Religious Values and Public Policy, Part 2

Here continues the speech given by Dallin Oaks:

Some moral absolutes or convictions must be at the foundation of any system of law. This does not mean that all laws are so based. Many laws and administrative actions are simply a matter of wisdom or expediency. But many laws and administrative actions are based upon the moral standards of our society. If most of us believe that it is wrong to kill or steal or lie, our laws will include punishment for those acts. If most of us believe that it is right to care for the poor and needy, our laws will accomplish or facilitate those activities. Society continually legislates morality. The only question is whose morality and what legislation.

In the United States, the moral absolutes are the ones derived from what we refer to as the Judeo-Christian tradition, as set forth in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament.

Despite ample evidence of majority adherence to moral absolutes, some still question the legitimacy of a moral foundation for our laws and public policy. To avoid any suggestion of adopting or contradicting any particular religious absolute, some secularists argue that our laws must be entirely neutral, with no discernable relation to any particular religious tradition. Such proposed neutrality is unrealistic, unless we are willing to cut away the entire idea that there are moral absolutes.

Of course, not all moral absolutes are based on traditional religion. A substantial segment of society has subscribed to the environmental movement, which Robert Nisbet, a distinguished American sociologist, has characterized as a “national religion,” with a “universalized social, economic, and political agenda.” 3 So far as I am aware, there has been no responsible public challenge to the legitimacy of laws based on the environmentalists’ set of values. I don’t think there should be. My point is that religious values are just as legitimate as those based on any other comprehensive set of beliefs.

Let us apply these thoughts to the role of religions, churches, and church leaders in the public sector.

Some reject the infusion of religious-based values in public policy by urging that much of the violence and social divisiveness of the modern world is attributable to religious controversies. But all should remember that the most horrible moral atrocities of the twentieth century in terms of death and human misery have been committed by regimes that are unambiguously secular, not religious.

Even though we cannot reject religious values in law-making on the basis of their bad record by comparison with other values, there are examples of hostility to religious values in the public sector. For example, less than a decade ago, the United States Department of Justice challenged a federal judge’s right to sit on a case involving the Equal Rights Amendment on the ground that his religious views would prejudice him. The judge was Marion Callister. The religious views were LDS. In that same decade, the American Civil Liberties Union took the position that any pro-life abortion law was illegitimate because it must necessarily be founded on religious belief. 4

A few years ago some Protestant and Jewish clergymen challenged a federally financed program to promote abstinence from sexual activity among teenage youngsters. The grant recipients included BYU and some Catholic charities in Virginia and Michigan. The ACLU attorney who filed this challenge declared that “the ‘chastity law’ is unconstitutional because it violates the requirement for separation of church and state” because taxpayer dollars “are going to religious institutions, which use the funds to teach religious doctrines opposing teen-age sex and abortion.” 5 In the meantime, the “value” judgments that permit public schools to distribute birth control devices to teenagers supposedly violate no constitutional prohibition because the doctrine that opposes chastity is secular. (Source)

More to come.

Religious Values and Public Policy, Part 1

Dallin H. Oaks, a lawyer and LDS Church leader, has written and spoken much on the rising secularism of society. In 1992 he spoke to a group in Washington, D.C. about “the role of religion-based values and religious leaders in public policy debates.” Over the coming days I will post much of his speech, which is found in its entirety here. His words are very salient today, especially with the uproar some supporters of same-sex marriage have made concerning religious groups’ involvement in the passing of the three marriage amendments this past election (Nov. 2008).

Fundamental to the role of religion in public policy is this most important question: Are there moral absolutes? Speaking to…BYU students earlier this year, President Rex E. Lee [the president of BYU] said:

“I cannot think of anything more important than for each of you to build a firm, personal testimony that there are in this life some absolutes, things that never change, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. They are eternal truths, eternal principles and, as Paul tells us, they are and will be the same yesterday, today, and forever.” 1

Unfortunately, other educators deny the existence of God or deem God irrelevant to the human condition. Persons who accept this view deny the existence of moral absolutes. They maintain that right and wrong are relative concepts, and morality is merely a matter of personal choice or expediency. For example, a university professor reported that her students lacked what she called “moral common sense.” She said they believed that “there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments.” 2 In that view, even the most fundamental moral questions have at least two sides, and every assertion of right or wrong is open to debate.

I believe that these contrasting approaches underlie the whole discussion of religious values in public policy. Many differences of opinion over the role of religion in public life simply mirror a difference of opinion over whether there are moral absolutes. But this underlying difference is rarely made explicit. It is as if those who assume that all values are relative have established their assumption by law or tradition and have rendered illegitimate the fundamental belief of those who hold that some values are absolute.

One of the consequences of shifting from moral absolutes to moral relativism in public policy is that this produces a corresponding shift of emphasis from responsibilities to rights. Responsibilities originate in moral absolutes. In contrast, rights find their origin in legal principles, which are easily manipulated by moral relativism. Sooner or later the substance of rights must depend on either the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities or the legal enforcement of duties. When our laws or our public leaders question the existence of absolute moral values, they undercut the basis for the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities, which is economical, and compel our society to rely more and more on the legal enforcement of rights, which is expensive.

I will post more of his speech tomorrow.