Freedom and the Law
You cannot use law to hold back a moral landslide.
It simply won't do it. You'll just add to the laws. – Os Guiness
When the framers of the American Constitution first gathered, they faced a fundamental question. The question was not merely, can we create a free republic? The question was, can we create a free republic that will remain free? Those men knew their history, and they knew that history was against them. On the day the Constitution was to be signed, Benjamin Franklin wanted to address the assembly but, old man that he was, he was too weak to stand. So his speech was read by James Wilson of Pennsylvania. It is a speech of profound wisdom, but there was one statement that echoes down through time and is entirely relevant to the topic at hand. It is a long sentence, and deserves careful thought:
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
Ben Franklin did not rule out the possibility of the American experiment ending in despotism. But he felt it would only go that way when the people were no longer capable of any other form of government. It had happened through history over and over again, and he felt it might well happen again. The odd thing about the statement to me was the idea that a people might need a despotic government, that there might be people incapable of living free.
For Ben Franklin and the Founders, the first step in gaining freedom —the American Revolution—was past. They had now taken the next step and drafted a Constitution. But the biggest challenge lay beyond their horizon: sustaining freedom—a challenge Ben Franklin knew well enough. Why? Because he was a student of history.
According to Os Guinness, “The Framers knew their history in a way many modern political leaders to their shame don't.” What they understood was this: “If you have a corruption of customs, the Constitution itself will be subverted. People will follow the same laws, but with a different rationale, and you'll see a steady decline.”
If he was right, law is not enough to sustain freedom. We believe in the rule of law in this country, and the idea was carefully drawn as a distinction from the rule of a king. What we may not have realized is that the law can become just as tyrannical as any king.
How would that happen? Well, just look at how the courts are interpreting the law. We are no longer being governed by all the people, but by the law as interpreted by a few judges. And what is guiding the judges, the Constitution or the customs of the time? In recent years the courts have been increasingly influenced in their decisions, not by the words of the Constitution, but by the evolving morality of the times.
Dr. Guiness went on to ask: “What was the Framers’ solution to this? Many people think it’s the Constitution and law. It isn’t. That's only half the answer. The other half is quite clear, and incredibly overlooked today, even among scholars. It’s what I call the Little Triangle of Assumptions.”
His triangle of assumptions is simple enough, and it is entirely compatible with Ben Franklin’s statement. The three sides to his triangle are:
1. Freedom requires virtue.
2. Virtue requires faith of some sort.
3. Faith requires freedom.
In Navy firefighting school, I learned about the triangle of fire. For a fire to burn, three things are required: temperature, fuel and oxygen. The concept of firefighting in any circumstance, from the flight deck to a steel compartment below decks, was this: Remove any side of the triangle, and the fire goes out.
So it is with Os Guinness’ little triangle of assumptions. Remove one side from the triangle, and all is lost. He argued that if freedom has to be guarded by laws, it will eventually be lost, because every new law takes away some freedom.
There was also a sound logic behind the framers’ insistence on religious liberty. Virtue cannot be maintained in the absence of some kind of faith. The argument is not that law is unnecessary, but that the rationale behind the laws is crucial. And that without virtue, the whole structure of society may come unraveled.
Continuing to think in threes, Guinness went on to say that we have three massive contemporary menaces to faith and freedom. Three menaces that will, if the framers were correct, eventually affect the system and freedom will not survive. The menaces are:
1. The idea that faith, character and virtue are fine if you want them, but they have no place in the public square.
2. A breakdown in the transmission of values.
3. A corruption of customs.
Nancy Pearsey addressed the first of these by warning that Christians are cooperating in their own marginalization. Faith, they think, need have nothing to do with their education, their jobs, their careers. They find a way to compartmentalize their lives and restrict faith to the private sphere.
The second menace, the breakdown in the transmission of values, began with the banning of prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. How can you teach right from wrong without some standard of right and wrong?
The third, a corruption of customs, has moved on apace for a long time now. Guinness dates the beginning to the 1960s, when many foundational assumptions were being “profoundly eroded or under assault. What is life? Is there such a thing as truth? What’s a family? What’s a marriage? What’s justice more than power?”
He sees freedom in America “tilting towards evil,” and warns: “If not reversed, your children and grandchildren will experience the consequences. No great civilization survives if it cuts its relations to its roots. We are on the edge of doing that. As faith goes, so goes freedom. As freedom goes, so goes the United States.” He went on to ask: “Are we beyond the point of hope? I'm personally an optimist. Things are not nearly as bad here as they have been in times past, and they have been turned around.”
When faith went in [Germany], it produced the most horrendous evil the world's ever seen. I wouldn't bet that we are yet to see an American evil of monumental proportions unless there's a turning back. You cannot use law to hold back a moral landslide. It simply won't do it. You'll just add to the laws. You've got to rejuvenate the culture.
“A moral landslide” is a pretty good description of what we have seen in recent years, and the decline seems to be accelerating. Obscenity and nudity on the public airways finally stung Congress to action to start fining broadcasters who insult the public. But the problem with Congress is that they only have one tool to work with: the law. And every law passed by Congress is, in some small way, an infringement on freedom. You can hear the howls coming from those whose ox is being gored this time, but I can’t help wondering when someone will decide that we can’t teach the Bible over the public airways. And don’t think that’s not possible. The government owns the airways just like it owns the courthouse. And it is not such a great step from banning the Ten Commandments in the courthouse to banning the Gospel from radio.
Let me return to Os Guinness’ idea that freedom requires virtue and that if freedom has to be guarded by laws, it will eventually be lost. The Apostle Paul said something like this in his second letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a local problem and then, in what seems like an aside, he tossed in one of his more profound theological statements.
. . . Or do we need, like some people, letters of recom-mendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:1-3 NIV).
