In the century before Thomas Jefferson's birth, radical Baptist Roger Williams-responding to those who confused liberty with licentiousness-addressed the town of Providence, Rhode Island, with his famous metaphor comparing society to a ship filled with passengers of many faiths who were never "forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship; nor, secondly, compelled from their own particular prayers of worship, if they practice any." Though the people had religious freedom, Williams stressed that the vessel's "commander" had the right to force obedience to the "common laws and orders of the ship" in order to keep public peace, safety, and morality.

Though the metaphor, and the principle it espouses, were years ahead of Williams' time, they're years behind ours. What America faces now isn't, for the most part, those who want to force attendance at the "ship's prayers and worship" (with the notable exception of those advocating legislated prayer in public schools); the struggle is over the "common laws and orders." Who determines what those "common laws and orders" are? What if they clash with some passengers' religious convictions? Or what if some find those laws and orders morally offensive?

However mundane culture war battles can be, the struggle is really metaphysical-and it deals with a fundamental fact of existence: the unworkable notion of "neutrality." The word "neutral" denotes a myth; what it wants to say doesn't exist; it's inherently self-contradictory and therefore can't mean what it purports to, at least in this world or perhaps in any other conceivable one as well. Something can no more be "neutral" than a triangle can have four sides.

Why? Because not to take a position is to take a position. Sweden's "neutrality" in World War II meant choosing not to fight against the Nazis and choosing not to join the Allies. That's a stance-a very distinct one, in fact-and it didn't have "neutral" consequences (just ask the Norwegians).

The problem is that in every society law must reflect some type of moral code. The nature of reality itself makes moral neutrality impossible. The world exists, law exists, and whatever position law takes places it in one relationship or another to that world. To legislate against something is to take a position against it; to legislate for something is to take a position for it; not to legislate for or against something is to keep the status quo, and if the status quo happens to reflect a certain moral presupposition (as it must) then the result isn't neutrality.

"When the status quo-between, say, rich and poor, or blacks and whites, or women and men-is itself a product of law and far from just, a decision to take it as a baseline for assessing neutrality is unjustifiable," wrote law professor Cass Sunstein.

Thus law either prohibits, allows, or promotes certain behavior, and that specific behavior depends, of course, upon what that society deems right or wrong. Morality, in short, determines law, or even the lack thereof, because laws that don't exist, at least on the books, "exist" in the sense that their nonexistence allows certain actions to take place that might otherwise be prohibited had the law existed. For example, no laws exist in America that forbid the general manufacture and sale of alcohol; hence the nonexistence of those laws, reflecting certain moral concepts, allows certain actions, in this case the general manufacture and sale of alcohol-hardly a morally neutral position.

Law always reflects "morality." Laws in Nazi Germany mirrored one, in apartheid South Africa another, in the Confederacy another. Dr. Martin Luther King's quote from an Alabama jail that "an unjust law is no law at all" is, however lofty, metaphysically flawed. A law, just or unjust, is still a law (whether one abides by it is another matter).

No society could exist without "moral" legislation, because the very word "society" itself, as a subject, includes in its predicate the concept of order, and order itself, as a subject, includes in its predicate "morality," at least in the context of a social milieu. Society, by its very nature as society, is predicated upon some type of "moral" order. The million-dollar question (and bottom line of the culture war) is What type?

Until 30 or 40 years ago that was a relatively easy question to answer in America, where for much of the nation's history there existed a basic consensus regarding family, marriage, gender, sexuality-a consensus that has broken down in recent decades as many longtime moral axioms are being questioned or even discarded. This doesn't mean that June Cleaver was once everyone's mom, or that Eddie Haskell once embodied our worst fears; instead, what existed was a greater uniformity of thought-and to some degree action-over what was right or wrong than exists today.

This moral shift can be good or bad, depending upon what has been replaced and with what. After all, in the same parts of America where pornography was forbidden, so were integrated schools; kids today might be having sex too young, but at least they're not forced to work torturous 16-hour days in sweatshops.

Yet for the most part the change has been bad, and many people see it too. "The fraying of America's social fabric-once considered the crotchety preoccupation of the cultural right-has become a national (even liberal) obsession," said Newsweek. The problem has become so big it's even spawned a new word, "virtuecrat," embodied by former education czar William Bennett (who made $1.8 million last year in lecture fees speaking about America's moral decline).

