Separating morality and legality

Only 39 percent of Americans think abortion is morally acceptable, but 56 percent think it should be legal, according to the Public Religion Research Institute's new American Values Survey. With same-sex marriage, it's 42 percent and 49 percent. And with marijuana use, more think it's morally acceptable than that it should be legal, by 48 percent to 43 percent.

This willingness to differentiate between morality and legality helps explain some of the survey's more puzzling findings. For example, while by 57 percent to 42 percent the public agrees with Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders that religious liberty is being threatened in America today, by 56 percent to 40 percent the public believes that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide free contraceptive services to women - the mandate under the Affordable Care Act that is the principal example of the threat given by those religious authorities.

In fact, the public supports the mandatory coverage at the same level regardless of whether a religious organization objects to it. And Catholics, by a few points, actually support the coverage in greater numbers when the religious organization objects.

Indeed, all Catholic groups - including the most frequent Mass attendees - believe by wide margins that the church should focus on helping the poor at the expense of fighting abortion, rather than the other way around. After 40 years of seeking to reverse Roe v. Wade, the Catholic hierarchy still hasn't managed to convince its flock that abortion is the top social priority.

The point here is that most Americans think there is a difference between what is immoral and what should be illegal, and they associate the immoral with religious views (or lack thereof). They recognize that these views differ, and are reluctant to impose them on others. On abortion, they can thus be "pro-life" personally even as they support a woman's "right to choose."

This, of course, drives Catholic bishops and other conservative religious leaders crazy. But, like it or not, it shows real respect for religious pluralism. Indeed, it may even suggest that at least some of the public sees the threat to religious liberty coming from religion itself.

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Program on Public Values. This piece published via Religion News Service. / Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

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Morality and legality do need to be separated, but a particular action may be considered both immoral and illegal for different reasons.

For example, I consider both theft and murder immoral because the Bible says they are immoral. They are also illegal becuase they take away another person’s rights.

I believe abortion should be illegal, not because it is immoral (which it is) but because it robs someone of the right to live. Likewise, forcing religious organizations to provide services they consider immoral should be illegal because it is robbing those organizations of a right to act on their consciences.

On the other hand, I believe consensual premarital / extramarital sex is immoral, but I don’t believe it should be illegal. It may harm people who are not directly involved in the act, but it does not infringe on their rights or freedoms. And even if you can make a case that it does, how would a society ever be able to enforce a law against having sex with anyone but your spouse?

A system of laws flows out of and from our moral beliefs, or lack thereof. As Shannon C. noted so aptly, just because a collective group might consider something immoral does not mean it should be illegal. If the common moral base decays as it has in this country, then the system of laws will eventually follow suit.

When you say that most Catholics “the church should focus on helping the poor at the expense of fighting abortion, rather than the other way around” I believe you are misreading the situation. Most Catholics believe that abortion is immoral and want to fight it - but a growing number think that the best way to fight it isn’t to pass a law or win a court battle. While I’m not a Catholic, I take this approach myself.

For me, the basic issue here is fairness and liberty. I want people to make the right choice, but I want it to be their choice. It strikes me as strange that Christians of all people are so slow to see this, given what Paul wrote about the weakness of the law vs. the strength of the inner transformation possible through Christ. The law is good at limiting how much immoral people can hurt me, and it might keep me from hurting others when I’m not strong enough to stop myself, but I think it’s a definite mistake to treat morality like it can be reduced down to the law.

OK, I believe that overeating is immoral. Should I support laws that ban it? I believe that using swear words is immoral. I believe that looking at Playboy Magazine pictures is immoral. Blah, blah, blah. The list goes on and on. Wow! We are gonna have a bunch of laws to pass here!

Now abortion is different. On this topic, we’re talking about the sanctity of human life, taking an innocent human life, etc.

I believe that abortion is immoral, and I SUPPORT laws banning it. I hold this position EVEN THOUGH I support the right of everyone to control his or her own body. Of course, the baby has a body and has right to control it as well. You have a balance of interests with abortion.

As for passing all these laws, we already have too many laws. We actually need fewer.
You have to choose your battles wisely.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot this week with the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the constitutionality of Proposition Eight and the Defense of Marriage Act. I admit that I’m part of the majority on this one; and like Shannon C., for me there seems to be a line separating what the Bible declares as morally reprehensible and what the (secular) state is obliged to legislate when no clear, immediate threat to its citizens is discernible from the outcome.

I have personally been disgusted with some of the more abrasive evangelical rhetoric concerning the homosexual marriage issue, but not because I believe that homosexual marriage is morally legitimate. I guess I just find it difficult to understand why evangelicals of a certain color are so appalled that a secular state would be moving in this direction. It’s not like we’re living in a biblical theocracy, after all!

But more to the point, I sometimes get the impression that these kinds of Christians act as though Christ himself would never be caught hanging out with gays and lesbians if he were walking among us today. I, for one, would rather let the social majority have its way on such legal issues. For my part, I’m inclined to live in such a way that biblical morality is more attractive than the alternatives, legal or not.

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