The Sin/Crime Distinction

So I do a bit of writing on politics, law, and religion.  I was even fortunate enough to have one article published by an academic journal last year.  This isn’t my primary vocation, but it’s a solid second calling.  It’s more than a mere hobby.  And the further I’ve gotten into this field, the more convinced I am that Christians really don’t know how to think about law and politics.  There are very large segments of the Christian population who have severed themselves completely from Christian jurisprudence, namely the far-Left progressives and the Libertarians.  These folks can certainly be true Christians.  They are just very mistaken about how that relates to politics.  The majority of “Evangelicals” find themselves in the middle of the GOP spectrum, some reluctantly and some happily.  And a few other well-intentioned Christians stick with the “moderate” and “independent” labels.  Hardly any of them, however, are terribly confident as to whether this is actually a consistent Biblical outlook, and those that are “very confident” are also often very mistaken.

Now let me quickly add that I don’t think I’ve got it all quite figured out either.  There are a number of contemporary political issues of which I am not totally sure what the best approach is.  But one thing I have managed to do over the last few years it to get a  comfortable grasp of the guiding principles of traditional Christian legal thought.  Notice that I said principles.  Principles are different than positive commands and prohibitions.  They go back to basic concepts and founding themes and ideas.  Principles can often take different expressions depending on the rest of the context.  Still, basic morality never changes.

One of the perennial questions is always regarding what role religion should even play in politics.  We hear about private and public interests and the ubiquitous “separation” or church and state.  Surely, though, the Bible itself demands to be applied in some way.  So which parts should we try to “politicize” and which parts should we keep to ourselves?  This is a big discussion, but to me one of the easiest and most useful concepts is the distinction between sins and crimes.

On one level this distinction is simple.  Not all sins are crimes.  The 10th Commandment is an obvious example.  Coveting is sinful, and it is really bad, but it is not the sort of thing that anyone can legislate against.  And, in irregular and undesirable cases, not all crimes are sins.  In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it was a crime not to burn incense before an image of Caesar.  Obviously, keeping that law would be sinful, and so, breaking it would not be.  In an ideal political order, no laws would be framed so as to cause you to sin, and the ordinary rule is to obey civil powers.  Thus, most political rebellion is sinful.  But the two concepts are still distinct.  Christians preach against both sins and crimes, but they should only want to outlaw crimes.  Non-criminal sins are to be taken care of by other means.  And really, all legislation is aimed at the crime part rather than the sin part per se.

Now that was easy enough.  The tricky part comes when we try to decide which things are crimes and which things are sins.  People have various conceptions here.  And don’t give me any of that “you can’t legislate morality” business.  We hardly legislate anything other than morality!  All laws are written so as to promote what’s right and fair.  In fact, the English word “justice” is derived form the Latin iustitia, which means “righteousness.”  So laws definitely have a moral character, and they should.  Still, how do we decide what to outlaw and what to leave to other jurisdictions?

There are a few considerations.  The first has to do with externality.  Laws can only deal with externals.  They can never touch the internal condition of man.  That’s a big part of Pauline theology, actually.  And so any sin that is purely (or almost-purely) an internal condition should not be legislated against.  This would include coveting, but also a certain sort of worship, belief, and all thoughts or feelings.  To try to legislate on internal matters would itself be wrong, unjust actually.

Additionally, we need to consider the relationship an act has to the public.  It isn’t true that one’s private domain is wholly “off-limits.”  The mere fact that something is going on behind closed doors tells us nothing.  Rather, “private” and “public” here have to do with the impact something has on other citizens.  If the action truly only affects the individual, then we can call it private in the strictest sense.  This can also be applied to small voluntary assemblies, but that gets trickier rather quickly.  Still, the basic idea is that if something doesn’t affect the public arena, then it requires little or no legal action.  But we have to add that “public” does not always mean state-funded.  Any open-air space or any assembly that is less than purely voluntary qualifies, and as soon as voluntary assemblies begin interacting with outside persons, they also become public in a way.  All of this is perfectly within the zone of criminal and civil legislation.

And so public interests can and should be “politicized.”  Laws in this regard ought to be moral, just, and fair, and they ought to promote the common good.  Now all of these terms depend upon more basic assumptions.  Ask around, and you’ll get varying opinions about what is “just” and “fair.”  And this is where our religion definitely comes into play.  Those concepts have to go all the way back, which means God.  But we also want to be careful here.  This isn’t “private” either.  Religious teachings on morality and justice aren’t private because justice isn’t private and because God isn’t private.  In fact, God is the most public thing there is.  He created all things, He sustains all things, and He is the only coherent foundation for our cherished “inalienable rights.”

In other words, God is supremely relevant.  And if God is relevant to law-making, then that means what He says is relevant.  Of course, we have to read His word and make the appropriate distinctions, as we have tried to do here.  But once we’re done, and once we’ve done a good job at that, then we should apply what God has said without any mixed feelings.  So for starters, we can say this much.  Outlaw crimes, preach against sins, and call men to the pursuit of happiness by the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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