April 14th, 2012

Immorality and Irresponsibility: A Justification for Statism?

Christian conservatives and constitutionalists alike employ a variety of arguments to defend their support for the state. While many of these defenses are misguided and easily rebutted, others are more popular and persist despite any attempts to point out their flaws. One such argument claims that because people are unrighteous, the government must do for them what they will not do for themselves.

Those who advance this argument often point to some common examples to support their claim. Because people do not give enough to charity, the welfare system is needed to take care of those unable to provide for themselves. Because children whose families are poor or who live in remote areas would otherwise not have access to a school, a public education system must be financed by taxpayers to provide education for all. Because drug use is prevalent, regulations and prohibitions are needed to criminalize the production and consumption of these illicit substances. The list is lengthy, and each justification is based on the core idea behind this argument: widespread immorality and irresponsibility implicitly authorizes the government’s attempts to enforce a standard of morality that people would otherwise abandon.

The diagnosis made by these individuals is not inaccurate; morality and responsibility have been in decline over the past several decades, and now are either ignored or routinely denigrated in the public square. But is their proposed remedy worthy of support? Does the decline in morality and responsibility justify the government’s intervention as a last-ditch effort to counteract society’s moral decay?

Speaking recently on this subject, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an Apostle and leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is thought by some to have suggested exactly that. Like the proponents of the pro-state argument above, Elder Christofferson made a correct diagnosis:

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

From this determination of what is wrong, Elder Christofferson notes that, “As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments.”

On the surface, this observation appears to offer support for the scenario previously described. If understood this way, it would in fact seem to justify the state’s use of compulsion and control to foster moral discipline. In other words, because so much of society has embraced immorality and irresponsibility, external influences are needed to shore up the moral deficiencies of the people.

Elder Christofferson continued his remarks by citing commentary from the prolific conservative columnist Walter Williams. “Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior,” Williams wrote. He continued: “At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”

Those attempting to justify statism because of moral decay may have found superficial wiggle room in the initial words from Elder Christofferson, but his inclusion of this commentary begins to suggest that the opposite is in fact the better course. An institutionalized criminalization of social evils may be a defense against them, as Williams observed, but this obvious development of government control and compulsion does not become inherently justified merely because it is “the last desperate line” for a civilized society. Necessity does not confer morality.

Elder Christofferson’s continuing remarks further explode the idea that immorality justifies statist interventions that otherwise would be readily recognized as wrongful and unjust. Noting that under a statist approach to enforcing moral discipline “there could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation,” he argued that “this approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone” (emphasis added). In other words, this embrace of statism to uphold some arbitrary societal standard is not ideal. In fact, it breeds bondage.

Where the proponents of statist restraints on society ultimately fail is in conflating descriptions with prescriptions. Simply because something is observed to happen does not mean that that thing should happen, or that its happening is morally acceptable. The description in this case is the unsurprising development of increasing government intervention as society’s standards decrease. But simply because that description generally holds true, it does not imply that it is itself the prescription for what should happen. In other words, because the power of the state tends to increase as people become immoral and irresponsible, it does not therefore follow that we should accept that increase as the right or best mechanism of counteracting that moral failure.

This idea was also included in Elder Christofferson’s address. Citing the words of the Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, he said: “We would not accept the yoke of Christ; so now we must tremble at the yoke of Caesar.” Caesar’s reign was not morally justified by the people’s rejection of Christ as their leader, but it is unsurprising that a depraved and wicked people would become overpowered by a centralized authoritarian state—in many ways, openly welcoming and attempting to morally justify that state’s “yoke.”

The way to promote moral discipline is not to empower the state as the enforcer of morality and virtue, but rather to counteract evil through education and persuasion. The intervention of the state is not only immoral itself (not operating with any legitimately delegated authority), but often simply breeds further immorality rather than suppressing it as it initially attempted to supposedly do. (Consider the results and side effects of the “war on drugs” as one of myriad examples.) A related quote by President J. Reuben Clark demonstrates the proper method of encouraging moral discipline:

For America has a destiny—a destiny to conquer the world—not by force of arms, not by purchase and favor, for these conquests wash away, but by high purpose, by unselfish effort, by uplifting achieve- ment, by a course of Christian living; a conquest that shall leave every nation free to move out to its own destiny; a conquest that shall bring, through the workings of our own example, the blessings of freedom and liberty to every people, without restraint or imposition or compulsion from us; a conquest that shall weld the whole earth together in one great brotherhood in a reign of mutual patience, forbearance, and charity, in a reign of peace to which we shall lead all others by the persuasion of our own righteous example.

