This article first appeared in the June 2005 issue of BreakPoint WorldViewmagazine. Subscribe today or get someone you know a gift subscription! Call 1-877-322-5527.
Years ago there was a cartoon on the comics page called “There Oughta Be a Law.” The panel was a picture of some obnoxious behavior perpetrated by a rude individual on innocent bystanders with the tag line, “There oughta be a law.”
While I doubt the cartoonist meant to make some grand assertion of political philosophy, it certainly illustrated a political philosophy: Government should solve all social and cultural problems. People talk loudly on cell phones in public—there ought to be a law. Some diners object to any tobacco use anywhere in the restaurant—there ought to be a law. There’s too much sex and violence on television—there ought to be a law.
Or maybe not.
This is a matter of the limits of law and politics to change the culture. When we overreach, the results are not pretty. In his book A History of the American People, Paul Johnson looks at Prohibition as a test case. Drunkenness was a problem, and the solution was the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Why?
First, says Johnson, Americans are born utopians. We believe that we can and should beat any and every problem. Second, we believe that the way to utopia is by passing the right laws. Third, while we are quite willing to legislate the ends, we lack the totalitarian impulse required to ruthlessly enforce our law.
Prohibition was an attempt to end drunkenness and the other evils associated with alcohol abuse. The chosen means was law. Supporters of Prohibition naively believed that if the Constitution were amended, people would stop drinking and problems would evaporate faster than a spilled shot of 100-proof vodka. While we legislated the ends (no more alcohol), we failed to legislate the means—ruthless enforcement. And besides, people liked to drink alcohol. When the law changes without the culture changing first, problems arise.
This is because politics and legislation are downstream from the culture. State bans on smoking in public buildings and restaurants came about because the culture had become increasingly intolerant of tobacco smoke. Forty years ago, such laws would have caused open rebellion.
Statecraft, as George Will has written, is soulcraft. That is, law is a teacher, but a particular kind of teacher. The law can reinforce what is already in the culture—for better or for worse—but the law cannot create a new culture. Thus when Christians and other well-meaning people enacted Prohibition, they did so against the grain of the culture. Mass lawbreaking in the speakeasies and the violence of bootlegging resulted. And finally the culture won out: Prohibition was repealed, and those who enacted it had squandered their political capital. And the world they sought to help, it could be argued, was worse off for their efforts.
Does this mean that Christians avoid politics? Absolutely not. As Chuck Colson is fond of reminding “BreakPoint” listeners and readers, Augustine said that Christians should be the best of citizens because we do out of the love of God what others do merely out of duty. Every Christian has a responsibility for the good of his or her country.
Nonetheless, politics is limited in what it can accomplish, and it cannot change the culture in a meaningful way. Christians need to care about every arena of human activity. We need to get “upstream” of politics by working in media, entertainment, medicine, law, business, and every other legitimate vocation. As we see changes occur in the institutions that shape the culture, we’ll begin to see corresponding transformations in politics that reinforce those changes.
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