Thursday, November 13, 2008

Freedom and the legislation of morality

The United States of America boasts of many things, but this country has prided itself foremost on being a symbol of freedom — for its own citizens, as well as for those around the world who live under the thumb of oppression — for as long as I can remember. We sing about liberty and freedom in our songs. We chant them in our pledges. We've inscribed them into our Constitution and pretty much every other defining document related to this great country. And yet, every day someone in this country — or perhaps everyone in some fashion — hurts because there's a giant hole where some aspect of what they would deem their personal freedom should be.

A few days ago, Americans in three states voted affirmatively on propositions which ban gay marriages in their states via amendments to those states' constitutions. The most newsworthy of these appears to be the passage of Prop 8 in California, a state typically viewed as a bastion of liberalism. Homosexuals and their supporters are crying foul, frusrated that freedoms and rights have, in their eyes, been stolen from them by a statistically unimpressive majority of voters. Opponents of gay marriage, however, will celebrate these amendments as victories in their struggle to prevent government approval of lifestyles they believe are immoral.

The infamous Roe v. Wade decision which legitimized abortion over 30 years ago is far from a matter of settled case law. People are still investing their entire lives into either fighting for the reversal of, or fighting for the preservation (and perhaps expansion) of, that ruling. Those in favor of the right to abort fight in the name of women's freedom; those against fight for the freedoms of the defenseless unborn.

Freedom and its pursuit takes us into many other hotly contested areas, often with serious consequences for poor decisions. There are lives at stake in foreign wars. There are lives at stake in our immigration situation. In the financial collapse. In our lack of energy self-sufficiency. In our education system. In our collapsing family structure. Everywhere you turn you find cold, hard realities that demand an answer. On my darkest days, I'd swear that freedom is literally killing us.

As I approached the voting booth on November 4, all of this was weighing on my mind, so much so that I felt absolutely joyless as I participated in what should have been an exciting thing. As an American, I have the ability to influence (albeit somewhat indirectly) the leadership of my country. When you really think about it, that's awesome. I didn't get to choose my parents. I have very little choice about the links in the chain of command above me at my job. But I get to help choose which people will sit at — and in the neighborhood of — the most powerful desk in the entire world. But despite the sheer power I held in my black pen as I marked that ballot (we don't yet have cool electronic voting systems here in Cabarrus County), I felt no joy. None.

Why is voting such a drag for me? What tempted me so strongly to stay home on Tuesday and sit this one out?

I guess I have to blame myself, really. I've deferred for so many years the formation of a solid, defensible opinion about a single topic, and that topic has in the last two Presidential elections demanded a clear stance. The topic is the role of Government in legislating morality, and specifically how to balance the freedom we all have to sin with the fact that even personal sin isn't good for society as a whole. Perhaps naively I'd like to think that Government could gracefully back out of most of those discussions, but practically speaking that doesn't seem to be the reality of the situation. Whatever the state of things, by not having a clear stance on the matter, I feel like I cheated my country out of a well-informed vote. For this, I apologize. Unfortunately, I stand today in no better position than I did this past Tuesday.

It's cliché to say that Election 2008 was yet another instance of being forced to "choose between the lesser of two evils". Mind you, I don't actually think either candidate is evil. But I've been taught that those things which are unethical or immoral (by God's standards, not by the shifting sands of society's ideals) are precisely the things which ought not to be legitimized, romanticized, or endorsed by Government. And so it's very hard to be happy about even the most charismatic and intelligent of candidates when he'll likely be a fat rubber stamp on the sin-endorsing legislation of his far-less-respectable Congressional peers. But then, it's equally hard to be happy about even the more experienced candidate when you believe his best ideas are someone else's and the rest of his ideas are only as well-formed as, well, my opinions on this matter — that kind of cluelessness in the uppermost ranks also leads, ultimately, to lost lives.

So, it seems I've got some homework to do over the next couple of years. Studying the writing of our country's founders. Studying our Constitution. Understanding freedom. Understanding "rights". And trying to do it all while remembering that "a more perfect union" is an overwhelming challenge when all of its parts are so far from perfection.

Got suggestions for my reading list?


  1. you are very thought provoking. I think you should run for president.

  2. @linda: Heheh. I am fortunate to be able to elect my President. I am more fortunate still to *not* hold that office myself.

  3. You might check out "Legislating Morality" by Norman Geisler -

  4. i think you should understand that your morality is not the same as other citizen's morality. We may have similar views on certain issues, but certainly not identical views. There is most likely no two people in this great country with the same views/morals. However, I don't think the Constitution of this country was intended to deprive certain people of certain rights. I'm straight, catholic, and married with children and I cannot fathom ever depriving my fellow (taxpaying) Americans of the right to love who they love. Why should we be the only Americans that get a tax break for love (filing married v. filing single)?

    What made me realize that I should support equality was when someone asked me:"When did you decide to be straight?" It suddenly dawned on me that I never made a decision to be straight, it was something I had been pre-wired with. How can I justify the deprivation of rights to a fellow American for something they were born with. Would we deprive an african american of any rights today simply because of their color? Most certainly not -- so why should we deprive two people the opportunity to love and have their love acknowledged by their government?

  5. @EV: Thanks for your comments. You've nailed down the single biggest problem with legislating morality, I think -- that if there is to be a perfect law that governs morality (not so much "defines moral behavior" as "criminalizes immoral behavior") it has to be derived from a moral code that is consistent and universal. Such a code can't be built from the particular inklings of how you and I feel about a matter today, which might be the same, or might be different, and certainly might change over time.