Friday, December 15, 2006

Should Biblical Ethics Be Translated Into Public Policy?

In our discussion on what the Bible says about property rights, Dan Trabue wrote:

I'd love to discuss the Jubilee Laws and implications. I'm with you that we can't really implement them today our societies being apples and oranges - but that we CAN and should implement policies (individually, locally and nationally) that are in their spirit.

I think the notion of the Jubilee Laws are sufficient reason to dismiss the notion that we ought not institute policies on a societal level to assist the poor. What were the Jubilee Laws and some of the other Levitical laws (leaving behind some of the field to be gleaned by the poor) if not a form of taxation?

Enforced not by a military but by a God?

I responded that I fully approve of God implementing such policies. To this, Dan replied (in contradiction to his first proposal that such policies be enforced by God, not the military):

And God did so, in the nation of Israel whose people implemented such a policy. God merely recommended it (commanded, actually).

Ought we not stand ready to do as a people - a Christian people - what the Israelis did? Not that we can force an issue in and of ourselves, we are only one voice in a nation of many.

But we can advocate for rules that mimic the Jubilee Laws and Levitical laws (the reasonable ones in our society) and, if our reasoning is sufficient to sway the masses, those policies may be implemented and there would be nothing at all biblically wrong with doing so.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't think that Christian Ethics should necessarily be codified in public policy. For example, the Bible at no point presents a positive portrayal of homosexuality, and at one point even commands that those who engage in homosexual activity to be executed. If we were to follow this model, then Christians must push for homosexuality to be criminalized.

Here's another example. Biblical teaching, as Dan has pointed out, clearly and repeatedly condemns greed and encourages charity. In my post, I listed a long string of verse citations which encourage if not demand charitable giving to the poor.

Here's an even longer string of verse citations:

Ex 20:3-5, Deu 6:14, 2 Kin 17:35, Jer 25:6, Jer 35:15, Ex 15:11, Ex 20:23, Lev 19:4, Lev 26:1, Deu 4:15-19, Deu 27:15, Ex 23:24, Jos 23:7-8, 2 Kin 17:35, Deu 4:23, Jos 24:19-20, Ex 34:13-14, Deu 5:9, Ex 34:17

Anyone want to guess what moral problem these verses deal with? Idolatry. And that's with just five minutes of searching. I don't have time right now to compile a complete account of every passage which condemns idolatry. But there's a whole heap of them. Why the Book of Hosea is wholly devoted just to idolatry!

Clearly, idolatry, like greed, is incompatible with Christian Ethics. So if we follow Dan's reasoning and implement the condemnations against idolatry into public policy, then worshipping other gods should be criminalized.

Any takers?

19 comments:

Brian said...

I agree with you - as a matter of public policy we shouldn't implement biblical principles just because they're biblical principles. Now as a public servant and an amateur political scientist, I don't have a problem with any particular group of people picking some biblical issue and trying to implement a policy supporting it - that's what the democratic process is supposed to allow.

But then the question becomes whether that biblical principle is appropriately applied to all people (in a a secular democracy)? I think that's the crux of the public debate our country is having over abortion and homosexuality, to name two issues.

I think Christians need to be wary of thinking that ANY biblical principles should be implemented just because they are biblical. So long as we live in a secular and extremely diverse democracy we need to be cautious about imposing our values on others.

Dan Trabue said...

The catholic church, I'm told, approaches this by acknowledging two levels (for lack of a better word) of morality. I'll probably butcher explaining this, but I'll try.

One level is universal morality. This is morality that can be reasoned apart from the Bible and that folk can generally be in agreement with, regardless of faith tradition: Don't kill, don't steal, don't pollute.

The other level deals more with the personal and specifically religious beliefs: the Triune nature of God, the Virgin birth, Trust in God as we understand God.

The thinking here is that we can and should argue for policies regarding universal morality issues - even if we come by those beliefs by way of our faith system - but should by NO means try to implement policies that fall in the more personal and religious realm.

Perhaps that's obvious - I'd think that we'd all agree to it. The difficulty, of course, is when some issues (or some folk) blur the line between the two.

For myself, I think it quite common-sense to argue for some Jubilee-like policies in our culture and lives - just as Israel had in codified in their nation.

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks, John, for carrying on this discussion...

Dan Trabue said...

"So if we follow Dan's reasoning and implement the condemnations against idolatry into public policy, then worshipping other gods should be criminalized."

Except that Dan wouldn't advocate this, as it falls under the religious arena, not the universal.

Anonymous said...

Dan is right about looking at Christian Ethics from a General Ethic position. (although if your a Haurwasian there is no general position.)

Looking back even further the writings of St Thomas of Aquinas might help this discussion as well.

John said...

Dan, please explain this distinction.

Dan Trabue said...

The distinction? Between what I'll call "religious ethics" as opposed to "universal ethics"?

Well, that's what I was trying to do in my earlier post. But I'll try to further define it.

I'd suggest that beliefs that have to do with the soul, the spirit, the afterlife, how one interprets the Bible, that are based solely (or maybe even mostly) upon a biblical reference, that can only be defended by saying, "that's the way God wants it..." - these sorts of beliefs are in the religious realm.

This is one reason why I'm opposed to those who are opposed to gay marriage - the reasons they give are almost all of a general religious reckoning - "the bible says it's wrong," "God hates homosexuality," etc.

If you can't offer much in the way of "real world" reasoning, it's probably a solely religious ethic and probably shouldn't be codified.

On the other hand, if the beliefs are common to humanity, interfere with others' life and/or health, can be argued for/against using real world reasoning - these ethics are probably universal in nature. EVEN if some might have got to that particular belief by way of their faith.

