All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1964

Liberty and Law

The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.

Americans have a ready solution for every problem which confronts us: Pass another law! We heap law upon law, and each new stat­ute seems to dare us to defy it or find a way of evading it. We spend more money to pass laws, and more money to break the laws we have passed, than any nation in the world. And we think that the only way to correct all this is to pass another law! The something that makes laws work is missing.

We have become so involved in legality that morality is forgotten. And the result is more and more laws in a vain effort to keep us from being inhuman to each other. This is not progress!

The alternative is obvious: a new concern for the moral law which, if observed, would elimin­ate the need for much present-day legislation while permitting the remainder to be almost self-enforcing. This should be man­kind’s next moral advance.

The Supreme Court has now made it abundantly clear that, in an age when we are invited to look to Uncle Sam for everything from a safety-pin for baby to an aspirin for grandma, we can­not look to government to teach us morality and religion. This task is squarely up to the churches, the homes, and individ­uals.

The past, if we let it, can teach us three important lessons for our guidance in the future:

The first is that morality can­not be legislated. This is not to disparage law or belittle its value. Law has its place in creating an environment wherein wrongdoing is discouraged and those who do right are not penalized. But can we not see by now how ineffec­tive is law when unsupported by moral idealism, good will, and self-discipline? From where do these come except from inner ethical imperatives?

The second bit of guidance for the future is the observation that nothing can redeem society but the redemption of its parts—in­dividual human beings. People are not redeemed apart from contact with the Redeemer, and it is not Uncle Sam’s job to make this con­tact. On us, and on our homes and churches, and on our activity in putting and keeping ourselves and others in touch with moral leadership depends the advance or retrogression of the race.

We of the church need to wake up to the fact that the church is in a more strategic position than government. It could be more in­fluential than all our legislatures and courts combined. It could be more effective in saving us from our apparent moral retrogression than any combination of law-en­forcement agencies, welfare pro­grams, and increased budgets to support them. But awareness of these facts is not likely to come until churchmen begin to concen­trate on doing their job instead of lobbying for more laws.

Third, we need to straighten out our thinking about the rela­tionship between liberty and law. We are the victims of two plaus­ible but conflicting philosophies.

One philosophy holds that laws limit freedom. True, no man may do what he wants so long as there is a law to prevent him, and many of our laws are of this variety.

Therefore, says this philosophy, the less law the better. Repeal the laws. Break the laws you can’t repeal until they are shown to be unenforceable! Then we’ll have liberty! But we all know, even if we have never watched a TV western, that when there is an­archy, there is no real freedom.

The other philosophy says that laws protect our freedom. Traffic laws protect our lives on the high­way, for example, and afford us freedom to drive where we wish to go. Our lives are protected be­cause certain activities are con­trolled. Therefore, says this phi­losophy, perfect control should be perfect freedom. Pass more laws. Control everything! Make it un­necessary (and incidentally im­possible) for people to make up their own minds about anything. This is liberty, 1984 style.

Fewer people would be led to these extremes if the churches proclaimed the truth that the ideal of perfect liberty is achieved only when we do what we ought, and not because it is the law, and when we create by religion and morality a society in which peo­ple don’t need to be protected from each other. This is not to be achieved by passing laws but by teaching religious truth and moral responsibility, which is our job and not Uncle Sam’s. 

  • The Reverend Dr. Sollitt is Pastor of the First Baptist Church, Midland, Michigan.