Why Morality Belongs in the Public Square

Posted by Pastor J.D. on October 9, 2013
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“While he is remembered primarily for his difficult political decisions which kept the Union intact, the more we study them, the more we realize that all of them were reached at a level far deeper than that of politics. Underlying all particular decisions was a moral revulsion against human slavery . . . and an abiding conviction that the divine order can be ascertained and followed.”
- Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish (courtesy of Trinity Forum Documents), pp. 17–18

I’ve often heard that we should keep our views on what we believe about various moral issues out of the public square.

My first contention is that it is impossible to do so. Judgments offered from either side of the discussion have a fiercely moral tone. While the moral indignation of gay marriage and abortion opponents is well known, none can doubt a similar indignation in gay marriage and abortion affirmers. Who has not seen the fires of righteousness burning in the eyes of their ideological opponents? Sometimes it is a righteous fire borne of concern, and other times it is the smug fire of self-righteousness. But we cannot deny that the indignation is moral in its nature.

One can hear moral overtones when President Obama, who has done more to promote both gay marriage and abortion-on-demand than any president in history, follows up a proposal with his trademark, “It’s just the right thing to do.” His statement, of course, is usually met with thunderous applause from those sharing his moral outlook. But right according to what?

Furthermore, we typically laud those who operate according to their convictions—unless, that is, those convictions are wrong. Few of us admire those who contend that “colonialism is good for the underdeveloped” or that “separate-but-equal is the best way to treat the race problem in America,” even when arguments arise from genuine moral conviction.

Abraham Lincoln has the nearly-unique privilege of being seen by both left and right as a moral giant—a courageous man of conviction who led America out of its moral quagmire with slavery. But where did Lincoln’s moral impulse, which our country found so contagious, come from? Elton Trueblood shows in his classic Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish that Lincoln’s convictions came from the root conviction that “the divine order can be ascertained and followed.” This is what gave him the undaunted courage to lead the nation despite fierce opposition.

In Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, arguably Lincoln’s greatest political work and perhaps the greatest political speech in American history, Lincoln declared that he would never give up on the quest to make men free, despite any political or military setbacks, because he trusted that “right makes might” and that we must proceed in our conviction toward the “right as God enables us to see it.”

Lincoln’s position was not popular then, and the severe winds of opposition withered many of Lincoln’s allies in the fight against slavery. Lincoln did not waver, however, because he believed that God’s view of right and wrong could be known. Rather than ask if God is on our side, Lincoln famously contended, we should ask whether we are on God’s side. And how do we know that? By whether our convictions cohere with his known will.

In today’s gay marriage or abortion debates, can we really know what side is God’s? The popular though flaccid answer is that we cannot. And why? Because the divine will, some say, is unknowable, and if we claim to know the divine will we will surely become theocratic terrorists. If that is true, then Lincoln must be included in that number. He firmly believed that the divine will about slavery could be known.

But if we can know the will of God, then the questions of “How does God define marriage?” and “When does God say life begins?” are as relevant as, “Did God create all races equal?” If Lincoln was correct, these kinds of questions form the essential and necessary bedrock of our public discussions.

There is no enduring moral fortitude or intellectual consistency apart from the conviction that the divine will can be known.

Pastor J.D.

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J.D. Greear is the lead pastor of The Summit Church, in Raleigh-Durham, NC and author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (2011) and Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (2013). More

6 responses to Why Morality Belongs in the Public Square

  1. Amen to your overall argument that contrary to the common cry of non-Christians that “we can’t legislate morality,” the truth is that we can ONLY legislate morality. The question is “Will it be God’s or man’s?”
    The unfortunate component of your article is using Lincoln as a moral reference. If he were truly opposed to slavery it is curious that he didn’t free the slaves in the states the Northern aggressors captured as the war unfolded. Or that on the several occasions when the South sent representatives to meet with him who agreed to stop the war immediately if they freed the slaves, he refused. A more realistic argument for the War is an economic one, which would be easy for even a non-Christian to document. But or our purposes, a very good argument for the underlying reason of the war was to de-Calvinize the South. To transform it from biblical self-government to tyrannical central government. While it is agreed that the South had the best generals, it should not be forgotten that the South also had the best theologians.
    Were Lincoln alive today he would likely agree with Yogi Berra who once said, “I never said all I said.”

    FYI,

    Buddy Hanson

  2. Buddy,
    I don’t think it’s quite as simple as you put it. I can’t claim to be an expert on Lincoln, but I am aware of a couple of things he said. He did say in one speech that if he could free all of the slaves and keep the Union he would free all of the slaves, If he could free some of the slaves and keep the Union, he would free some of the slaves. And if he could free none of the slaves and keep the Union, he would free none of the slaves. The Union is all. (hardly the words of a principled abolitionist – but possibly the words of a skilful politician who knows there is more than one way to skin a cat). However, I must weigh against this the speech in which he said that every lash of the whip would be paid as divine retribution fell on the nation because of the institution of slavery. (wow!).
    Incidentally, although I’m not interested in whether the South had the best generals, I am concerned to think that if they had the best Calvinist theologians then why did they not act against the institution of slavery as it appeared in the USA. My Calvinism teaches me something quite different.
    BWs
    Ferris Lindsay (UK)

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