The compulsion of the state is antithetical to the persuasion which must be used to promulgate the principles of Christianity and its related laws of morality and virtue. When society begins to morally decay, those who turn to the state advocate for an immoral act itself—the use of coercion against an individual who has sinned or shirked their responsibility, but who has not violated the rights of another person. They therefore perpetuate the very thing they claim to be trying to stop, and in so doing become hypocrites.

The state can only legitimately exist to secure to each individual their natural and unalienable rights. Encouraging and enforcing a moral standard is a topic which must legitimately be left to families, churches, and other non-governmental institutions. Elder Christofferson observed that “In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay.” Those who instead attempt to justify statism as a back-stop to that societal decay must re-calibrate their own internal moral compass so as not to promote immorality in the name of fighting immorality.

(Parenthetically, this topic is the subject of my next book, due out in November.)

19 Responses to “Immorality and Irresponsibility: A Justification for Statism?”

  1. Rhonda
    April 15, 2012 at 12:46 am #

    Thank you, Connor. I’ve been trying to convince my neighbors and city council of these very principles. The solution to living incorrect principles is to learn correct ones, to be taught by persuasion. This is one thing we learn from Alma and Helaman; they did this repeatedly. Anytime they noticed society starting to come apart at the seams, the “regulation” they set out to provide was through renewed efforts to teach and persuade. Alma acknowledged that this “had [a] more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them.” (Alma 31:5)
    We desperately need this now.

  2. jimz
    April 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Yoga literally means ‘yoke’ and is the original yoke to god. (brahma)Doing particular meditations and body postures. There are more alternatives to simply the yoke of christianity and the yoke of the state.

    I imagine that there could be a decline in judeo-christian ideals, and perhaps values are changing. But overall I am not so sure this means a decline in values, but perhaps a shift. Sam Harris wrote a very thought provoking book, “The moral landscape”. Its written from an atheist point of view, and he suggests that perhaps atheist values are actually the best. I don’t recall him placing any emphasis on using the state to advance any moral values however.

  3. John Jackson
    April 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    “I’m impressed with the skill and diligence of our public affairs people in Oklahoma and the leadership of stake and mission officers who saw a need and worked together with others to spare their community the curse of legalized gambling.” — Elder D. Todd Christofferson after efforts of church leaders led to the defeat of a lottery initiative in Oklahoma. See Church News July 23, 1994.

  4. Jim Davis
    April 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Thanks for that Connor. I didn’t even know Elder Christofferson was quoting Walter Williams until you pointed that out. That man is a true statesman. The idea that persuasion is the moral and practical use of agency is consistent with:

    -The Plan of Salvation (“one soul shall not be lost” vs the agency of man)
    -The scriptures (D&C 121 “without compulsory means…”)
    -The words of so many prophets both past and modern (Larry Wilson’s talk from this month’s general conference was all about using persuasion instead of force)

    I recently wrote about this subject in context of George Albert Smith’s creed which included:

    I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.

    So many other examples exist which prove the morality and practicality of persuasion over force, one would think that common sense is enough to convince someone of this truth.

  5. Meg
    April 16, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    I always considered Elder Christofferson’s conference talk to be a lamentation. His ideas in this talk appear to partner nicely with a speech he gave at the National Symposium of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers.

  6. outside the corridor
    April 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    thank you–

  7. John Jackson
    April 16, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Connor, what are we to draw from seeing that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when it has come out with church statements, that they have often supported government-instituted morality? Prop 8 in California, the prohibition back at the time of the Prohibition, opposition to gambling. The list is impressive. What are we to make of it, that church stands have often been in favor of government-enforced morality?

  8. TRON
    April 19, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    I have to admit, I’m confused about what this “moral decay” is.

    First let’s talk crime:

    “The latest FBI figures show that murder, rape, robberies and other serious crimes have fallen to a 48-year low across the country.”


    How about teen pregnancy?

    It is down to the levels it was at in the 1940’s.


    Lowest levels since 1972 (when it was legalized).

    Racism, sexism, all forms of discrimination are down.

    And even for you libertarians you should be happy.

    Regulations are at the lowest levels since the 1920’s.
    The same is true with taxes. They were 90% on the rich in the 50’s now they’re 33%.
    We’ve pulled out of Iraq and will pull out of Afghanistan in 2014.
    Obama is shrinking the military back down to 3% of gdp. It was at 4.9% in 1980, 7.4% in 1965, and 5% in 1950.

    New York City had a power outage in 1977.

    Quoting Wikipedia:

    “In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. In the largest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were arrested. Many had to be stuffed into overcrowded cells, precinct basements and other makeshift holding pens. A Congressional study estimated that the cost of damages amounted to a little over US$300 million.”

