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Ethical Standards, Mores, and Violation of Religious Freedom

Recently, several contributing writers to Spectrum have taken the position that laws against gay and lesbian marriage somehow violate separation of church and state. To arrive at this conclusion, I maintain that one must take the position that historical separation means that religious/ethical principles or publicly held mores written into civil law constitute a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Was this really the intention? I maintain it is historically incontestable that virtually all the founding fathers of the Republic recognized the Judeo-Christian God as the Creator and Rights Giver. Fifty-two of the fifty-five DELEGATES TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION were professed Christians. Perhaps only three or four of the founders were deist and yet their view is often put forth as the controlling norm. I believe the facts disagree with the understanding that the founders believed in a generic or inactive God.

Significantly, the founders’ Rights Giver was above the rights historically extended by most societies, thus their Creator extended freedom of religion as a natural right, whereas other societies often denied it. Their specific religious prohibitions focused on religious tests for office; a state or national church, as was often found in Europe; or government funding for teachers of religion. These were the foci and stood behind the understanding of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” These concepts prohibit America by law from becoming a Christian nation.

Yet I maintain that separation was not intended to deny public mores and religious understandings from having any part in the formation of civil law and behavior. I suggest that in the last fifty years we have witnessed a severely reformulated meaning of separation. If this revisionist meaning were the original intention, numerous inconsistencies existed from the beginning, as seen in the first speeches of George Washington and other founders. Other examples include public prayer and Christian chaplains in Congress, appointed by a committee of the Senate and House in April and May 1789.

Note the public words of deist Jefferson, excerpted from his Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1805:

I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow-citizens have again called me… I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life, who has covered our infancy with His Providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils and prosper their measures.

President George Washington in his farewell address stated, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

For a historical presentation of the founders of the Republic, Christianity, and religious liberty, I recommend an excellent book by John Eidsmoe.1

So what’s the point? Evidence from numerous historical witnesses indicates that the founders did not mean to keep public acknowledgement of God or general religious ethical understanding and mores separate from state functions, purposes, and civil law.

I believe that the position the government took at that time was, “I don’t care what you believe, but it is my concern how you act or behave.” This permitted freedom of faith, but not freedom of behavior or license. We must then ask: How is acceptable behavior determined. The answer: Social/cultural mores develop from a myriad of social and religious concepts over time. It is true that many of these concepts were indeed formed out of the Judeo-Christian faith and have been incorporated into civil law over time.

An extreme view of separation could conceivably conclude that any particular moral sensibility must somehow be in violation of the First Amendment. How, then, can the courts consistently uphold laws against bigamy in cases that involve willing adults? How about public nudity? One is led to ask, “Can civil law have any taste of Judeo-Christian ethical background or will this fact alone, by some reasoning, automatically deny its application because of separation?

I maintain there is no natural right given in the U.S. Constitution for practicing bigamy, homosexuality, or a myriad of other objectionable behaviors held by the mores of the public at large. I maintain that it is indefensible to deny public mores held not simply by a state church or one distinctive religion, but by a cross-section of the public, as is the case with homosexual marriage.

When the courts come in and dash the mores that the majority of society accepts without showing how a specific activity has been guaranteed by natural rights under law, in my opinion they have done violence to the fabric of society under a concept of rights that cannot be supported. The direction of such judicial tyranny and activism apart from the legislative process is truly dangerous.

As a Christian and citizen, I will support civil laws that uphold the general ethical principles of Scripture. If proposed laws violate explicit rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, that is a different story. However, civil laws that promote the ethical sensitivities and mores of the majority, which, in turn, derive from religious understanding, do not inherently violate the original meaning of separation.

Likewise, if a constitutional amendment in regard to marriage is ratified it can be done only within the boundaries of established law, and thus by definition is not in violation of the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution gives society the right, means, and ability through the legislative process to direct the court’s action by law if necessary due to a perceived imbalance of power.

In the realm of the state, its proper purpose is not to try to put the law into hearts. God ordained civil authorities as a fear and sword and to constrain evil by the disorderly and evildoers in a fallen world, where the law is not in the heart. Laws are to be just, and those that exist are to be administered nonpreferentially with the ability to show mercy when appropriate.

In the realm of the present Kingdom of God, the church, we do not bear the sword of the state. The church is to preach the truth in love and kindness. Christ’s example showed us to practice kindness and respect to all sinners, though at times he could be abrupt and straightforward. His life did not abrogate the need for virtuous civil laws or the proper authority of the state, which is a necessary copartner in maintaining an orderly society in the present age.

As Christians, we are to share the grace of God that saved us graciously. We are to offer hope to all, noting that God is not willing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance and true salvation through knowing him in and through Christ our Savior and Lord.

Notes and References

1. John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution—The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1987).

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