Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on creators.com, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
In a culture where “anything goes,” what determines whether a choice is a good one or a bad one? Is it the law? What if everything that once was forbidden suddenly became legal? How would you make your life’s choices then?
As the United States continues its rather pronounced shift toward a more libertarian philosophy of public policy, many fear that the loosening of laws originally intended to protect public “health, safety, welfare and morals” (as the myriad “police power” statutes have often been worded), will inexorably result in the diminishment of Christianity’s impact on cultural mores and the concomitant coarsening of our culture. There are, as well, others who would applaud such a result and are working tirelessly toward the elimination of laws that codify Judeo-Christian morality.
But both groups are overlooking an important point: In a free society, law reflects culture even more than it shapes it.
The critical word there is “free.”
Among the reasons why libertarianism has gained so much ground in recent years is its fundamental respect for the freedom of each individual to make choices, and the corresponding impulse to remove government from those choices at all points except where absolutely necessary to protect human life (yes, there is a strong pro-life strain of libertarianism) or greater human liberty.
If those who subscribe to a Judeo-Christian morality cannot bring themselves to embrace this trend, they should at least consider the options it offers. Free will is at the core of Judeo-Christian thought. Indeed, the Book of Genesis recounts that among the first gifts bestowed upon humanity by the Almighty was that of free will.
Thousands of years later, Jesus Christ himself was the embodiment of this principle. In theory, he could have arrived, declared himself King of the World, and imposed His Will by force. But he did not do so. Instead, he sought to persuade people to follow him. Even at those rare times where his public acclaim was such that people were prepared to declare him king, he deliberately eluded them.
Nor did he exhort his first apostles to force Christianity upon others. They were to preach the Good News and to live it, and let people choose as they may.And he said on numerous occasions, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Then and now, the power of Christ’s words—and of Christianity itself—is in the persuasiveness of truth. Although truth can be—and ought to be—reinforced by law, it does not depend upon law for its existence. History is replete with instances of horrific human behaviors supported by laws in existence at the time that we now regard with horror and disbelief.
Regrettably, America has undermined and weakened many of the social structures that shape human behavior—etiquette and morality, among others—and replaced them with laws. Instead of raising young men to be gentlemanly and exercise self-discipline, for example, our culture laughs at those antiquated concepts and promotes easy promiscuity, but then threatens lawsuits for ever-expanding definitions of “sexual assault” that mask recriminations and regret.
Everything is seen through the lens of “legality”: abortion should be “legal”; euthanasia should be “legal”; smoking pot should be “legal.” But just because a choice is legal does not mean that it is right. Further, freedom has consequences, and the painful consequences of poor choices can ripple down through generations. In a libertarian society, we can still make moral arguments and point out the risks of bad judgment, legal though it may be.
If we bemoan the expanding legality of human choices, we are missing compelling opportunities to persuade people that they are, nevertheless, free to make better choices; “better” defined not by the law’s constraints, but by the experience and wisdom revealed by Judeo-Christian values that have shaped western civilization for millennia.
And for those who cling to the laws as arbiters of public morality, I say this: If you want to change the laws, you must first change the culture. And that starts by changing minds, one at a time, through the use of persuasion and truth.
Laura Hollis is a Double Domer (English and Law) who teaches Business Law and Entrepreneurship at the Mendoza College of Business.