He shifted his point of reference from letters of commendation to the letter of the law. He was himself a minister of the New Covenant, not the old. He spoke of the differences between his ministry and that of Moses. Tablets of stone, to nearly any reader, suggests the Ten Commandments, and Paul spoke of those commandments as written, not on stone tablets, but on the heart. It was here that Paul began the theme that Os Guinness will echo centuries later. External laws cannot hold back a moral landslide. They can only erode our freedoms. In my opinion, this was the fundamental error of first century Judaism. With the Oral Law, the Mishnah and the Talmud, they built a fence around the law. In the process, they took away freedom after freedom, and that was precisely what Paul was driving at in his epistles when he talked about liberty and freedom. He was not urging freedom from the law, but from the laws written by men to enforce the law that was written in stone.
“Laws written in the heart” is a pretty good definition of virtue. You can’t make the letter of the law work without the Spirit. This was Paul’s fundamental premise:
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (vv. 5, 6).
Laws are necessary, but when virtue has fled, they can’t hold. In the absence of virtue, the letter of the law can only take away freedom. It will require more laws to enforce it and in the end, they will kill freedom. The law, as we may be seeing now, can be as much a tyrant as any dictator. There is nothing wrong with the law, as such. Paul acknowledged that it was glorious. But he also said that the ministration of the spirit is even more so. In fact, without virtue and without the Spirit, all the law can do in the end is condemn us—for we will break it. Continuing:
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was . . . (v. 7).
As Paul was not himself the New Covenant, but a minister of it, so Moses was not himself the Old Covenant. Paul chose an odd construct in calling the Old Covenant a “ministry that brought death,” but of course it did bring death. The law was never an instrument of salvation. It is the definer of right and wrong and, in the Old Covenant, it was combined with a ministry of enforcement. It was not living within the law that brought death. Honoring one's father and mother could hardly bring death. Dishonoring them could, in certain circumstances. It is only in the breach that either law or covenant becomes a “ministry of condemnation.”
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it [the veil] taken away. (vv. 12-14 NIV).
Paul has a way of mixing his metaphors, so it is sometimes necessary to explain what he is saying. The Old Covenant was a good thing. It made it possible for Israel to continue as a civil society. But the law alone was not enough, not if it remained external to the people. There is no set of laws that can be written to govern a people who do not wish to be governed by those laws. We learned that in the years of Prohibition, but seem to have forgotten it in the modern world.
For Israel, the law was everything. But they could not see beyond the law. They had a veil over their eyes which blinded them to the spirit of the law. What this means to me is that the Christian can read the Old Testament law without the veil. He can see clearly what God is saying to us and can internalize the law.
Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away (vv. 15-16).
This chapter of the letter to Corinthians is commonly misunderstood. When Moses was read (which happened Sabbath by Sabbath in synagogues everywhere), the Jews did not see what lies within, behind, and underneath the law. Their eyes were veiled. But, said Paul, when one turns his heart to the Lord, the veil—not the law—is taken away. Thus one can see the real spirit of the law behind the letter. The veil is a strange metaphor, but it seems to say that Judaism never truly understood the law. And far from saying that the law is taken away, when anyone turns to the Lord, their understanding of the law becomes clearer—the veil is lifted.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (vv. 17, 18).
The key to understanding the matter is this. The letter of the law does not convey liberty. The Spirit of the Lord conveys liberty. Not a few religious movements in the past have tried to manage their flocks according to the letter of the law. As a result, they have stifled the work of the Spirit among God’s people, and destroyed their liberty in Christ.
So Paul and Os Guiness were saying the same thing. Freedom requires virtue, an internalizing of the law; and if freedom can only be guarded by external laws, it will eventually be lost.
Guiness’ other point was this: “Virtue requires faith of some sort. This is is the simple reason that the Framers argued there should be religious liberty.”
This is inescapable. Without faith, without God, we become our own arbiters of what is right and what is wrong. So, first Congress, and then the courts start deciding right from wrong for us and, in the process, squeeze our liberties into oblivion. We will follow the “evolving standards of morality” around in an every tightening circle until all our liberty is gone.
We have long since tossed God out of the schools and our kids are taught that we have no designer, no guarantor of our freedoms, no final arbiter of right and wrong. We have to look to ourselves; there is no God to save us.
Finally, Guinness’ third assumption in his little triangle is that faith requires freedom. “If that triangle is perpetual, then freedom has a chance of defying the odds and keeping alive.” Without freedom, faith will be squeezed to nothing.
So the question is still before us: Will we survive as a civilization, or will we, like all the great ones before us, go into decline? Everyone knows about Rome. And while we don’t think about it very often, the great Islamic Empire of a thousand years ago is now reduced to the cowardly killing of women and children in a vain attempt to achieve their objectives. There was a time when the Islamic Empire was even greater than Rome’s or Alexander’s. But it is gone.
In our own time, we have seen the disappearance of the British Empire. So, why should we assume that we are any better? That which might have made us better—faith—has been tossed aside. As we have already heard from Os Guinness:
Law alone won’t do it without faith. Because without faith, you have no basis for the law. Benjamin Franklin said one more thing that echoes in our own generation:
Much of the strength and efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors.
No one has contributed more to the diminishing of respect for the wisdom and integrity of our governors than the governors themselves. Day by day the political machines, created and controlled by those who govern, continue to trash the reputations of those who oppose them.
You would think Peter was speaking of our generation when he spoke of “them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities (2 Peter 2:10).
In our day, the “general opinion of the goodness of the Govern-ment” is in tatters. Government is the joke of the late night comedians. How can a generation of lawmakers, so despised by so many, reverse a moral landslide? Have we, in Ben Franklin’s words, “become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other”?
Contact us Copyright 2009 Ronald L Dart, all rights reserved.