The Moral Majority Vs. God
A Sermon to the Unitarians

by Roger E. Bissell

[Presented in January 1981 to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee]

This nation has gone into a moral tailspin, because we have a group of dirty liberals who tell us Christianity and politics don't mix...the Hugh Hefners and Jane Fondas, who weave their amoral philosophies into the moral fabric of this country....In recent months, God has been calling me to do more than preach. He has called me to take action. I have a divine mandate to go right into the halls of Congress and fight for laws that will save America.

No, these are not my words. Do you recognize them? That's right, they were spoken by Reverend Jerry Falwell, the leader of the so-called Moral Majority. Among other things, Falwell and his allies are pushing for laws against pornography, abortion, and homosexuality -- and in favor of prayer in public schools and federal tuition grants for students at religious schools.

These people are well organized, well financed, and ruthless in their tactics. They represent a profound threat to our basic personal and religious freedom. What, if anything, can we do about the Moral Majority mess?

Legislating Morality

The 1980 election campaign gave us a rather disturbing preview of things to come here in America. The New Right, a coalition of conservative and fundamentalist religious groups, dominated the political arena. Groups like Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority," Richard Zone's "Christian Voice," and Ed McAteer's "Religious Roundtable" tried to equate Christian morality with political conservatism.

Falwell and others worked hard to help elect candidates who agreed with them and to defeat those who disagreed. When the dust settled on November 4, the New Right claimed to have ousted half a dozen or so incumbent U.S. Senators who failed to take the so-called proper, "Christian" positions on various issues. This is only the beginning, they say. They already have a hit list for 1982, including a group of liberal Senators like Teddy Kennedy.

In opposition to the Moral Majority coalition, a group called People for the American Way (PAW) was organized in October by television producer Norman Lear. It is supported by a number of mainstream Protestant denominations as well as the National Council of Churches. PAW put on a series of tv commercials which called for tolerance of diversity among religiously committed people. They emphasized the danger posed by the Moral Majority, saying that our tradition of separating church and state is in jeopardy.

The membership of PAW is largely composed of people and groups who take liberal stands on domestic and international issues. They are sympathetic to the liberal Senators who were defeated by the Moral Majority's efforts. They object to the fact that Falwell and the others were overly selective in choosing which Christian concerns to emphasize, pointing out that the Moral Majority had nothing at all to say about justice or peace or helping the poor, hungry, and sick.

So, here we have two groups of deeply committed, religiously motivated, apparently sincere people. They are both concerned with promoting certain religious moral values in the political arena -- and disturbed by the power and influence that the other has.

On the one side, we have a group which sees itself as the Guardian of Morality and its opponents as anti-morality. On the other side, we have a group which sees itself as the Champion of Tolerance and its opponents as dangerously intolerant. In this battle of Morality vs. Tolerance, who's right and who's wrong?

The answer may not be obvious, but actually both groups are right about each other and wrong about themselves. Both groups, that is, are basically intolerant and anti-morality. Why do I say this? Because they want to legislate religious moral values in a way that interferes with peaceful individuals who are violating no one's rights.

Before looking at more examples of what the Moral Majority and People for the American Way are aiming at, let's first clarify one point about which there seems to be much confusion. People often say that government should not "legislate morality." While it is clear, however, what kinds of things they are referring to -- usually "victimless crimes" or conservative religious values -- it is a very misleading and inaccurate way of speaking.

Obviously, in registering my criticisms about the Moral Majority and People for the American Way, I am not saying that government should legislate no morality whatsoever. After all, what is morality? Isn't it a code of values to guide you in making the choices and actions by which you live your life? A set of dos and don'ts to help you seek the good and avoid that which is evil?

And isn't government, by its very nature, the institution that has the power to tell us to do certain things and not to do certain other things? It wouldn't be a government, if it did not do this, would it? But what is this, if not legislating morality? It seems to me that the only important question is: what morality or, rather, whose morality should be legislated? What kinds of things should government tell us to do or not to do?

The conservatives and the Jerry Falwell types say that government should tell us not to do certain immoral things, even if doing them does not violate anyone else's rights. For instance, government should make vice illegal. Thus, we should have victimless crimes laws against such things as pornography, gambling, prostitution, and drugs.