How far have we degenerated? A few years ago the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an article about a father's experience with his daughter Lauren. "Six months ago," he wrote, "my 13-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to get a belly-button pierce. . . . I said, "This is a big step. Why not wait until your birthday? If you still want it then, we'll make it a birthday gift.'" Six months later the father describes the scene as Denise, the woman in the Gauntlet (the piercing studio) gave young Lauren her birthday gift. "Denise took charge, talking soothingly to Lauren as she daubed her with antiseptic, marked the spot, clamped it with forceps and, in a flash, pierced the skin next to the belly button and popped a ring in. . . . After a few minutes we marched into another alcove to see a video on pierce care. This is a scene my parents could have never envisioned: dad and daughter watching a half-naked man demonstrate the proper care of a nipple pierce. Yet, there I was gobbling down pierce-care hints, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Then it hit me: this was normal. Not 1950s normal, but maybe 1990s normal."

Now, if this is "1990s normal," then the 1990s aren't normal. But the statement that a 14-year-old getting a belly-button pierce from her dad as a birthday present isn't "normal" is merely a subjective expression of a personal or, perhaps (at least in this case), a public moral bias, which is fine for private or even public individuals. But should a private or public moral bias be the basis of law, especially when others, even perhaps just one, vehemently disagree with that moral bias, especially on religious grounds?

Of course. It has to. In fact, law has no basis other than a moral one. The tough part is determining what that moral basis should be, especially in a society that has lost almost all consensus on moral norms.

Though everyone-from Hillary Clinton to Pat Robertson-agrees that we're turning into a society of moral degenerates, Hillary and Pat don't always agree on just what is "moral" or "degenerate" (for example, Hillary's "right-to-choose" is Pat's "infanticide"). This makes finding a solution to this moral crisis quite difficult, especially in a multicultural, pluralistic democracy (throw in a bit of church-state separation as well, and the question gets real sticky).

David Hume wrote that all governments are based upon opinion. "It is therefore," he wrote, "on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as the most popular. The sultan of Egypt or the emperor of Rome might drive his harmless subjects like brute beasts against their sentiments and inclinations. But he must, at least, have led his mamelukes or praetorian bands, like men, by their opinion."

In other words, any government, even the most arbitrary, needs some degree of common consent or opinion in order to survive. What's happening in America, however, is that the opinion is so wide, varied, and contradictory that there exists little hope of moral consensus. Hence the "culture war."

If Williams' ship were a totalitarian regime, the problem wouldn't be as acute. Laws-and the inevitable morality they reflect-would come from the top down, and either you obeyed or were deep-sixed. In the American republic, however, power comes from below, from the passengers themselves, who are so diverse in their moral and religious views that they can't agree on what those "common laws and orders" should be. Indeed, the culture war arises not so much over forced worship, but because the passengers radically disagree over what laws the "commander" should enforce. In a society in which everyone from radical deconstructionists to Christian Reconstructionists vote, a moral consensus isn't likely.... especially because Americans disagree over not only basic moral assumptions, but also the basic methods and principles of deriving those assumptions, or even if the concept of "moral assumptions" has any validity at all.

According to one poll, more than 70 percent of Americans don't believe that any type of absolute truth about God, the nature of man, or morality exists, figures that don't bode well for anything except the most general moral conformity (such as that we should brake for animals and not torture children). For more than 2,500 years philosophers and theologians have argued, even violently, over which metaphysical system is true. Now they deny that any system is. It's no longer considered worthwhile to seek a grand, overarching blueprint of reality, because none exists. Even if it did, humans are too subjective in and of themselves, in the language they use, in the concepts they form, in the methods they employ, to be able to derive an objective understanding of that reality anyway. In the end, said Nietzsche, "all we experience is ourselves," and people seem to think he's right.

What's worse, even among evangelical Christians-those whose weltanschauung supposedly presupposes absolute truth-more than half don't believe that absolute truth exists, and those who believe it does don't agree on just what it is or what conclusions one can draw from that truth (hence all the denominations). Wrote Houston Smith: "Instead of "These are the compelling reasons, grounded in the nature of things, why you should believe in God,' the approach of the church to the world today tends to be "This community of faith invites you to share in the venture of trust and commitment.'"

This diversity might be fine for stimulating intellectual classroom debate, but it's disastrous for the formation of moral consensus. In fact, at least in a democracy, this diversity can be especially problematic, because morality and public virtue have always been understood as foundational to democratic rule. America's Founders stressed that our republic-as opposed to a monarchy (founded on honor and respect for the monarch) or a tyranny (founded on fear)-needs a moral populace in order to survive. If the people are going to be directly or (in the American version) indirectly involved in running the country, they need virtue.

