Legislating Absolutism?

Absolutist moral pronouncements may be good guidelines for personal behavior, but they make very bad laws. And there’s a very good reason why this is so: absolute moral pronouncements are simple, and neither the universe nor society is. Equally important is the fact that human society has never been able to agree on exactly which moral codes should be enforced and how. Secular laws are by necessity a compromise between conflicting moral codes and beliefs based upon points of agreement [at least, ideally].

One of the basic principles behind the structure set up by the Founding Fathers of the United States was the idea that laws were to be legislated by a civil body, not by religious authority, and that those laws should recognize fundamental civil rights as superior to religious doctrine and rights. The reason for this was basic. They had seen and often lived through a time when people were tortured, killed, or otherwise persecuted for what they believed, and those acts were enabled by laws enacted pursuant to religious authority.

Yet today, we have tens of millions of Americans who are demanding laws to enforce their religious beliefs on others under the guise of religious freedom, effectively repudiating the idea of civil rights through their determination to enact and enforce laws restricting the rights of others based on religious beliefs.

One of the great ironies I see in today’s political debates and often hate-filled rhetoric is that the same people who are so deathly afraid that President Obama or others might impose Islamic Sharia law upon the U.S. are all too often those same ultra-conservative evangelicals who want to impose the “Christian” equivalent of Sharia on the United States – effectively limiting rights for women, legal recognition of religious practices, and the arrogation of religious beliefs over civil rights. Yet those individuals cannot see that what they want is essentially the same structure as ultra-traditional Islamists, but a structure supporting their own ultra-conservative beliefs and enforcing those beliefs on those who do not share them.

I’m very much in favor of civil rights, the right of an individual to do what he or she pleases so long as those acts do not physically harm others – and that includes forms of indirect harm. You should not have the freedom to pollute the air others breathe or the waters others must drink. I have great problems with laws that effectively marginalize others under the guise of religious freedom. I also have problems with those who wish to eliminate laws that protect health and the environment on the grounds that such laws restrict the freedom to do business. Obviously, no law can be perfect, but legislating absolutes is the route to tyranny, not morality.

8 thoughts on “Legislating Absolutism?”

  1. Alexandra says:

    The land of the free, to be just the same as me.

  2. CRM says:

    I don’t get the effort to impose morality from above. Yes, I believe that there is an absolute moral law, but in order for me benefit from it, I have to make the conscious choice to live it, simply because it’s the right thing to do, not because I’m afraid of punishment. It’s about individual commitment and belief. I can share those beliefs with others, but I can’t force them. All I can do is tell them what I believe, and that there will be consequences for their actions, whether those consequences come temporally or spiritually. Legislating morality just doesn’t work, unless all of society agrees on what is moral.

  3. darcherd says:

    Samuel Johnson had it right three centuries ago: “There are few minds to whom tyranny is not secretly delightful.”

    What most people consider freedom is the right to oppress others as they see fit.

  4. Jack Brauer says:

    Why do you have so much hatred for the evangelicals? You clearly have a very biased view on this matter.

    1. Given the historical and present excesses of religion, how can any sane person not be dubious about the efforts of evangelicals to legislate beliefs into law?

  5. darcherd says:

    Piling on here, I don’t think it’s a problem with Evangelicals per se, but rather those who attempt to force others into their version of morality and religious heterodoxy through the law, i.e. a theocracy. Theocracies have historically been the most totalitarian and thoroughly repressive forms of government, whether John Calvin’s Geneva or modern Iran (and the totalitarian regimes of the Nazis or Soviets can also be seen as theocracies with their cults of personality and religious faith in communism). And the reason for that is pretty straightforward: Once your basis for governance becomes religious beliefs, there is no longer room in your worldview for a “loyal opposition”. Anyone who opposes you is not just wrong, but heretical and in league with the Devil, and this justifies any degree of cruelty and brutality to suppress that opposition, all in the name of doing the work of God.

    Religion, by its very nature of resting on unprovable beliefs, is antithetical to compromise, and compromise is the entire basis of a free society able to tolerate differing viewpoints and values (within broad limits, at least). Religious faith can be a powerful force for good and a strong buttress against adversity in one’s personal life. But it makes for a very poor basis for government of a free people.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Diehard, in the current political climate of the US, it is the Evangelicals and the LDS who “attempt to force others into their version of morality and religious heterodoxy through the law.”

  7. invah says:

    >the right of an individual to do what he or she pleases

    You are the best.

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