MORALITY AND THE LAW

by Bob Wheeler

 

Is America a “Christian nation”?  Most Democrats today would probably say “no,” or at least claim that America was founded as a strictly secular state.  As evidence they would point to the lack of mention of God in the U.S. Constitution.

Interestingly, however, no less a Democrat than President Barack Obama observed that “our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo- Christian tradition” (The Audacity of Hope, p. 218).  He noted that “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – not only were motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes” (Ibid.).

Interestingly, however, when we look at the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 it becomes apparent that there was a variety of opinion among the Founding Fathers on the matter.  By far the greatest moral question facing the Constitutional Convention and the early Republic was slavery.  The slave trade was still very much alive in 1787 and slavery was an entrenched institution in some states, particularly South Carolina and Georgia.  The question arose at the Convention as to what to do about the importation of slaves.  Luther Martin of Maryland suggested either taxing it, in order to discourage it, or prohibiting it altogether.  He noted that “it was inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution” (Madison’s Notes, Aug. 21, 1787).  To which John Rutledge of South Carolina replied, “Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question.  Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.”  Several delegates, including both Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, wanted to leave the question alone.  But interestingly George Mason of Virginia, spoke out strongly against slavery, declaring that slaves “bring the judgment of heaven on a country.  As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this.  By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities” (Aug. 22).

So who was right?  Rutledge or Mason?  Slavery remained as an American institution, and seventy years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, tried to settle the matter once and for all.  Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority, asserted that black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  The problem, however, is that in God’s sight there is no essential difference between a black person and a white person: they are both human beings created in His image.  And while every human society must have its political and economic structures in order to function, no human being should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.   That applies to black slaves; that applies to unborn children.

And, just as George Mason had predicted, “providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”  On April 12, 1861 Confederate artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter, and the Civil War had begun.  By the time it was over 620,000 soldiers on both sides were dead and the South lay in ruins.

Every civilized human society has had to struggle with the question of justice.  Does might make right?  To the victor goes the spoils?  Or is there some universal standard of morality that governs all actions of human beings?

The question is by no means new; it faced the citizens of ancient Athens.  In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias there is a fascinating account of a philosophical debate in which Socrates, one of the participants, challenges the conventional attitudes of the day regarding education and politics.  Is it all ultimately based on self-interest?  Or should we all be pursuing a higher aim in life?

Socrates argued for the latter, but was never able satisfactorily to answer the question, where, ultimately, does this standard of justice and morality come from?  He had a sense that a human being if more than just a human body, that there has to be a principle of justice that ought to govern human actions, and even that there has to be an afterlife and a final judgment.  But he could not find a deeper explanation for this other than man’s pursuit of happiness.

The fact of the matter is that as human beings we have the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, and we cannot avoid the moral implications of the choices we make in life.  Was it wrong to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city?  Is it wrong to take the life of an unborn child?  How do we know?

None of us wants to live in a lawless society; nor do we wish to live under a human tyranny.  The Christian answer is that we were created by God in His image and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.  Morality originates with God Himself.  The safest protection for our liberties is to acknowledge them as having come from God: we “are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. . .”

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