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Morality, not a particular moral code, anchors a good society

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Policy Wonk
Rochester Business Journal
August 15, 2014

I just watched a pair of fictional Supreme Court nominees debate the implications of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act—just the kind of “ripped from the headlines” thing that appeals to TV script writers. But this was from a 2003 episode of “The West Wing”; my 27-year-old daughter has discovered the show and is working her way through it on Netflix.

The case did reach the court in 2013, and as the “West Wing” script suggested, a key section of the law was overturned. Now various state bans on same-sex marriage appear headed to the high court, with the first—a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirming a district court ruling that struck down Utah’s law—formally submitted at the beginning of August.

Nearly all Americans are disturbed by stories of atrocities by the Islamic State. Whether the more appalling reports—the beheading of Christian children, female genital mutilation—are substantiated or not, radical Islam clearly sees fit to harness government to enforce religious conformity. Exile, imprisonment and even death await those who break the rules or even disagree with accepted dogma.

Christians have their own history to live down: The Catholic Church sent many “heretics” to a painful death during the Inquisition. The Protestant Reformation was equally intolerant in its early decades. Martin Luther and John Calvin were quite willing to use the power of government to impose their theology on all citizens.

Did you see that the New York Times editorial board endorsed the legalization of marijuana in July? “It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.”

Yes, there’s a thread here. The foundation of liberal democracy is tolerance. If we believe that Christians in Iraq should be allowed to practice their faith, bound only by the discipline imposed by their own faith community, then we must accept the same principle here in the United States. Many Christians consider homosexuality to be a sin. Within its own governance model, a church is perfectly within its rights to preach against homosexuality or prohibit its clergy from performing same-sex marriages. But its authority ends with its membership.

The Times argues that the same level of tolerance is appropriately applied to pot—that criminalization causes more trouble than it is worth and that adults should be free to make their own decisions. Many studies have suggested that the “slippery slope” argument—that marijuana leads to worse addictions—applies no less to alcohol or many other potentially destructive behaviors. And just as we’ve cracked down on alcohol use that endangers others (with strict enforcement of serious drunken-driving bans, for example), marijuana legalization requires similar safeguards.

The obligation of government is to police the boundaries between individual liberties; our freedom is bounded by the equivalent freedom of others. Murder is outlawed as the ultimate violation of the rights of another, not because it is a violation of the Sixth Commandment as listed in Exodus 20. And unlike the Islamic State, most democracies have decriminalized Seventh Commandment violations—adultery. Christians, Jews and Muslims agree that adultery is immoral. But we don’t stone the perpetrators, as the Islamic State is reported to have done.

Morality is the bedrock of a good society. Honesty, a willingness to judge your actions from another’s perspective (the “Golden Rule”), generosity toward the less fortunate—these values and behaviors, whether rooted in Christianity, Judaism, Islam or humanism—brighten our lives and the lives of people around us. Embedding a particular moral code in law and regulation is the true “slippery slope,” as we are reminded almost daily by radical Islam.

Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.

8/15/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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