Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Making Saints by Force?

A thoughtful and inspiring friend asked me a great question today. I thought I'd post his question and my response.

I have a question for you:

From a legal perspective, would you rather America was a society that
valued freedom first, or virtue first? A positive example of a society
that values virtue over freedom might be Singapore (Afghanistan with the
Taliban in charge might be a negative example). I suppose America in the
mid to late 20th century was an example of a society that valued freedom
over virtue. I suspect that we are making a shift towards virtue and I'm
wondering if that's a good thing. Any thoughts?

Great question (you always ask the best questions...).

I'm normally skeptical when virtue begins to trump freedom from a legal standpoint.

Having societies become more virtuous without state coercion or the threat of state sponsored violence is always the best alternative.

Spiritual or ethical revivals and renewals that make profound changes in the general levels of virtue of a society are the best case scenarios. This seems to be the best mix of increasing virtue without threatening freedom. We've had plenty of these kinds of grass roots revivals and renewals in our national history.

I'm convinced that state coercion in legislating and enforcing various forms of virtue, generally speaking, is a lesser good and can actually become oppressive and destructive in some situations.

I say a lesser good because whenever the state coerces people into virtue the quality of the virtue can and should be questioned. If people aren't convinced in their own consciences to follow a particular path of virtue, but are instead forced to follow that path because of threats and inducements on the part of the authorities, the balance between virtue and freedom has tipped too far in the direction of virtue.

State coercion can become oppressive and destructive when some subgroup within a society self-righteously decides to force the whole of the society—-by using the apparatus of the state--to conform to its notions of virtue. From a Christian anarchist perspective, this is a scary situation that can become evil relatively easily.

Of course, some state coercion aimed at encouraging virtue and discouraging less virtuous behavior is always necessary, so I’m really addressing the issue of the balance between virtue and freedom in the way the state functions.

So if the wider US culture becomes more focused on virtue, I believe that’s a very good thing since we’ve tended to over focus on freedom (perhaps licence is a better word) at the expense of virtue. Spiritual renewal of various kinds has had that kind of positive effect on the culture many times in the past. And I think that’s part of what’s happening right now. I applaud that and pray that trend will strengthen.

The part I’m not as excited about is the potential for very conservative Christians--in alliance with the Republican Party--to use the apparatus of the state to coerce various forms of virtue. I don’t have huge fears they will succeed, and I’m pretty confident the Christians in that mix will see their own self-righteousness (where it exists) and make the necessary adjustments in the coming few years. In any case, I don’t have any fears the US will go the way of either Singapore or Afghanistan—too much attachment here to the value of freedom for that to happen.

So overall, I think we have a reasonable balance from a political point of view between virtue and freedom at this point. Many people are freely focusing a bit more on virtue through the influence of spiritual communities and movements while some other folks are trying to jack up levels of state coercion in order to ensure virtue.

I don’t think the latter will succeed, and even if they do succeed in a few instances, they’re unlikely to do any major damage to the balance of freedom and virtue or the authenticity of virtue.

If the conservative Christian/Republican nexus represented 70% of the country, and if we were in a severe economic crisis at the same time, I’d be a lot more worried. Those would be the kinds of conditions where state enforced virtue could begin to overwhelm freedom.

Anyway, those are my four cents.


Blogger TPB said...

Helpful, and as usual, well articulated wordcat. My ethics professor agrees with you that Constantinianism, throughout the history of the church, has been responsible for more of the moral decline among Christians than during times of oppression or persecution. The more "power" the church has over the state seems only to bring about more corruption in the people.

7:08 AM  

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