In other words, one's faith should NOT keep them from participating in civics, but one shouldn't seek to codify one's faith, either.

As an example, I think you can make an argument that making policy for/against abortion CAN fall under the Universal Ethic, as there are reasons beyond "just" religious ones to hold those views (and, in fact, there is very little in the Christian religion to give one cause for holding a definitive position, but that's another post.)

It's not a perfect dichotomy, perhaps, but I think this is what most people in our culture intuitively think on the topic.

Does that sound fair?

I suspect, after all, that no one here thinks Christians should sit out of policy-making, but neither should we enforce a Virgin Birth ordinance.

Dan Trabue said...

I would like to complain about something I stated. I said:

"...can be argued for/against using real world reasoning..."

I think that Godly reasoning is the utmost in real-world reasoning. However, much of religious world has made arguments that can only be defended by saying, "That's what God wants..." and I felt compelled, therefore, to insert that line about "real-world reasoning," as if Godly reasoning was anything but.

JD said...

Dan,

"The catholic church, I'm told, approaches this by acknowledging two levels (for lack of a better word) of morality. I'll probably butcher explaining this, but I'll try.


It is not just the Catholic Church, but C.S. Lewis that is better known for this discussion. In Mere Christianity C. S Lewis first goes about by explaining the "laws of nature" and their relationship to Christianity. After he describes that, he goes into discuss of Christ, and ultimately the ethics derived from the Christian belief. It is a great book, very philosophical, but a must read for any Christian.

Looking at public policy from a bigger perspective, any philosophy class will tell you that government makes laws to protect society that, without their help, would destroy themselves, i.e., seatbelt law. But great philosophers also bring up the point that too much government causes more problems.

Just food for thought from one class I had over 10 years ago.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

Yes, I've read Mere Christianity. The Catholics advocated it first, but Lewis does a fine job of discussing the topic. He's not really discussing it in this context, but it's a helpful read.

Dan Trabue said...

John said:

"I don't think that Christian Ethics should necessarily be codified in public policy."

So, when and how do you think Christians should participate in a Republic? Ought they not advocate for any of their values?

I suspect you agree with me that you think we should.

So, I'd still like to hear what others think about how would we mimic the Jubilee Laws and poverty laws that the Israelis had in place (or, at least, in theory had in place in some instances).

John said...

So, when and how do you think Christians should participate in a Republic? Ought they not advocate for any of their values?

I think that we Christians (and everyone else in civil society) should distinguish between doing a wrong and doing a harm. Having, for example, gay sex is a wrong, but it harms no one. Killing a person is both a wrong and a harm. Harms should be criminalized, but not wrongs which do not harm a person or property.

I think that this perspective is a reflection of your own distinction between religious ethics and universal ethics.

Dan Trabue said...

"Harms should be criminalized, but not wrongs which do not harm a person or property."

I think that's an excellent way to think about it. So, what do we do with unintended harms? The drunk driver who has no intention of killing someone?

Or even drivers in general, who don't intend to harm anyone, but through sheer force of numbers kill 40,000 people a year, cause trillions of dollars in health, property and environmental damage?

Regulate or no?

Dan Trabue said...

And what about economic policies (getting back to the Jubilee question)? How will we measure harm?

Does the policy that fails to take into consideration the poor and marginalized cause harm and need to be addressed?

John said...

Unintentional harms should be addressed as torts whenever possible, but some I suppose could be considered crimes, such as involuntary manslaughter (with a car).

And what about economic policies (getting back to the Jubilee question)? How will we measure harm?

Destruction of person or property, or fraud.

Does the policy that fails to take into consideration the poor and marginalized cause harm and need to be addressed?

No. To use Gordon Graham's quoted example, the rich man who passes by the poor man without helping should not be interfered with. But if he mugs the poor man, then the state should step in.

Dan Trabue said...

I don't have time right now, but one difference between you and I is that I am of the opinion that there are more ways than one to mug a person. That there are systemic problems - the same sort of systemic injustices condemned by the prophets and Jesus - that need to be dealt with.

Dan Trabue said...

Or, to quote Woody Guthrie:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

John said...

I agree that such systematic evils must be dealt with. I just think that government is more the cause of than the solution to these problems.

I also think that the church must not respond to suffering by calling on the government to act. Caring for the poor and downtrodden is the concern of the church, which cannot outsource its mission to the state.

In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the king did not separate on the basis of who voted for what, but who acted and who didn't.

But I sense that we have no real difference here in principle, only in method.

Is there more way than one to mug a person? I don't think so. One can be an uncaring, heartless bastard and pass by the homeless person without helping, but that is a wrong, not a harm. It is the wrong thing to do, but very different than ripping the coat off the homeless person and taking it away. That is a harm to the homeless person; it violates his property rights.

Dan Trabue said...

"I also think that the church must not respond to suffering by calling on the government to act."

But we have the example of the Nation of Israel setting up rules to ensure the poor and marginalized were taken care of. I agree with you that I'm no great truster of the gov't to provide answers, but that doesn't mean I don't think we should ever implement policies designed to assist - just as Israel did.

AS LONG AS we're not merely trying to legislate our morality but have those Universal Ethics sorts of reasoning for policies.

And we do.

It is a matter of fiscal responsibility, for instance, to take care of the poor. One example:

Prisoners who go to jail and receive education while there are significantly, measurably less likely to go back to prison - saving the state more money than it costs to educate them.

That sort of idea is a no-brainer. It's a matter of fiscal responsibility. I advocate gov't doing (or encouraging) those sort of solutions everytime - just out of self-interest.