Published April 16, 2010
James Davison Hunter, author of a new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, was recently the speaker at a conference on religion, politics, and public life, hosted by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Michael Cromartie.
Professor Hunter's motivation to write his book grew out of his understandable frustration with the disparity between his understanding of Christian faith and the form of engagement it has taken in politics over the years. And while he concedes that laws that prohibit discrimination against minorities illustrate the constructive influence of the state, the core of his critique is this:
The issue is really one of the appropriate expectations one should have of the state and its instrumentalities. What the state can't do is provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society. There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of family values, the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency, or to the spread of vulgarity.
Hunter went on to say this:
Because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems. … At best, the state's role addressing human problems is partial and limited.
It's not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values, but laws cannot generate values or instill values, or settle the conflict over values.
In his book Hunter goes so far as to urge Christians to be “silent for a season” and “learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy and political mobilization.”
Hunter is a thoughtful man, measured in his comments and fair minded in his analysis. There is much I agree with in both his book and in his presentation. But I believe he gets some important things wrong, or at least not fully right — including his assertion that laws cannot instill values. In fact, Hunter imputes too little influence to the state and the political process. They are more important than he thinks.
“A polity is a river of constantly changing composition,” George Will wrote in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, “and the river's banks are built of laws.”
The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways that are large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history are slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.
Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble in a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize certain behaviors. That is certainly not all that laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.
Here's a thought experiment. Assume that next week all 50 states legalize marijuana and cocaine use, prostitution and same-sex marriage. Regardless of where one stands on these issues, does anyone doubt that if these laws stayed in effect for 50 years they wouldn't fundamentally alter our views, including our moral views, of these issues?
There are other examples to which we can look. In 1970, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed into law the nation's first “no fault” divorce law. Within seven years, all but three states had repealed fault grounds for divorce. The entire legal divorce structure had been fundamentally changed; not surprisingly, this had profound ramifications on how we view the marriage contract.
The welfare laws that passed in the 1960s helped create a culture of dependency among the underclass — and the passage of welfare reform in 1996 was an important step in starting to reverse it. (Not incidentally, the national welfare caseload declined by more than 60 percent in the aftermath of welfare reform while overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger all decreased and while employment figures for single mothers rose.)
And Rudy Giuliani's policies in the 1990s helped transform New York. He not only made it a far safer city; he changed its spirit and ethos. He turned America's largest city into a far better and more civilized place.
As for Hunter arguing that the state can't “provide fully satisfying solutions to the problems of values in our society,” this is simply to acknowledge limits that are inherent in life on this earth. Nothing can provide fully satisfying solutions to the problems of values in our society. The question is the degree to which different things address durable human problems.
(In the context of Hunter's argument, I am reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me and I think that's pretty important.”)
A civilized society takes seriously the task of shaping habits and attitudes, mores and dispositions. That work is done by many different institutions, from the family to school, from houses of worship to Hollywood, from professional sports to the military. All of them have a role to play, and so does the state. Indeed, the state itself can have a major influence on other institutions. Their relationship is interconnected and synergistic.
“The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life,” is how Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously put it. “Its history is the history of the moral development of the race.”
Politics and governing can be difficult work, filled with traps and snares. There are plenty of people who bring dishonor to it. But there is also something ennobling about the enterprise when it is done properly. And it is terribly important work. We cannot neglect the importance of our laws because we cannot neglect the importance of our moral lives.
Pace James Hunter — now is not a season for silence, for Christians or for others. Now, as ever, it is a season for civil, thoughtful, and rigorous engagement. Call it the duties of citizenship in a free society.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiative.