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Christian conservatives and constitutionalists alike employ a variety of arguments to defend their support for the state. While many of these defenses are misguided and easily rebutted, others are more popular and persist despite any attempts to point out their flaws. One such argument claims that because people are unrighteous, the government must do for them what they will not do for themselves.
Those who advance this argument often point to some common examples to support their claim. Because people do not give enough to charity, the welfare system is needed to take care of those unable to provide for themselves. Because children whose families are poor or who live in remote areas would otherwise not have access to a school, a public education system must be financed by taxpayers to provide education for all. Because drug use is prevalent, regulations and prohibitions are needed to criminalize the production and consumption of these illicit substances. The list is lengthy, and each justification is based on the core idea behind this argument: widespread immorality and irresponsibility implicitly authorizes the government’s attempts to enforce a standard of morality that people would otherwise abandon.
The diagnosis made by these individuals is not inaccurate; morality and responsibility have been in decline over the past several decades, and now are either ignored or routinely denigrated in the public square. But is their proposed remedy worthy of support? Does the decline in morality and responsibility justify the government’s intervention as a last-ditch effort to counteract society’s moral decay?
Speaking recently on this subject, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an Apostle and leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is thought by some to have suggested exactly that. Like the proponents of the pro-state argument above, Elder Christofferson made a correct diagnosis:
The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).
From this determination of what is wrong, Elder Christofferson notes that, “As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments.”
On the surface, this observation appears to offer support for the scenario previously described. If understood this way, it would in fact seem to justify the state’s use of compulsion and control to foster moral discipline. In other words, because so much of society has embraced immorality and irresponsibility, external influences are needed to shore up the moral deficiencies of the people.
Elder Christofferson continued his remarks by citing commentary from the prolific conservative columnist Walter Williams. “Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior,” Williams wrote. He continued: “At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”
Those attempting to justify statism because of moral decay may have found superficial wiggle room in the initial words from Elder Christofferson, but his inclusion of this commentary begins to suggest that the opposite is in fact the better course. An institutionalized criminalization of social evils may be a defense against them, as Williams observed, but this obvious development of government control and compulsion does not become inherently justified merely because it is “the last desperate line” for a civilized society. Necessity does not confer morality.
Elder Christofferson’s continuing remarks further explode the idea that immorality justifies statist interventions that otherwise would be readily recognized as wrongful and unjust. Noting that under a statist approach to enforcing moral discipline “there could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation,” he argued that “this approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone” (emphasis added). In other words, this embrace of statism to uphold some arbitrary societal standard is not ideal. In fact, it breeds bondage.
Where the proponents of statist restraints on society ultimately fail is in conflating descriptions with prescriptions. Simply because something is observed to happen does not mean that that thing should happen, or that its happening is morally acceptable. The description in this case is the unsurprising development of increasing government intervention as society’s standards decrease. But simply because that description generally holds true, it does not imply that it is itself the prescription for what should happen. In other words, because the power of the state tends to increase as people become immoral and irresponsible, it does not therefore follow that we should accept that increase as the right or best mechanism of counteracting that moral failure.
This idea was also included in Elder Christofferson’s address. Citing the words of the Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, he said: “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.” Caesar’s reign was not morally justified by the people’s rejection of Christ as their leader, but it is unsurprising that a depraved and wicked people would become overpowered by a centralized authoritarian state—in many ways, openly welcoming and attempting to morally justify that state’s “yoke.”
The way to promote moral discipline is not to empower the state as the enforcer of morality and virtue, but rather to counteract evil through education and persuasion. The intervention of the state is not only immoral itself (not operating with any legitimately delegated authority), but often simply breeds further immorality rather than suppressing it as it initially attempted to supposedly do. (Consider the results and side effects of the “war on drugs” as one of myriad examples.) A related quote by President J. Reuben Clark demonstrates the proper method of encouraging moral discipline:
For America has a destiny—a destiny to conquer the world—not by force of arms, not by purchase and favor, for these conquests wash away, but by high purpose, by unselfish effort, by uplifting achieve- ment, by a course of Christian living; a conquest that shall leave every nation free to move out to its own destiny; a conquest that shall bring, through the workings of our own example, the blessings of freedom and liberty to every people, without restraint or imposition or compulsion from us; a conquest that shall weld the whole earth together in one great brotherhood in a reign of mutual patience, forbearance, and charity, in a reign of peace to which we shall lead all others by the persuasion of our own righteous example.
The compulsion of the state is antithetical to the persuasion which must be used to promulgate the principles of Christianity and its related laws of morality and virtue. When society begins to morally decay, those who turn to the state advocate for an immoral act itself—the use of coercion against an individual who has sinned or shirked their responsibility, but who has not violated the rights of another person. They therefore perpetuate the very thing they claim to be trying to stop, and in so doing become hypocrites.
The state can only legitimately exist to secure to each individual their natural and unalienable rights. Encouraging and enforcing a moral standard is a topic which must legitimately be left to families, churches, and other non-governmental institutions. Elder Christofferson observed that “In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay.” Those who instead attempt to justify statism as a back-stop to that societal decay must re-calibrate their own internal moral compass so as not to promote immorality in the name of fighting immorality.
(Parenthetically, this topic is the subject of my next book, due out in November.)