Why is murder a crime but idolatry isn’t?
A prominent pastor raises an important question
Why do we criminalize murder but not idolatry? Answering that question sets the stage for evangelicals to think clearly about the purpose of the state and the unity of our witness concerning politics.
Last week, Pastor Tim Keller posted a thread on Twitter calling for evangelicals to maintain unity and not to divide over politics.
Before I register my disagreement, let me state my admiration for Pastor Keller. His book The Reason for God was profoundly influential on me as a college student, opening my mind to the intellectual coherence of the Christian faith. As the news was shared of his cancer diagnosis, I was deeply saddened. I regularly pray for his healing and comfort.
In the thread, Pastor Keller suggests that evangelicals have misread their Bibles on matters of politics. He states that “many Evangelicals have no coherent understanding of how to relate the Bible to politics.” He says evangelicals are too fast to elevate certain issues where the Bible offers no clear roadmap and draw hard lines resulting in needless division. He thus wants to prevent “disunity over debatable political differences.” For Keller, the Bible does not give a clear roadmap on how issues the Bible considers sin—such as idolatry, abortion, and same-sex marriage—should be handled in society. In Keller’s reading, because evangelicals allow for idolatry to be legal but want to make abortion illegal, this reveals a failure of principles in determining grounds for division when it comes to politics.
I’d like to respectfully take Pastor Keller up on the challenge by taking his argument seriously. I think he makes some category errors, not just in distinguishing between sins and crimes, but also in separating sins that can be properly restrained by civil law versus sins that cannot. There is a difference between sins that exist because of fallen human nature that civil law cannot eradicate versus sins that can be reasonably policed as crimes because of demonstrable harm done to others.
We cannot legislate idolatry out of the human heart like we can legislate abortion as a crime. Martin Luther King Jr. once quipped, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” King’s insight is a valuable one.
The other issue with Keller’s framing is the asymmetry of his comparison. No party takes “pro-idolatry” as an explicit party platform. No one is “pro-poverty” in our society. But there is a clear difference between the parties when it comes to support for abortion. We can have disagreement over matters where the Bible does not provide a one-size-fits-all program, such as economics. The Bible does not offer guidance on whether income taxes or consumption taxes best serve the poor.
But those issues are not like abortion. In what is a clear example of systemic injustice, the media, academia, entertainment, and political industrial complexes collude to deny the right to life to a class of human beings. The Bible condemns murder, which is what abortion is. Sure, societies can debate on how best to care for vulnerable women and children, but a baseline foundation for a humane society ought to be: Do not murder.
But let’s try a thought experiment. Insert “lynching” for abortion in Pastor Keller’s thread. Does one really believe that he would argue that the Bible offers no clear direction on how the state should address the scourge of terroristic lynching? We can be assured that Pastor Keller supports robust laws against lynching, period. The state must prohibit lynching by making it illegal and punishing lynching as a crime. If we cannot apply the same moral criteria to issues that do not enjoy political favor (like abortion) it means we are not being consistent.
Toward the end of his thread, Pastor Keller brings up same-sex marriage. He asks, “Why codify that moral in law and not others?” Same-sex marriage should not be recognized in law because it tells a lie about the creation order’s most fundamental institution for civilization: the natural family. Same-sex marriage, in other words, is not actual marriage. This was universally uncontroversial up until two decades ago. Society should not subvert marriage but should define and support it as a conjugal union of a man and a woman, in part because it needs those conjugal unions to replenish, build, and safeguard society’s future.
We must draw the right lines in the right places to establish the boundaries necessary for unity and the survival of civilization. Unity cannot come at the expense of human dignity. The legality of abortion is not a matter of mere political prudence.
Whatever criticism I have for Pastor Keller comes from a place of deep gratitude for his ministry. My criticism comes because I think he has confused this crucial issue, and I fear that many evangelicals, driven by a sincere appreciation for him, will also be confused. I pray for Pastor Keller’s strength and hope he receives this column in a spirit of friendly admiration and respectful engagement. He deserves both.
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