At the heart of creation is a conception of goodness that, once seen and its inner logic understood, impels us to respond accordingly. Recognizing the goods of what it means to be human, and the desire to protect and preserve them, sometimes takes the form of painting and poetry. But at other times, the goods discerned are important and foundational enough that they merit the protection of law and the punishment of those who infringe upon them. Identifying these is a matter of political judgment, but the creation of sound and just laws is no more impossible than the creation of great art.
More than Hearts and Minds
We ought be wary, then, of replacing our political legalism with a political antinomianism, even of a temporary variety. One poison rarely offsets another, yet that is precisely what the strategy of legislative retreat promises us. The way forward, politically at least, is to work to reform our civic institutions from within while faithfully articulating the grounds for legislation in ways that are cheerful, reasonable, and kind.
Laws are not only expressive of a culture or a political order; as aspects of a culture, they also invariably have a reciprocal effect on it. In short, legislation changes things, even if it doesn't change everything.
The legalization of abortion opened up a new range of possibilities for us, in the same way that the civil rights movement criminalized discrimination as a way of re-establishing the boundaries for public behavior. What's more, as they stems from an authority ordained by God, laws establish the obligation to obey, provided that such legislation conforms with the created order. Expressing shared beliefs about the way the world ought to go, legislation has a way of deepening those underlying beliefs and reinforcing them. And in establishing the boundaries of action, legislation allows some behaviors to become more plausible than others.
I've been thinking about putting together a series where I examine some of the cliches that we throw about as Christians, particularly those that have to do with our public and political engagement.
Have you a favorite cliche you'd like to see finished? Because "we ought to be changing hearts and minds, not laws" is one of mine.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.