Moral Legitimacy Deals with all Areas of Life, Including Politics

by Josh Carlson:

Many on the Religious Right are concerned that the values they hold are reaching their twilight in American society.  The reelection of President Obama and subsequent failures of various conservative causes has caused many to pause, wondering how to be the salt and light of the earth (Matthew 15:13-15) and touch peoples’ consciences.

Christians in PoliticsIn his article, “After the Religious Right and the Culture Wars,” Tim Reuter argues that the Religious Right’s entrance into politics and preoccupation with power was a cause for the loss of moral legitimacy in American culture.  Thus, the “death” of the Religious Right’s influence in politics is a good thing because “[n]either the ballot box nor the state can make men moral.”  Mr. Reuter argues that moral legitimacy should come from civic institutions and be the conscience of the state, not the government through legislation.

While this contention is largely true, it does not follow that the Religious Right should leave politics wholesale.  In fact, doing so can be just as disastrous as “trading one’s moral suasion for political persuasion,” because it could mean surrendering power to elites who do not care for these morals in the first place.

This latter contention is supported by history.  Abortion became a constitutional “right” because of the Supreme Court (i.e. the elites), not from the people or legislature.  Granted, some states were more liberal on this issue before Roe v. Wade, but some were not.  Likewise, the banning of school prayer came from another Supreme Court decision, Engel v. Vitale.  Until recently, same-sex marriage was always legalized through the courts, such as Massachusetts or Iowa, not the people or the legislature.

Mr. Reuter is right: a society is only as moral as its people, and dispersing power of the state is a good way to protect people from any one gaining too much power.  However, if one expects the government to not become more powerful and squelch religious liberty, Christian Conservatives likely need to be involved in politics in order to challenge those who wish to enlarge the government.

Furthermore, Christian Conservatives are likely going to be harassed by the government when they try to get their message out on the street or simply try to peacefully practice their beliefs.  For example, many Christian business owners, such as Hobby Lobby, are being pressured to accept Obamacare, including providing morning after pills.  Consider also the recent IRS scandals targeting conservative groups in general.

Similarly, the recent legalization of same-sex “marriage” in Minnesota provided minimal protections for religious groups.   In fact, they are so minimal that there is real concern that even religious universities like Northwestern College/the University of Northwestern (an Evangelical Protestant college/university) or the University of St. Thomas (a Catholic university) are not protected.

This can also be seen with the issue of prayer in public schools.  If one side gets to practice its beliefs or promote its message because of government approval and the other is completely kept out for constitutional reasons, then only one message is heard.

In sum, how can the Christian Right regain their moral legitimacy when they are being legally sanctioned from doing so?  This concern alone weighs against completely abandoning politics to those who oppose Christian conservative values.

Finally, going into politics does not equate with surrendering moral authority.  As Mr. Reuter correctly noted, we live in a sinful world.  However, it affects Christians and the Church, no matter where they are, not just in Washington D.C.  The sex abuse scandals within Catholic Church clergy is an evil and ugly example of sin.  Yet, to my knowledge, no one has seriously suggested that the Catholic Church must now forego teaching children.  What is needed is reform and repentance within the Church, not a retreat from being in the culture.

In other words, some people should not teach children, but that is on a case-by-case basis, not a wholesale retreat from educating children.  Likewise, in politics, some people may need to leave politics because they have compromised, but this does not mean there should be an en masse exit by Christian Conservatives.

Mr. Reuter is right: Christian Conservatives should not be obsessed with power but be the “conscience of the state” and protect the values and rights through civic institutions.  However, it should not be at the cost of giving up the state to those who would do away with that conscience.


Josh Carlson is a 2013 law school graduate from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, MN.  He graduated from Bethel University in 2010 with a B.A. in Business and Political Science.  He is currently studying for the Minnesota Bar.


  1. Mark 8:36 Says I Just says:

    Are you seriously suggesting that an actual, 100% authentic Christian moralist would be able to accomplish anything if they magically somehow made it to Congress? Do you think the American political system is built to allow such people to enter and do insane things like enforce a Christian moralism on a society that quite clearly does not want one? And I haven’t even brought up how the unstoppable force of the business community would utterly squash such an attempt.

    What you’re proposing here is belling the cat, pure and simple.

  2. @Mark

    Mr. Carlson is not suggesting that a Christian moralist “accomplish” anything in Congress, nor that one should “enforce a Christian moralism.” Rather, he is simply pointing out that if the Christian Conservatives abandon government, then they will be abandoned by government; there will be no representative to put forward their view of an issue.

    It is not an argument for morality by legislation, but rather that without morality, we will have even worse legislation.

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