Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Marriage, the Ten Commandments, and Roger Williams

Mormon polygamist Warren Jeffs claims that the proceedings against him for forcing a fourteen-year-old girl into marriage with her first cousin amount to a violation of his freedom to practice his chosen religion (see here).

I believe in religious liberty for everyone, including Warren Jeffs, atheists, Satanist, Branch Davidians, and whomever else you might stipulate. But I think that Jeffs's religious liberty defense is bogus. The underlying principle by which I make that distinction is an important one: It is called "The Two Tables of the Law" and I'll give credit for the principle to Roger Williams.

The Two Tables of the Law

Here's the principle: Government has no right to govern the vertical relationship between people and God, but it does have the right to govern the horizontal relationship among people. The two categories are not perfectly discrete (for example, see here), but the overlap does not prevent these two categories from being very helpful in determining the rightful disposition of cases like that of Warren Jeffs.

Williams used the idea of the Ten Commandments to teach this distinctive principle. The first four commandments treat the vertical relationship. The last six treat the horizontal relationship. So, according to Williams and to me the first four commandments illustrate the kind of thing that the government ought to leave alone, while the last six illustrate the kind of thing that government may regulate as it sees fit.

This test has nothing to do with the source of ideas. Rather, it deals with the subject matter of laws and the scope of governmental authority. On the one hand, it is inappropriate for government to regulate someone's prayer, praise, beliefs, or confessions no matter what the reason. Even if the source of the concern is, for example, national security, the government may not properly condemn or commend a particular approach to man's relationship with God. On the other hand, as it pertains to interhuman conduct, I believe that a law can draw upon any source of wisdom it likes—legal precedent, religious doctrine, public opinion...whatever thinking is relevant and persuasive—so long as effect of the law does not extend governmental regulation beyond the bounds of its authority.

The Principle Applied

The argument against gay marriage is a religious argument. The argument against polygamy is a religious argument. The argument against bestiality is a religious argument. The argument against pedophilia has religious components. If "a wall of separation between church and state" means (as many seem to believe) that religious ideas may not appropriately influence law, then gay marriage ought to be legal, Warren Jeffs ought to go free, and we owe a grave national apology to David Koresh. On the other hand, if Williams's principle is a valid one, then the government has every right to regulate marriage as a part of the second table, whether those regulations conflict with Mr. Jeffs's sincerely held religious beliefs or not. Furthermore, if this principle is a valid one, then the government has every right to outlaw gay marriage and to regulate a broad array of issues that are not strictly matters of conscience.

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