Kyle Eller: Let's legislate morality a little more consistently

Toward the end of Minnesota's state budget debate, Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, took to the capitol steps and, among other things, said this: "The new Republicans are extreme right, and some of them even claim to be Christians."...

Toward the end of Minnesota's state budget debate, Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, took to the capitol steps and, among other things, said this: "The new Republicans are extreme right, and some of them even claim to be Christians."

The DFL is the party of tolerance, which often translates into intolerance toward the intolerant. The DFL, for instance, had recently taken Rep. Arlon Lindner, R-Corcoran, to the woodshed for some jackass comments about homosexuals and the Holocaust. One might have expected the DFL, then, to censure Jaros for his intolerance toward Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his 999,473 voters, many of them Christian, who conceivably might be swayed to vote DFL one day. But it didn't happen.

Emboldened, Jaros quickly got loose again in a letter to the Ripsaw. In his defense, he was responding to a letter criticizing the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. It's emotional. But here's a snippet of his response:

"I know that your religion and mine (Catholic) did not emphasize Bible study like the Protestant religions, but you know that Jesus, my hero, was a socialist." Jesus, in other words, was a follower of 19th-century atheist Karl Marx and his discredited economic and political theory.

That's wrong, obviously. Jaros' own Catholic faith explicitly rejects socialism (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2425), while also rejecting abusive materialism and individualism in capitalism, which, had he been more temperate, would still have left him ample ground to argue against the budget. Most Christians consider Jesus in the present tense, too.


The silence from his party, his constituents and the major state media (I won't guess about his private pastoral relationships) deserve mention, but I bring this up to illustrate a point. In America, the concept that "you can't legislate morality" is so entrenched we barely even verbalize it. It's just given.

Except this truism isn't true. Or, it's true in the sense that passing moral laws will not itself make people moral, but untrue in the sense that legislation involving morality is out of bounds. Even that boundary would be a moral one.

Every law, at some level, is moral, favoring one value over another. Laws against speeding favor public safety over liberty. The basic ideas, life, liberty and private property, are moral ones, based on Judeo-Christian values or, in the case of Deists, the related concept of natural law. They are indispensable for civilization; if we plan to legislate, we can't escape legislating morality.

The perception today is that social conservatives -- "theocrats" worried about porn and prayer and sodomy -- do all the moral legislating.

I brought up Jaros' words because they prove this perception false.

Jaros' budget argument is explicitly moral, couched in religious language. Strip away the bomb-throwing and bad assumptions and he's got a sound moral point -- that we should care for needy people, and that Christians especially should do so. (His problem: Christians can in good faith disagree on the level and method by which we care for needy people; adopting his extreme answers is not required.)

Jaros is not alone. Liberal Christians, like the folks at Sojourners magazine, argue that budgets are moral documents, a sentiment shared by area clergy who took issue with our state budget.

It extends to many issues: the environment, education, affirmative action, gay rights, health care, corporate conduct. Consider U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton's recent comments on homosexuality:


"It gets me especially mad when I come across people who are wrapping themselves in the Bible or some other religious banner and then not practicing what the Bible says over and over," he told the Associated Press last week. "... They point to one paragraph in the Bible -- Paul's letter to the Romans -- and they use that as the whole basis for this venomous condemnation of people, whereas the whole thrust of the Bible is love thy neighbor as thyself."

Dayton's reading is flawed. Even the passage he alludes to, Matthew 22, puts love for God above brotherly charity, but his really nasty trick is that in context, these comments equate Christians who merely disapprove of homosexual acts and say so with people like Fred Phelps who do engage in "venomous condemnation of people." Moreover, the New Testament is abundantly clear that frank but charitable testimony to God's law is itself an act of brotherly love. Souls are at stake.

But again, Dayton's argument is overtly moral, and its flaws mask a fair point: hate in the name of God is wrong.

Part of the trouble is, Americans aren't good at this. "You ain't the boss of me" could be our national motto, and many of us are fuzzy about values. Our system of law often pits competing values against each other.

People on the Left typically value the privacy of the bedroom but not of the bank account, forcibly collecting alms for the poor through taxes. On the Right, it's reversed.

Even the minimalist-looking libertarian perspective I have often favored puts one moral value -- freedom -- on a pedestal. Its weakness is natural law itself, which shows some freedoms may be terribly destructive.

It's good that we have people advocating all these traditional values: freedom, family, charity, stewardship. But it's time we recognized that legislating morality is a universal phenomenon.

Kyle Eller is features editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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