Legalizing Morality

I have some questions, which I want to ask for the sake of discussion.  I am not interested so much in people dogmatizing on the question as discussing the issues.    I am wondering if how we frame the question changes our thinking on the issues.   Here is how I cast the questions:

Should Orthodox Christians in the U.S. work to have the power to arrest, prosecute and punish people who have different beliefs/belief systems then our own?   Should we arrest and prosecute people who have morality differences from us?    (I am thinking here of some type of “citizens’ arrest,” but also of St. Paul being given authority by the Sanhedrin to have Christians arrested)

Should Orthodox Christians in the U.S. work to have laws enacted that would have THE STATE (but not us Orthodox) on our behalf arrest, prosecute and punish people who have different beliefs or moral principles then ours?   (Maybe it is loathsome for us to think that we would persecute or prosecute anyone, but what if we can pass laws and get the state to do the dirty work, is that acceptable to us?   Most “Christian” states have used such a power against minorities, heretics, etc)

Should Orthodox Christians EVER work to have laws passed that will result in people being arrested, prosecuted and punished because of their theological or moral beliefs or because their beliefs differ from ours?       (Do we have much impetus from the New Testament to do anything more than dialog/debate people of other theological/moral persuasions?)

And yes I am thinking about these questions in terms of abortion and homosexuality.   Say we succeed in passing laws that outlaw gay marriage – should we Orthodox then go around arresting, prosecuting and punishing gays who “marry” or those who perform gay marriages?  Should we push the state to arrest such people?

Same for abortions – is it our duty to arrest and punish those who have abortions or perform them?  In the US with the death penalty, shall we make abortion a capital offense and execute those who do it or the women who have it done?

I am not trying to form any “trick” questions, but just pondering what we Christians ultimately hope to accomplish.   It seems to me that our arguments and our agenda as Christians can become improved, sharpened if you will, by engaging in real and difficult dialogue and debate.  It seems to me that this is exactly what happened to Christian theology in the patristic age – they engaged in real and difficult debate, and it went on for centuries as they grappled with terminology as well as with theology, orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

7 thoughts on “Legalizing Morality

  1. I often hear people say, “You can’t legislate morality!” or something similar. It always drives me crazy when I hear this, because nothing could be further from the truth.

    The fact of the matter is that ALL legislation is based on morality–the morality of the majority of the citizenry (in a democracy…sometimes) or of those in power.

    In the US, murder is illegal because most (thankfully nearly all) people think it is immoral. The same is true of theft, child abuse, rape, child pornography, slavery, and so on. Abortion, adultery, sodomy and other sins used to be illegal throughout the US because in the past, most Americans held them to be immoral. As moral standards relaxed, however, laws prohibiting these activities were repealed.

    In a few cases, it may be that most of our citizenry still think that one or more of these things are immoral, but that doesn’t matter as long as those in power disagree. The ONLY reason that no states have strict anti-abortion laws is because in 1972, five liberal supreme court justices decided to make up a “consitutional right to an abortion” that simply is not there.

    In summary, whenever someone says, “you can’t legislate morality,” I would say, “then why not legalize murder, theft, slavery and so on?” You can’t have it both ways.

  2. Fr. Ted

    I agree with you you we can and do legislate morality. My original questions also assume we can, but I am wondering where we want to go with this – how far do we as Orthodox Christians want to go with laws? And what is the rational for wanting laws that ban behaviors we consider immoral? Especially as a minority group in America – how far should we Orthodox push for legislation regarding moral issues? Or should we – since we have benefitted from freedom of religion since coming to America – also advocate for tolerance of other religious practice? Do we see it as our role to establish punishments for behaviors of which we disapprove? And do we see it as our role to enforce punishments on those who morally misbehave? This is not a question of legislating morality, but perhaps more of enforcement of moral law.

  3. Fr Ted,

    Great question and one that I find sadly neglected by Orthodox Christians.

    Yes, it is certainly the case that (as with other religious traditions) we have benefited from Constitutional protections. But, and the recent events in the OCA are especially important here, we have benefited only insofar as we have held ourselves to clearly articulated moral norms. So while legal freedoms are important, they are not sufficient.