    Another one happened in New York in 2003. Quoting the New York Times on this:

    “The statistics are the first detailed look at crime during the blackout, which city officials have characterized as a largely peaceful event. There were 56 break-ins identified as looting, a fraction of the widespread mayhem that struck all five boroughs during the 1977 blackout. There were 182 looting-related arrests, the commissioner said.”

    Hardly a country in moral decay.

  9. Clumpy
    April 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm #


    I also think that the unquestioned assumption that things are going down the tubes just doesn’t hold water. Sure, abortion is legal, and maybe we’re seeing more couples living together before getting married, but on the other hand we are past the age of thousands upon thousands of lynchings, and as you pointed out violent crimes are at a modern low. It’s like a comment I recently saw that the counterculture movement of the 60s “mocked the laws of God.” Sure, from a certain perspective, but it was also the impetus for a lot of anti-war sentiment which condemned discrimination and warmongering. Any time we try to impose a narrative onto things, we’re being a little disingenuous (though I think a lot of this is just a pattern of human thinking which pits a mythical “good old days” against an overblown construct of “society these days”).

  10. Nate
    April 27, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Connor–I’m also interested in John’s question (comment #8), and would appreciate a response or direction to a place you’ve already treated the question.

  11. Mark N.
    May 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    I second Nate’s #11.

  12. Hector
    May 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    When we say “God doesn’t force people to be good,” I hope we don’t mean, “God lets everybody do precisely as they wish, and so should we.”

    That’s silly. That’s not how God rules. God never compels righteousness. Laws can never do that But there are ALWAYS consequences to being bad.

    Can we not mirror this divine pattern in our laws by civilly punishing unrighteousness, while simultaneously recognizing that these laws don’t “make people be good” but rather just protect us all from Soddom-and-Gomorrah-esque judgments?

    Our very own Book of Mormon is full of references to civil enforcement of divine laws, particularly the law of chastity. Adultery was a criminal offense; no nonsense here about “consenting adults.” (See Alma 30:10)

    Korihor’s blaspheming threatened the stability of society, and was not treated with a careful attempt to protect his “rights.” According to the scriptures, he was bound and carried before civil magistrates. (Alma 30:19-21)

    If the Book of Mormon is really meant show us “how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time,” (Benson), then are we to learn from these chapters that it is sometimes all right for a righteous society to enforce God’s laws with civil ones carefully molded after the divine pattern?

    On the other hand, I do agree that “omnipotent moral busybodies” (as C.S Lewis said) are just as dangerous as tyrants. Where is the balance between oppressive social activism and utilizing society to protect the very foundations of society; God, Family, and Righteousness?

    Benson, Ezra T., Ensign, January, 1988

  13. Jimz
    May 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    I have a homework assignment for you. You make some statements which need to be fact checked. “. God never compels righteousness”. The O.T. has a number of examples of capital punishment for breaking certain laws, a pretty steep penalty, in modern terms for some of them. For example, breaking the sabbath. (Exodus 31:14, Numbers 15:32-36) Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). Non levites Going near the tabernacle when its being moved (Numbers 1:51) And other things like trying to convert people to another religion, practicing magic, rebellion, being a false prophet, planting two or more different types of seed in the same field.

    “Korihor’s blaspheming threatened the stability of society, and was not treated with a careful attempt to protect his “rights.” According to the scriptures, he was bound and carried before civil magistrates. (Alma 30:19-21) ”

    we live in a diverse society at least in the United states. I hope that as a culture and society, we can honor different traditions, and have some sort of understanding of a different culture. “Blaspheme” in most contexts is actually protected by the constitution. Did you ever stop and think that perhaps your entire religion might be considered blaspheme by someone else? Nobody is stopping you from speaking it.

  14. Chaske Fisher
    May 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    🙂 Tastes really good.

  15. Ken
    May 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm #


    Crime and other statistics may not be the best barometer of the morality of a society. While New York may have been “safer” during the 2003 blackout compared to the one in 1977, it’s citizens also enjoyed much less freedom in 2003 (and today) than in 1977. You can improve the safety of a society from either the top down or from the bottom up.

    Top down is when government imposes regulations which limit an individual’s freedom to choose, for example, gun control laws. While this approach may achieve a specific objective, such as increased safety, if it is at the expense of individual liberty, it’s effect will only be temporary as it will eventually lead to rebellion by those whose liberties have been infringed. The constitution was specifically designed to limit government in it’s ability to infringe on individual liberties because the founder’s understood human nature and our natural tendency to exercise unrighteous dominion over each other. (See D&C 121 if you happen to be of the LDS persuasion)

    Improving society from the bottom up means that individuals choose to self regulate based on understanding correct principles of righteous and moral behavior. Individuals are free to exercise their God given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which the founders recognized as the right to private property), so long as they don’t infringe upon the rights of their fellow citizens to do likewise.