Conservatives also typically say that government should tell us to do certain moral things, even if not doing them does not violate anyone else's rights. For instance, government should make patriotism compulsory. Thus, we should have a law forcing young men to give up their lives for the state whenever it tells them to.

But what of the liberals, the People for the American Way, the Norman Lear types? Are they really very different, once you get right down to it?

Consider the fact that for years liberals have used the power of the state to put their own ideas into effect. They have used government to make charity compulsory, by taxing us to erect a welfare system -- the net effect of which is millions of poor trapped in the ghetto. They have used government to make education compulsory, by passing compulsory school laws that define for us what education must be -- the net effect of which is a continuing drop in literacy and a continuing rise in juvenile delinquency. Liberals also typically have used government to make discrimination illegal, by setting racial quotas for private school systems and employment and housing -- the net effect of which is a society where it's becoming illegal not to keep records about race.

How different is the liberal agenda from the Moral Majority's program of making virtue compulsory and sin illegal? True, there is a great difference between the specific moral content of liberal views and those of the Moral Majority, but there is something basic that is exactly the same: the disregard for individual freedom, the refusal to allow people to be wrong, if their wrongness doesn't damage the rights of others. Both the conservative Moral Majority and the liberal People for the American Way believe it is right for government to force us to do certain "moral" things and not to do certain "immoral" things, even if we are not violating anyone else's rights.

This is why both groups are basically intolerant and anti-morality. What does Norman Lear say, in effect? Government should not tolerate our disobedience of the rules he wants, even if our disobedience violates no one's rights. What is this, if not intolerance, pure and simple?

And what, in effect, does Jerry Falwell say? Government should punish our free, moral choice to disobey the rules he wants, even if our disobedience violates no one's rights. What is this, if not anti-morality, pure and simple?

Concerned voices from each group are bound to object: "We have to limit people's freedom in certain ways in order to guarantee that we have a moral society. If allowing free choice and action means that some people are free to be immoral without fear of punishment, then we must place certain restrictions on people's choices and actions."

The error in this objection is that there is no such thing as a "moral society" as such. What is society, anyway? Society is nothing more than the individuals living together in a certain area. So, if you want to make society moral, what you really have to do is make all people moral. But this would seem to be impossible. It is true that you can make particular people do the "right" thing, or not do the "wrong" thing, by your standards, but only by forcing them, by violating their free will.

Morality, being moral, is not simply "doing the right thing." The basis of morality is free will and freedom. To be moral is to freely choose to do the right thing -- whatever that might be -- and then to do it without being coerced. So, any action or choice that is forced upon you by another person -- whether a private citizen or an agent of the government -- is simply not a moral choice or action. As Ayn Rand has said, "Morality ends at the point of a gun."

This is why violating the free will of others in order to make them do the "right" thing is so counter-productive. Instead of guaranteeing that they're going to be moral, it denies them the chance to be moral; it destroys the possibility that they may choose to do the "right" thing. One can't blame Norman Lear and Jerry Falwell for wishing that we would stop being immoral, but isn't turning us into puppet-like creatures that do the "right" thing out of fear of the government a poor substitute for our doing it of our own free will?

The closest we can come to guaranteeing a moral society is to have the government set up the necessary social condition for everyone to be moral, and then simply maintain that condition. And what is that condition? Peaceful co-existence. In order to have peaceful co-existence, we have to limit our government to the job of banning force and fraud from human relationships, to the task of passing only those laws which make it a crime to violate someone else's free will by acts of force or fraud.

A system of legally enforced peaceful co-existence would allow everyone to exercise their rights to choose and act freely, so long as they did not violate the equal rights of others. To put it simply: "Live and let live." This is the morality that it is proper to legislate, no more and no less. Building this into our social system lets everyone practice their own moralities peacefully and lets them persuade -- but not force -- others to do the same.

Understandably, for some people this is a scary thing, a government that barely escapes being no government at all. But just consider one thing: when government goes beyond this bare minimum, once the precedent has been set, then everyone looks upon the government as a tool for shoving their morality down someone else's throat, rather than vice versa.

This is why today we have not a society of peaceful co-existence, but a conflict society. And thanks to people like Jerry Falwell and Normal Lear and their pals, it's getting worse all the time. Instead of helping us return to a live-and-let-live society (which we approached to some extent in the 1800s), by getting rid of all the Brother's Keeper laws and victimless crime laws, they want more of the same.

