Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Plea for Persuasion

In 1810, following the passage of a controversial law requiring post offices to be open every day, outrage arose among the American religious community over the patent immorality of requiring a government official to work on Sunday. From that point onward, all the way up to and through the Civil War, there was a powerful and outspoken lobby in Washington to end Sunday mail service. There were appeals to divine law, protections for religious freedom, and even the temporal benefits of Sabbatarianism. While we now know that the concept of no Sunday mail would eventually prevail, it would be 1912 before the religious lobby would win out after more than a century of effort.

In 1829, the prevailing mood in the government more nearly reflected that of Democrat Senator Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky. Johnson was a staunch opponent of ending Sunday mail service, reasoning that to do so would be an endorsement of the religion of the majority, to the exclusion of minority groups, such as Jews, who observed a different Sabbath or no Sabbath at all. Johnson argued that the "principles of our Government do not recognize in the majority, any authority over, the minority, except in matters which regard the conduct of man to his fellow man." Johnson did not, however, necessarily believe that Christians were wrong about the propriety of work on a Sunday. He merely saw an alternate route to their goal. In his address to Senate in 1829, Johnson exhorted churches, arguing that if achieve their goals through instruction of

the consciences of individuals to make them believe that it is a violation of God's law to carry mail, open post offices, or receive letters, on Sundays, the evil of which they complain will cease of itself, without any exertion of the strong arm of the civil power.

Here Johnson makes a powerful and persuasive argument the superiority of moral persuasion. One need only look at the history of moral legislation to discover that the "strong arm of the civil power" is always ineffective in achieving genuine moral reform. Take the ongoing history of Sabbatarianism as an example. In 1912, the government stopped delivering, for the most part, mail on Sundays. Yet are we today any more reverent of the appointed day of rest because of this? Plenty of Americans, including no small number of Christians, gladly work on Sundays. Those who don't primarily abstain as a luxury rather than a moral conviction. Even then, what they are doing is hardly setting aside a day for the Lord. If they are devout, Christians set aside their morning for Jesus, leaving their afternoons free to devote to the more passionate religious exercise of professional football. The only moral result of stopping the mail on Sunday is to tempt me to rage that I have to wait one more day for the book I ordered from Amazon.

Examples could be easily multiplied. Prohibition did not make Americans any soberer. Sodomy laws never stopped homosexuals from having intercourse. Anti-piracy laws have not resulted in the abatement of illegal downloading. Abstinence only education certainly hasn't prevented teenagers from being sexually active. While you might debate the merits of each of these programs and discuss whether they are really attempts to make society more moral (as is probably the case with abstinence only education) or merely formalities to allow punishment when its immorality inevitably manifests (as is probably the case with anti-piracy laws), one thing ought to be clear: the government is powerless to legislate morality.

Given what ought to be this obvious fact, one cannot but wonder at the wholesale abandonment of persuasion by the religious right in favor of civil coercion. Are we, as Christians, so doubtful of the appeal of the divine ethos that we have been reduced to the belief that we can only convince people to live righteous lives by the forceful application of morality through law? More importantly, have we honestly been so deluded into believing that a homosexual who is unable to marry or legally to admit to sexual intercourse is somehow better off for our moral coercion? Righteousness acheived by force is no righteousness at all.

It is time for Christians to recapture the art of moral persuasion, to have faith again in the appeal of Christ and the truth he came to teach, and to take our cue from our Father who had the wisdom to realize that it would have been meaningless to force humanity to be moral. We need to stop using unholy means to acheive unholy ends, no matter how religious they appear. Instead, we need to emulate our Savior who revolutionized the world not through the power of his might but through the persuasiveness of his teaching and the example of his life.

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