(Ugly?) FACT: In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, I caught myself wanting to wait a while before pledging a charitable donation, to see how much President Obama would legally appropriate on my behalf. ***
I woke up with a really intriguing thought, but I'm not sure it can carry water--you know how it is with these revelations.
My idea has to do with efforts to legislate people where morality seems to fall short. For instance, when we wish people would be more charitable to their neighbors or fellow-citizens, we might tax them extra and redistribute those funds among the less fortunate.
My guiding question is derived from an old tract that I read in graduate school by Roger Williams called, simply, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for the Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace. Williams' essay, linked here, essentially opposes legal persecution of ideas. Williams summarizes his own work as briefly as it is possible to do, so I'll quote him at length:
First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.
Secondly, pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the work proposed against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.
Thirdly, satisfactory answers are given to scriptures, and objections produced by Mr. Calvin, Beza, Mr. Cotton, and the ministers of the New English churches and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.
Fourthly, the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.
Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.
Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God.
Seventhly, the state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor president for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.
Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.
Ninthly, in holding an enforced uniformity of religion in a civil state, we must necessarily disclaim our desires and hopes of the Jew's conversion to Christ.
Tenthly, an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
Eleventhly, the permission of other consciences and worships than a state professeth only can (according to God) procure a firm and lasting peace (good assurance being taken according to the wisdom of the civil state for uniformity of civil obedience from all forts).
Twelfthly, lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile....
So! It's important to keep in mind that Williams did not seek freedom of conscience in the interests of an incipient modern-liberal-secular way. Williams advocated a separation of church and state not so that public life wouldn't be infected with superstition, but so that the church would not be infected with state institutions. The result, it's true, is a kind of libertarian attitude--but if we miss the strongly moral undergirding, we miss the whole point.
One of the civil laws that perturbed Williams was derived from the medieval concept of the "Just Price." That ideology stated that merchants were no less accountable to G-d than any other citizens, and so to charge too much for a given good or service was to be sinful. Now, again, to be clear: Williams wouldn't have argued against the idea that there is a Just Price--only he didn't trust the state to know better than the individual conscience what the Just Price was in any given case. This was especially interesting when it came to the Just Price of labor: how much do you pay a laborer? Incredibly, Williams lived in a time when labor was so scarce that manual labor was incredibly lucrative--even threatening to transfer wealth from the higher educated class to the unskilled lower class. Governor Winthrop complained in 1633, "The scarcity of workmen had caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate." It's certainly an odd phrase--"excessive rates." How would the governor have recognized the wages as excessive? The colonies tried imposing maximum wage laws. Williams opposed the laws, and would have opposed mimimum wage laws on the same grounds.
When the state is in the business of legislating moral finance in each of its citizens, the question is not "is there a Just Price," but, as Williams says in the Bloody Tenent, "By whom are these admonitions to be given?"
So here's my question, and it's a crazy one: in collecting taxes and using tax-money to moralistic ends (say, helping Haiti), is the state overstepping its bounds? To frame it more directly: are the increasingly controlling tax laws creating a situation in which individuals are not free to obey their consciences? What is the essential difference, if not merely a difference of degree, between a witch-hunt and arresting a conscientious objector who refuses to pay taxes to support a cause (now forget Haiti and say, two wars!) that he or she does not support? Is it not a moral judgment? By what right does the state impinge on the right of an individual to act according to his own conscience?
Williams understood conscience in categorical terms:
To molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship meerly religious or spirituall, it is to persecute him, and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be true or false) suffereth persecution for cause of conscience.But he spoke in generalities as a shorthand--he would not have been averse, I think, to identifying the cultural differences between "Jew or Gentile," and would have admitted that the distinction should be important to the legislator only insofar as it signals a divergence with regard to customs and behavior.
Question: is the U.S. government in the business of persecuting for the cause of conscience?
***Worth noting: Sandra Bullock has donated more than most countries, though she gets five points deducted for not doing it anonymously.