Saying such things is treading on dangerous ground. But now I'm really going to go out on a limb and say that these goals of Jerry Falwell and Norman Lear are not simply anti-moral, but are un-Christian, as well. The chief mental block that prevents them from abandoning their crusades to run our lives is their puzzling failure to understand and appreciate the example of Christ and the will of God. These are clearly conveyed by the standard Judeo-Christian holy scriptures, so it cannot be their obscurity that is the problem. Perhaps it is simply a matter of failing to see the forest for the trees.

 The Example of Christ and the Will of God

I am not a Christian theologian. I just try to use my common sense when I read the Bible. After all, isn't this what the Fundamentalists always tell us to do? Look at what the Bible says, especially what it says about Jesus himself. Don't read complicated or obscure meanings into what he said or did. Just use your common sense, and you will be able to tell from the Bible what you must do in order to be Christian.

Most Americans, even those who are now agnostics or atheists, grew up as Protestants or Catholics. We were told in Sunday school that if we wanted to be true Christians, we had to be Christ-like in our actions as well as our spirits. We were told to look not just at Christ's words, but also at his actions. We were admonished to follow the Example of Christ.

In particular, if we wanted to know how Jesus felt about the power and authority of the state, as a guide to our own actions, it made sense to us to take good look at his actions, his example, in relation to government. And when we did this, what did we find? That Jesus' entire life was a shining example of the proper approach toward human relationships and government.

For instance, when Satan offered Jesus the political power to enforce his moral views on the world, did Jesus grab at the chance to rule our lives with the force of the state behind him? No, he said, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" And if people were behaving in immoral ways, did Jesus call in the police to arrest and punish them? No, instead he ministered to and counseled them -- even such vicious, obviously criminal types as prostitutes!

Jesus used persuasion, and he told his followers to do the same. The only time I can recall that Jesus ever resorted to force was to throw out the moneychangers who were violating other people's rights by cheating them.

Doesn't this tell us something very important about the kind of government that Christians ought to establish and support? Why, then, aren't most Christians paying attention to the Example of Christ?

The obvious question for Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority is this: if you claim to be Christians, to be Christ-like, in your actions and beliefs, how can you possibly reject the Example of Christ in regard to government and morality? How can you possibly follow Satan's way of using political power to force people to be "moral"?

A common tactic used by some Fundamentalists is to evade this question entirely. Instead, they refer to Romans 13:1-8, which allegedly upholds the authority of the state to "execute the wrath of God" in whatever way it pleases. They use this passage to argue that it is God's will that the authority of the state takes precedence over the rights of the individual. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in claiming such a thing, Jerry Falwell reveals just how far out of touch he is with the Will of God. He seeks to run society in a way that is diametrically opposed to God's will.

It is certainly legitimate for believers to claim that God has ordained government as the institution for maintaining civil order and punishing wrongdoers. It is something else entirely, however, for them to claim that God approves of anything and everything government does in executing His alleged wrath, and that He disapproves of rebellion against unjust rulers or laws.

An interesting analogy will help to illustrate this point. The family institution is also ordained by God (Genesis 2:23f; Mark 10:7-9). A legitimate function of parents -- acting on behalf of the family -- is to impose discipline upon their children (Proverbs 13:24). Yet, some parents have been known to "discipline" their children by beating them into unconsciousness. Is it reasonable to conclude that this kind of child abuse is divinely sanctioned? Is it reasonable to require the child of such parents to respond to such treatment with blind, unquestioning obedience?

Neither, by the same token, was it a grievous sin for the United States to declare its independence from Great Britain -- whose government was, of course, ordained by God (remember the Divine Right or Kings?) -- over such a seemingly trivial matter as "Taxation without Representation," yet. Otherwise, long before now, we should have been hearing non-stop demands from the religious community that we atone for this sin by rejoining the British Empire as loyal subjects of the divinely ordained Queen Elizabeth II.

So, the state is not the infallible, unquestionable executor of the Will of God, and Romans 13:1-8 is out the window as a sanction of government supremacy over the individual. What, then, is the Will of God regarding our relationship to the state?

Again, we must refer not to specific scriptural passages, but instead to the overall thrust of the message of the Bible. Who among us has not been told that God's plan of salvation for mankind is only possible because each person has free will -- the power to freely choose to follow the good rather than the evil? Indeed, of what possible significance would any of this talk about morality be, if we didn't have the free will and freedom it requires?

