Magistrates Should Enforce the Whole Decalogue?

Mencken recognized the fallacy of enforcing morality but not theology (“thou shalt have no other gods before me”):

It is moral tyranny that now afflicts These States, and the worst of the matter is that thousands of Americans seem disposed to submit to it without protest.. If theological tyranny were revived tomorrow, they would loose a bellow loud enough to shake the earth, but in the face of moral tyranny they remain silent and sit still. Thus it is that militant moralists, moved by that will to power which is universal in man, have proceeded from excess to excess, until now an almost endless roll of wholly harmless acts is under the ban of the law.

It is unlawful in Baltimore for a citizen to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Sabbath. It is unlawful for him to buy a cigar. It is unlawful for him to have his hair cut. It is unlawful for him, on a summer Sunday, to recreate himself by playing baseball. In various large areas of his city he is forbidden to buy a bottle of wine, even on a week-day. Many plays that he may want to see, indubitable works of art, are barred from the theatres he patronizes. He is forbidden to possess certain great and valuable books, or to send them to his friends by mail. The law decides what games of chance he shall play and what games of chance he shall not play, and the division is purely arbitrary and nonsensical.

What is more, this invasion of his common rights is still going on. Here in Baltimore there are half a dozen organizations devoted exclusively to the concoction and prohibition of new and wholly artificial crimes. And in Washington the Congress of the United States is preparing to pass a law making it a crime for a man to have a bottle of beer in his possession–not to sell it or give it away, remember, but merely to have it.

What is the theory at the bottom of all this oppressive and intolerable legislation? Simply the theory that no man shall do, even in his own house, anything which the majority of his fellow-citizens do not care to do in their houses. His act need not be vicious in itself; it need not be dangerous; it need not be disturbing to his neighbors. All it need be is abhorrent to the opinion of those neighbors, or, to be more exact, to the opinion of 51 per cent. of them. This is the theory at the bottom of moral snouting and moral legislation, and this was also the theory at the bottom of the hanging of Jews and Quakers, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the Inquisition in Spain.

No sane man, I take it, objects to laws necessary to the public security, even when they limit his own liberties. I have never heard anyone defend burglary, or arson, or rape. I doubt that any such defense has ever been made in Christendom. But is it necessary to the public security that boys who work hard all week be forbidden to take reasonable recreation on Sunday? Is it necessary to the public security that a sane man, fully competent to take care of himself, be forbidden to drink a bottle of beer? Is it necessary to the public security that a good citizen be forbidden to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony one day out of every seven, or that he be forbidden to read the books he wants to read, or to see the plays be wants to see?

I think not. On the contrary, it seems to me that such prohibitions are wholly intolerable and indecent. It seems to me that any person who essays to enforce them upon free citizens is a far more dangerous criminal than that poor wretch who essays to pick their pockets. The pickpocket steals only a watch, and a man without a watch is still a man. But the militant moralist tries to steal liberty and self-respect, and the man who has lost both is a man who has lost everything that separates a civilized freeman from a convict in a chain-gang.

So again the question: why do Christians expect non-Christians to behave like Christians?

8 thoughts on “Magistrates Should Enforce the Whole Decalogue?

  1. More on how difficult enforcing morality it:

    That vulgar persons are fond of vulgar amusements is not a matter in which the police can have any proper interest. It is not competent for a civilized government to prohibit vulgarity, nor would it accomplish any atual reform if it did. We think of Germany as a police-ridden country, with harsh and inquisitorial laws, but there is no law in Germany prescribing how and when a young donkey shall hug his best girl. If he wants to hug her on the public street, he hugs her there and then, and no one dares interfere with him. He is free to kiss her and chuck her under the chin. He may sit with her on a park bench and put his arm around her. And so in England, in France and elsewhere.

    It is only in free America that a Puritanical minority devotes itself savagely to regulating the conduct of the vulgar mass. It is only here that a police captain would dare prescribe the exact manner in which two free agents shall dance. The Germans and other Europeans are just as inhospitable to open indecency as we are, but they are civilized enough to understand that mere vulgarity is not necessarily indecency. They know that poverty and ignorance are not productive of the reserve which we call refinement, and they do not attempt to improve matters by calling its lack a crime.

