Thursday, September 11, 2003

Law, Morality and Religion

I follow laws with varying degrees of zeal (and success). I am most zealous about those laws that seem reasonable to my mind, informed by both secular and religious reasoning. I am least zealous about laws that I think are unnecessary and silly, and some even violate the moral law and must in conscience be disobeyed. And in the middle, there are those laws whose point I can see (jay walking, speeding limits) but which I follow with slipshod success.
Perhaps I should obey all the laws of the land, as Paul says we should
submit to the sovereign authorities. (However, in our democracy, the sovereign is the people, i.e., I am one of the sovereign, which seems to muddle the issue. Does one then submit to the General Will of the people? That discussion is for another time.)

I wholeheartedly believe that religiously informed morality teaches one how to think about laws, particularly the concept of following the "spirit of the law," it's ultimate purpose or design. I believe that at the heart of law, politics and morality is religion (I'd rather say "faith" or "belief", but let's stick with religion for now). I agree with Richard John Neuhaus when he says, "Politics is in largest part a function of culture; at the heart of culture is morality; and at the heart of morality are the ultimate truths we call religion."

To live in this world, one must believe in some kind of ultimate truths. From those who are trying to work out morality for themselves, one often hears appeals to an ultimate principle of not hurting other people or, perhaps more generally, not adversely affecting others. But that begs the question, What exactly hurts or adversely affects people? Which leads to the question of what is ultimately good or bad for a person, and this is a question of ultimate truth, i.e., a religious question. What is the yardstick for right and wrong? Could it be that the things all humans instinctually know to be right (to greater or lesser degrees) come from the >same ultimate source, which informs us all through the conscience regarding the "spirit of the law," the same spirit behind all good earthly laws?

While some praise the idea of people reasoning out for themselves what is right and wrong, this is entirely unworkable. Despite the moral anarchy this could wreak with everyone doing "his own thing," we still have the fact that unless one raised oneself on a "Castaway"-style desert island, no one reasons in isolation, generating a code of conduct ex nihilo. We are surrounded with the ongoing conversation of our civilization, stretching back through the ages, going back even to the pioneers of monotheism. The morality we have in the US today (if one can even speak of such a thing in the singular) is based on institutions, traditions, and in particular, on documents and teachings which serve as a common basis (Moses, Jesus, Aristotle, Jefferson, Camus, ...). One is perfectly free to both question and fall back on these authorities, and so the conversation continues.


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