This indicates quite clearly that our being free to choose good or evil is pretty much central to God's plan for us. Our freedom to exercise our free will is the essence of the Will of God for mankind.

True, the Bible tells us that the Will of God includes many other commandments and moral imperatives, such as: love thy neighbor as thyself, honor thy father and mother, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, thou shalt not kill, etc. But the Will of God that we choose to obey His other commandments is obviously the most important, overriding factor to Him, otherwise He would simply have made us like robots with automatic obedience built right into us.

That is why using the power of government to force us to obey God's other commandments -- assuming that we are not using force against someone else -- is a violation of the Will of God in the most basic way possible. It prevents us from choosing the good.

Doesn't this suggest that the Will of God places certain limits on our actions -- limits that all people of Judeo-Christian heritage ought to abide by? These limits apply both to relations among individuals and to relations between individuals and government. Briefly, here is what I think these limits are:

(1) The Will of God sets a limit on what one person may choose to do when others are involved. You may not violate someone else's free choice of good or evil, so long as the person does not violate your or anyone else's free choice of good or evil, and vice versa. Outside of this one limitation, however, which is required for the sake of consistency -- and which you also find in the Golden Rule -- the Will of God is that each person be totally free to live his or her life as that person sees fit.

(2) The Will of God also sets a limit on what government may do in restricting your actions. So long as you are not violating someone else's free will to choose good or evil, government may not violate your free will to choose good or evil. A government which does this -- even if it claims to be upholding Christian moral values -- is in violation of the Will of God.

Let me emphasize this second point: government may legitimately stop you from violating someone else's free choice of good or evil -- it may rightfully stop you from initiating force or fraud against someone else -- but it may not otherwise interfere with your choices and actions. In carrying out its proper task of defending our freedom, it must respect that freedom and not deprive us of it. In other words, the Will of God is that government be placed under the same moral law of peaceful co-existence by which individuals are to live with each other.

This raises an important question for both the Moral Majority and the People for the American Way: if you claim to be sincere in wanting to obey the Will of God, how can you possibly support laws which allow government to interfere in the lives of peaceful people? How can you possibly justify depriving people of liberty for the sake of your vice laws--or your military draft -- or your forced integration -- or your compulsory education? Or depriving them of property for the sake of your welfare programs?

The task ahead for those who truly value freedom is monumental, despite its simplicity. We must show our Christian and Jewish friends as clearly as possible that liberty, not big government, is compatible with their faith.

I'm confident that if enough people really understood the Example of Christ and the Will of God and took them to heart, then we might even see the Moral Majority and the People for the American Way join forces in demanding a free society, one where people with all kinds of religious and non-religious moralities could co-exist peacefully. Norman Lear and Jerry Falwell would speak out for a government whose sole purpose was to defend freedom of choice and action -- and not one that punished people whose actions are merely degenerate or bigoted or self-centered, or whose failures to act are merely uncharitable or unpatriotic or unbrotherly.

Is this a total fantasy? Not necessarily. But a change of heart of this magnitude isn't going to "just happen." It will take a lot of time and thought and effort on the part of a lot of intelligent, concerned, sincere people to turn our culture around and head it in the right direction. But wouldn't it be worth it, for a change, to hear Jerry Falwell stop talking about his divine mandate to go to Congress for more laws to run our lives. I think so, and I hope you do, too. Thank you.

Closing Thoughts

I'd like to close the service today with this little mental exercise. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that Jesus is wearing a powdered wig and 18th-century colonial American clothing. He's seated at a desk with a quill pen and a letter which he has been writing. It is addressed to Thomas Jefferson, and the final lines of the letter read: "Tom, you may be able to put it more simply than I, but here is my philosophy of government, for what it's worth: he legislates morality best, who legislates morality least. Sincerely (signed) Jesus Christ, Nazareth, Pennsylvania."

Now, ask yourself if this image seems less bizarre to you now than it would have an hour ago. If so, then you have gained something very significant from this hour we have shared together. Take it and use it, with my blessing. If not, then close your eyes again, and keep trying until you get it right! In either case, I want you to know I've enjoyed being here very much. I'm very grateful for the chance to share my thoughts with you and for the fine discussion we had today, and I wish you all a life of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Thank you again.

Nashville, Tennessee

January, 1981