    I would disagree with the notion that own moral positions are simply the positions of a religious minority. The rejection of abortion and same sex marriage, are not uniquely Orthodox–indeed those who hold to an ethic grounded in natural law (your servant and, historically anyway, the US Founding Fathers) would argue that these are universal moral norms.

    One may argue as Aquinas does that some sins out not to be criminalized because they are laws that would be impossible to enforce (his example, I believe, are laws against prostitution). In this category we might place laws against fornication, adultery and sodomy. We would do so not because they are moral acceptable, nor out of the modern sense of tolerance, but because practically these are laws that are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

    But others sins, precisely because they are of a public character, can and should be outlawed–abortion comes to mind.

    Same sex marriage, is would add, an interesting case. No state, to the best of my knowledge, outlaws same sex marriage. The unwillingness of the state to sanction such relationships does not equate to a bias against homosexuals or lesbians, anymore similar laws than it reflect a bias against polygamists (those bias such as these certain do exist). It rather reflect the cultural patrimony of Western culture and the more general consensus of the human family that marriage is between a man and a woman.

    As I understand the development of marriage laws the reflect not a desire to sanction consensual adult relationships but rather a concern for any children that might result from the relationship between a man and a woman. Marriage laws, in other words, are concerned primarily with the needs of children.

    Again, while I appreciate the question, I think you conflate several issues. We need not (as Orthodox Christians or American citizens) seek to criminalize behavior of which we disapprove. In some case, owing to the severity of the behavior and its consequences, we may do so (as in the case of abortion). But even here, the law can, and often does, recognize different degree of culpability. So a ban on abortion need not mean we put women who have abortions in jail even if we do so with doctors and staff who perform them.

    Likewise, we need not–and I think should not–seek to criminalize fornication, adultery and homosexuality. But certainly we are free to not encourages these behaviors as a matter of law.

    I’ve gone on at length–sorry this is a favorite issue of mine! I think that the best thinker on the issues you raise is the late John Courtney Murray–a Catholic priest and an astute political philosopher. Especially valuable is his We Hold These Truths Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (available online here:

    Let me end with a question: Fr James Early and I have begun talking about a meeting of Orthodox (or maybe Orthodox and Catholic bloggers)–would you be open to be part of a group blogging by Orthodox bloggers on the subject you raise here. I am thinking we could set a date and using maybe Murray’s text as the basis, all address some aspect of Orthodox political involvement? What do you think? (And of course you as well Fr James!)

    In Christ,

    Fr Gregory

  4. Fr. Ted

    Thanks for your comments – my goal was to do what blogs supposedly can do – engage discussion, so I appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you that several issues are conflated in the questions, but I just wondered how far people want to go with these issues or do we ever reach a point in pursuing morality that we lose sight of what is good and right? I would be open to joining other Orthodox bloggers to discuss these issues. Let me know how this would work.

  5. I was going to make another post and say essentially the same things that Fr. Gregory has done, but he beat me to the punch. That’s a good thing, since he is much wiser, better educated, and more eloquent than me. As usual, I agree totally with what he said.

    The Orthodox blogger get-together would be wonderful. I was thinking that it would be somewhat informal, at least at first (sort of like the pint- and wine-glass meeting of The Fellowship of Ss. Sergius and Alban that is described in the newest edition of AGAIN magazine). Maybe next summer? Anway, Fr. Ted, it would be an honor to meet you. I really enjoyed your book “Am I Saved?” I read it on the plane, on the way back home after I had resigned my position as a Baptist missionary, with the intent to convert to Orthodoxy. It was very helpful to me.

    May the Lord bless you. I love the blog. I wish I could keep up with it better — you are just too prolific!

  6. Julia

    Thanks to Fr. Ted for articulating his own questions in a way that makes it easier to ask my own:

    What respect do we owe to the views of people with whom we disagree? When a woman believes abortion is justified in her own case, how can we compel her to share the condemnation not of her own spiritual advisers, but of the state?

    What anti-abortion commentators do that is in its own way quite shocking is ignore the reality that women who choose abortion choose it in conscience: They do not believe it to be a sin, or certainly not the sin of murder, in their situation. Compelling them to carry the child is compelling them to act against their own conscience.

    Your priest can tell you that you are wrong in thinking this but freedom of conscience demands that your state defer. That’s what I think anyway.

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