Public Square

The State & the Natural Moral Law

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In our previous article we discussed how Jesus’s ethics and teachings lead to a conclusion about a limited view of government. In today’s article, the final one in this series, we will look at how the State is responsible under Natural Moral Law and not scripture.

Natural Moral Law

If my arguments up to this point are correct, then the Bible presents a minimalist view of the nature of the state. The state’s basic job is to preserve a stable, peaceful social order by punishing wrongdoing that involves the violation of people’s negative rights. But if we are not to have a theocracy by placing the state under scripture, how is the state to obtain the kind of moral knowledge necessary to fulfill its basic function? In my view, the answer is that the state is responsible to be under the Natural Moral Law and not to be under scripture. 

The Natural Moral Law is objective moral norms and duties revealed by God in creation that can be known by all people with or without a Bible and whether or not they acknowledge God as the source. If the state must be under scripture, then the state must be a theocracy, and the Bible accepts only one theocracy: Israel. There is a substantial biblical case for the existence of the Natural Moral Law. 

To illustrate, the prophet Amos chastises a number of pagan nations for failing to do their duty to their people, and he always rests his complaints on self-evident moral truths he assumes these nations know without scripture (Amos 1). But when Amos turns to criticize the people of Israel, he faults them for violating “the Law of the Lord,” i.e., the revealed Mosaic Law (Amos 2). The covenant community is under scripture; the non-theocratic state is under the Natural Moral Law. This is why the Declaration of Independence says “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and not “We hold these truths to be grounded in the Bible.” In nature, God has given sufficient revelation for the state to do its job.

Moral Theory and Moral Reasoning

One aspect of the Natural Moral Law is the idea that immoral acts violate, not primarily the moral commands of God, but the way things by nature were made to function properly. In this sense, God occupies center stage as creator rather than as commander.

Natural Moral Law reasoning opens up the possibility that we Christians can find arguments independent of scripture for or against certain things. Therefore it is crucial for Christians to learn moral theory and moral reasoning. Here is a good rule of thumb: Go to scripture to gain moral insights and see if you can find reasons for what you find there that are independent of scripture.

Natural Moral Law and Tolerance

One problem with Natural Moral Law needs to be addressed—that is the belief that since Natural Moral Law is a version of moral absolutism, it leads to an intolerant approach to life that should be eschewed. According to some, e.g., secular-progressives, enlightened people are tolerant, non-judgmental, and compassionate. They are unwilling to impose their views on others or judge others’ behavior and beliefs as wrong. Defensive, unenlightened people are the dogmatic, intolerant, ugly polar opposites of enlightened folks. These intolerant people want to tell everybody else what to do, and Natural Moral Law theory engenders such an attitude.

Ironically, this secular-progressive view of Natural Moral Law is ubiquitous, ignorant, and detestable. There is widespread confusion today about the nature and value of tolerance. The confusion results from conflating the classic and contemporary understandings of tolerance. By failing to keep them distinct, people quite understandably experience the injunction to be tolerant with a certain degree of ambiguity. On the one hand, we intuitively sense that tolerance is a good thing. On the other hand, there’s something pretty fishy with the way it is used today. The way out of this confusion is to distinguish two forms of tolerance, reject the contemporary sense, and retain the classic version.

Classic Tolerance

According to its classic definition, a tolerant person holds that his own moral views about important matters are true and those of his opponents are false; but he still respects his opponent as a person and respects his opponent’s right to make a case for his views. Thus, someone has a duty to tolerate a different moral view, not in the sense of thinking it is morally correct, but in the sense that he will continue to value and respect his opponent, to treat him with dignity, and to recognize his right to argue for and propagate his ideas. Strictly speaking, in the classic view, one tolerates persons, not their ideas.

In this sense, even though someone disapproves of another’s important moral beliefs and practices, he or she will not inappropriately interfere with them by, for example, silencing speech and refusing to allow the person to contend for his or her views in public. However, it is consistent with classic tolerance that a person judges his opponent’s views to be wrong and dedicates himself to doing everything morally appropriate to counteract those views, e.g., using argument, persuasion, voting, and so forth. If a person does not hold a particular position about a crucial issue to be morally false, what is there to tolerate?

For classic tolerance to be in play, one has to judge another’s beliefs or actions to be wrong about something that really matters. McDonald’s lovers don’t have to “tolerate” Burger King patrons, because differences of taste in fast-food restaurants are not important enough for one side to have to tolerate the other. Differences about abortion and marriage are different matters, and these are important issues of the Natural Moral Law.

Contemporary Tolerance

In contrast to the classic view, contemporary tolerance proclaims, “It’s wrong to say that there are moral duties that should be imposed on everyone, and we all have a moral duty to be tolerant.” Such incoherence explains why tolerance-advocates tolerate only people who are like them—other tolerance-advocates. 

The contemporary view of tolerance is also deeply immoral. Why? If consistently practiced, it silences moral protest and resistance to horrendous evils such as rape, adult sex with children, racism, and a host of others. Moral protest requires us to judge that such practices are horrendously immoral, a judgment that contemporary tolerance undercuts. How can we be correct in resisting social evils if we are not to judge that anyone’s beliefs or practices are wrong?

At the end of the day, contemporary tolerance is both incoherent and immoral. If practiced, it produces a society of passive, isolated, indifferent individuals so paralyzed by their own guilt and shame that they would rather live in a culture of moral indifference than risk facing their own immoral beliefs and practices. 

In any case, while Natural Moral Law theory is inconsistent with contemporary tolerance, the classic version of tolerance is a dictum that is part of the Natural Moral Law.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, A Biblical Case for Limited Government by Dr. J.P. Moreland. Read the full paper here.

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