracies are “spectacles of turbulence and contention.” Pure democracies are “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property…. In general [they] have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” John Adams, the second president of the United States, stated that “the voice of the people is ‘sometimes the voice of Mahomet, of Caesar, of Catiline, the Pope, and the Devil.’” Francis A. Schaeffer described democracy as “the dictatorship of the 51%, with no controls and nothing with which to challenge the majority.” The logic is simple: “It means that if Hitler was able to get a 51% vote of the Germans, he had a right to kill the Jews.”
By What Standard?
The sovereignty of the self-contained God is the key to every field, in that only the God of Scripture makes all things possible and explicable and is thus the basic premise not only of theology, but of philosophy, science and indeed all knowledge. In that God is the Creator of all things. He is their only valid principle of interpretation, in that they derive both their existence and meaning from His creative act. This belief is herein set forth in terms of various aspects of human thought.Buy Now
Every person approaches an ethical norm with a prior commitment to some fundamental interpretive principle. No one is without prior commitments. No one approaches anything from a neutral starting point. There is no agreed-upon definition of reason or what’s reasonable if reason is said to be the ultimate standard. So-called reasonable people disagree on what they claim to be reasonable. Even the Enlightenment skeptics acknowledged that “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question about God, morality, or the meaning of life.”
Fish offers what he describes as a “more severe version of the argument”:
[O]n the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly.
This means that if a person believes abortion is wrong and killing a human being at any stage of life is an affront to God’s character, then just to have these thoughts would disqualify a person from entering the debate. Such a position would have disqualified those who signed the Declaration of Independence because they believed that God is the “Judge of the World” and the Creator who endowed us with “life.”
The same is true for Presidents who called for national days of Prayer and Thanksgiving and even the Constitution itself since it states that it was signed “In the Year of Our Lord” 1787, a direct reference to Jesus Christ. Let’s not forget that the Constitution in Article 1, Section 7 sets aside Sunday—the Lord’s Day—as a day of rest for the President.
What is the basis for morality if we evolved from a pre-biotic soup of chemicals? Morality cannot be derived from atoms or even the complexity of DNA. Material assumptions about our origin are a moral dead end. R.C. Sproul writes that “God’s existence is the chief element in constructing any worldview. To deny this chief premise is to set one’s sails for the island of nihilism. This is the darkest continent of the darkened mind—the ultimate paradise of the fool.”
A third “somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command.” But what is the source of this “secular counterpart”? Where is “the law of property rights” found? Political systems like Communism don’t recognize a “law of property rights.” Even Classical Liberals, many of whom are atheists, can’t account for the ultimate legitimacy for property rights.
The more honest secularists are coming to realize that their reason-only, matter-oriented worldview cannot account for what they claim is natural and reasonable. Steven Smith attempts to offer a solution in his book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. “It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job—of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects—without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain.” Smith’s solution is “by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.”
What are some of these notions? “[N]otions about a purposeful cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design.” The reason these principles must be smuggled in is because they have been “banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation.”
Fish’s conclusion is fitting: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation—secular reasons—and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” The late Legal scholar Arthur Allen Leff (1935–1981) argued in the same way when he concluded his article “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” with these words: “All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have…. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs…. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.”
The materialists have no way of accounting for a legitimate and fixed moral basis for anything. Atheist regimes create their morality that can change from day to day as the dictator or party declares. This means that there is no way to account for jurisdictional separation or good and evil. They don’t exist. The church is viewed as a competing authority and must be eliminated. No one knows from one day to the next what is good or evil when the whims of a dictator are the ultimate authority. “Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”
The Bible declares that civil governors are ministers of God (Rom. 13:4) who are to make their rulings in terms of good and evil Rom. 13:3). But by what ultimate standard? We cannot live within the fluid boundaries of legal relativism. There must be a definitive and final legal standard of appeal to justify moral decisions at the personal and governmental levels. If not, then one judge’s opinion is as good (or as bad) as another.
Restoring the Foundation of Civilization
There are many Christians who will not participate in civilization-building efforts that include economics, journalism, politics, education, and science because they believe (or have been taught to believe) these areas of thought are outside the realm of what constitutes a Christian worldview. Nothing could be further from the truth.Buy Now
Quoted in A. Marvyn Davies, Foundation of American Freedom: Calvinism in the Development of Democratic Thought and Action (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955), 11.
Letter to Lord Say and Seal, quoted by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, [1938) 1963), 1:209–210. Also see Edwin Powers, Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts: 1620–1692 (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966), 55.
Quoted in Jacob E. Cooke, ed., The Federalist, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 61.
John Adams, quoted by Gilbert Chinard, Honest John Adams (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co.,  1961), 241 in John Eidsmoe, “The Christian America Response to National Confessionalism,” in Gary Scott Smith, ed., God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 227–228.
Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970) in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, 5 vols. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 4:27.
Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, 4:27.
Quoted in Aubrey Neal, How Skeptics do Ethics: A Brief History of the Late Modern Linguistic Turn (Calgary, Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2007), 157
R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 171.
Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal, 1979:6 (December 1979), 1229–1249. “I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.” (Arthur Allen Leff, “Economic Analysis of Law: Some Realism about Nominalism,” Yale Law Review 60 , 454–455).