    Let those Baltimoreans who are wholly civilized keep a sharp eye upon this growing passion for browbeating the poor. Let them not forget that the very moralists who now denounce the tango, the growler and the moving picture so violently would go even further if they had the courage. You and I read Rabelais, chuckling with joy; these hyenas of virtue would snatch the book away from us if they dared. We go to see “A Doll’s House;” these fellows would ban it if they could. Our women go to the opera with necks and shoulders bare; these snouters would send them to the House of Correction if it were possible. Let us not forget these things.

    But is all war upon vulgarity therefore in vain? Not at all. What violence cannot do, good example may accomplish. The average human being is easily led upward; progress is in the blood of the race. Put good music into direct competition with bad music, and good music will always win. Put decency beside hoggishness, and hoggishness will grow ashamed. Let us combat vulgar dancing, if it exists, by providing opportunities for decent dancing. Let us try to give the poor and ignorant cleanly recreations, as we have tried to give them clean water. Let us call off the policeman and go to them as fellow human beings eager to help them upward and tolerant of their weakness and blundering.


  2. Scott Clark–The magistrate has a right and a duty to enforce marriage and divorce laws in order to enforce natural, creational boundaries in the same way he has a duty to protect a society from theft and fraud. To anticipate an objection, this is not a theocratic argument. It is not the magistrate’s duty to police EVERY SORT of violation of natural law and sin. For example, no one but theocrats want the state enforcing obedience to the first table of the law. The magistrate’s natural sphere of concern and authority is in the second table. Civil authorities have a right and duty to arrange a calendar (e.g. public holidays) of working and resting according to the creational pattern, to prevent and punish theft, to prevent and punish murder, and to regulate public sexual morality. Marriage is a form of regulation of sexual morality.


  3. dgh—“Which is more silly, to think that Christ governs the existing age through two kingdoms, one subject to Scripture the other to general revelation, or to think that we can have the Decalogue to prohibit the sins we most oppose but not to the point of making us look intolerant of other religions?”

    mcmark–Difficult to answer, because both are pretty silly.

    The corporate stuff still belongs to Satan
    that’s why we have to give in sometimes and have two different kingdoms
    and not retreat from the general revelation (profane grace)
    kingdom in which evil overcomes (or at least restrains) evil

    The old evil Foe
    Now means deadly woe;
    Deep guile and great might
    Are his dread arms in fight;
    On Earth is not his equal.

    I Cor 10 Now I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. 5 GOD WAS NOT PLEASED WITH MOST of them, for they were STRUCK DOWN in the wilderness.

    Calvin–But we must utterly reject that dogma which notes such a great difference between the sacraments of the old and new law, as if the sacraments of the old ONLY FORESHADOWED God’s grace, but as if the sacraments of the new give a present reality.

    Calvin–For as the Lord covered them with a cloud and gave them coolness, that they would not weaken and pine away in the merciless heat of the sun, so do we recognize that in baptism we are covered and protected by Christ’s blood, that God’s severity, which is truly an unbearable flame, would not assail us .

    Calvin–The Lord rained down manna from heaven he did not do so MERELY to feed their bellies, but also bestowed manna as a spiritual mystery, to foreshadow the spiritual quickening we have in Christ. We conclude with full certainty that the Lord not only communicated to the Jews the same promises of eternal and heavenly life as the LOrd now gives us, but also sealed the promises with truly spiritual sacraments.

    no cherry picking on the flattening of the administrations of covenants!

    Meredith Kline—”To label the priests and/or the prophets as the church within the Theocracy is unwarranted. The priests were, indeed, the representative-mediators of the congregation in its approach to God, and the prophets declared the Word of the Lord to the congregation. But the king ruled in the congregation, and Israel was that worshiping, serving congregation. All alike who lived in the Theocracy were always engaged in specifically religious, because theocratic, business. Therefore, all was church, as also all was family and all state – the church of God, the family of God, the Kingdom of God – all in one and one in all, and such was the Theocracy..”


  4. Lee Irons–“A natural law theorist may not go out with the intention of making a naked appeal to Scripture. He may try appealing to various arguments that support his interpretation of natural law, keeping his biblical beliefs out of play to achieve maximum rhetorical effect. But since the ultimate epistemic basis for his interpretation of natural law is Scripture, at the end of the day this will come to light at some point in the argument and it will become evident that he is not really making a good-faith religiously-neutral appeal.”


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