"Public virtue," wrote John Adams, "cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation for republics."

"If there be [no virtue among us], we are in a wretched situation," wrote James Madison. "No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure."

Because they deemed virtue so important to the republic, the early American government had no qualms about helping people get it, either. History professor Ann Withington wrote that "in 1744 the Congress took a stand: no more horse racing, no more cock fighting, no more card playing, no more gaudy dressing, no more theater." However effective the pre-national period Congress was in enforcing those laws is one question (it couldn't even get the Colonies to divvy up war expenses); what matters is it functioned at a time when enough of a moral consensus existed that it even bothered to pass such laws.

That consensus existed, however, because it was founded on what for most of political history has been the moral glue of society, and that was-and still is-religion.

Indeed, Plato deemed religion so important to the moral fabric of the polis that he advocated censorship of any poet or musician who said the wrong things about the gods. "But if a state is to be run along the right lines," Plato wrote in The Republic, "every possible step must be taken to prevent anyone, young or old, either saying or being told, whether in poetry or prose," anything about the gods that might subvert morals. In fact, Plato even urged the death penalty for those whose worship deviated from the state religion, because, he wrote in Laws, those who do deviate "increase infinitely their own iniquity, whereby they make themselves and those better men who allow them guilty in the eyes of the gods, so that the whole state reaps the consequences of their impiety to some degree-and deserves to reap them."

Machiavelli, ever the pragmatist, wrote that "princes and republics who wish to maintain themselves from corruption must above all things preserve the purity of all religious observances, and treat them with the proper reverence, for there is no greater indication of the ruin of a country than to see religion condemned. . . . It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundation of the religion of the countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious and consequently well conducted and united."

Even infidel Voltaire wrote that "if there is a hamlet, to be good it must have religion."

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," wrote Alexander Hamilton, "religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness."

Early American documents show too just how tightly Americans united the two. In 1780 Massachusetts passed "A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Common-wealth of Massachusetts." Article III begins: "As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instruction in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily."

The constitution of New Hampshire, voted in 1784, says that "as morality and piety, rightly grounded in evangelical principles, will give the best and greatest security to government, and will lay, in the hearts of men, the strongest obligations to due subjection . . ."

The Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787 (the year the framers wrote the Constitution) reads in Article III: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind . . ."

But that was then, this is now, and American society has greatly changed. Yet morality is still morality, law is still law, and today (as in the time of Plato or the Northwest Ordinance) law-by its very essence-must reflect some kind of moral standard. In the American government, based on the principle that sovereignty rests with the people, it would seem that the people, then, should establish the moral norms, the "common laws and orders of the ship" that they have contracted with the "commander" to enforce.

Yet more than two centuries in the American experiment, the principle is now the problem: how does a society, based on popular sovereignty, establish moral norms when there are few, if any, popular moral norms or presuppositions? How can the people, through their elected officials, create laws that reflect their moral principles when they don't agree on those principles?

This is, in essence, the great legal challenge an incredibly diverse and pluralistic America faces: legal because a nation's morality, or lack thereof, ultimately finds its way into the laws, either by what the law prohibits or by what it allows.

Will the challenge be met? Probably not, at least as long as we remain a democratic, pluralistic state. Maybe, given the nature of reality, it will never be. In the end, whatever norms are established, whatever moral codes are reflected in whatever laws that exist or don't exist, some on board will, based on their own moral assumptions, feel offended, repressed, even persecuted (and in some cases might really be).

This point has been exemplified by the now famous or (depending upon your moral presuppositions) infamous First Things symposium of November 1996, in which the contributors, upset by "the judicial usurpation of politics," questioned whether-because of the moral positions inevitably reflected by court decision (i.e., the law)-the U.S. government was losing its legitimacy. Here are people who, because of their moral stands, are offended by the "common laws and orders of the ship." Change those laws and orders to their liking, and a similar symposium will likely be held in Mother Jones or the Nation.

Fortunately, though the U.S. has been through turbulent waters, and some of the crew have at times been rowdy, it's still sailing. Given the nature of reality, rowdy sailors on turbulent waters are probably the best to hope for.

That is, of course, unless there's a mutiny. Then, only God knows what course the ship will take, and what will happen to those who believe-based on their own fervent moral assumptions-that it's heading in the wrong direction.

Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.