    When Joseph Smith was asked how he managed to govern the large body of saints he replied that he didn’t govern them, he taught them correct principles and they governed themselves. In such a society, there is very little need for governmental or statist intervention in the personal lives of the citizens because they follow the golden rule of treating others as they would be treated. This is how Enoch and the city of Zion were governed as well as the Nephites for 200 years following the coming of Christ to America. This is how God governs the universe. Everything eternal has chosen voluntarily to obey the laws governing the realm of existence in which it exists. (Again, these are LDS based references)

    Teaching correct principles through persuasion and exercising patience and long suffering is the only way to achieve enduring peace and happiness. For me, a more accurate reading of the morality of a society is how willing they are to freely obey correct principles of righteousness. How willing they are to listen to their inner voice of consciousness which tells all of us the difference between right and wrong.

    Too many people today use the term “Free Agency” and define it as the freedom to do whatever I want to do. The correct term is “Moral Agency” and it is defined as the freedom to choose between right and wrong.

    The “moral decay” about which you are confused is not found in FBI statistics but in the list of immoral vices promoted and consumed by our society. Pride, greed, selfishness, pornography, drug and alcohol abuse/addiction, domestic abuse, dishonesty, covetousness, etc. These are more accurate barometers of the moral decay of today’s society.

    “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
    Benjamin Franklin

    “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
    James Madison

    “The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a great Measure, than they have it now. They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.
    John Adams

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net.”
    John Adams

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    John Adams

    “Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul.”
    John Adams

    “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
    John Adams

    “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”
    John Adams

    “The laws of man may bind him in chains or may put him to death, but they never can make him wise, virtuous, or happy.”
    John Adams

  16. AV
    May 21, 2012 at 9:23 am #


    I agree with your list of moral barometers, but I would add that the ‘destruction of the family’ by various forms of abuse, adultery, abandonment & divorce are other accurate barometers.

    The divorce rate is a very accurate barometer for the freedom and safety of a society or people. Our 50%+ divorce rate, even in the Church, reveals our apathy with evil & our coming destruction, not only because people divorce, but because leaders allow them to.

    Christ clearly taught that most all divorces & remarriages are adultery and thus should not be allowed by leaders.

    Every divorce is caused by some form of abuse by one or both spouses. To save the marriage & family we (leaders, family & friends) must ‘stop the abuse’, not allow spouses to destroy the marriage & family by divorce & remarriage.

    The most accurate of all barometers for a society is whether civil or religious leaders ‘allow’ such evil things to go on ‘unpunished’ or not.

    We live in a society and church where most wickedness, like abuse, divorce, adultery (porn) is allowed, supported and even rewarded, except for usually the most severe issues.

    Civil & religious leaders today appear to be refusing to enforce God’s laws with consequences, thus they are the biggest problem.

    For when the innocent members of a society or church are not protected, by applying consequences to the guilty, then there is no hope for that society or church & it’s destruction is sure.

    Freedom & peace can only be enjoyed when there are consequences for breaking God’s laws for serious sin. But leaders must be righteous in order to be willing to do this and have the wisdom and discernment to judge & apply consequences righteously. That is what we are missing today, righteous leaders who can & will defend the innocent from the guilty by applying consequences, just as Moroni would if he were here.

    Though righteous leaders are rare, they are possible to find, if the people are wise & righteous enough themselves to choose them, it doesn’t appear that we are or have been since the founding of our country.

    So we are usually to blame if our leaders don’t protect us, for we chose to uphold them.

    We are completely in bondage today, in every way, by leaders who abuse & enslave us instead of protect us. Yet most do not realize it, for we are given such a long chain to go about almost normally in the time being.

    But we are not free, we have given our freedom completely away because we have not been righteous enough to chose righteous leaders who will protect us from evil.

    Protection from the evil behavior of others means ‘applying consequences & treatment for repentance’, which is the #1 responsibility of all leaders, civil or religious, or the people cannot enjoy peace & prosperity.

    One great example of this, was a group of Lamanites in the BoM, who once collected all the Gadiantons among them and imprisoned them (for Gads will not usually willingly attend a sunday school class) & then taught them the Gospel. As they truly repented they were set free. They were able to thus get rid of all the Gadiantons in their society and then enjoy peace.

    Until we are willing to do this we will never have freedom or peace, in our nation or church. But few people even believe in applying such serious consequences for serious sin. Most believe in letting the guilty go free with a little slap on the hand, because to apply consequences requires the enforcers to repent 1st, which most are not willing to do.

    “The world is a dangerous place. Not because of those who do evil, but because of those who do nothing about it.” Einstein


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