A MEMBER of Congress or of a State legislature, a judge, or any other official of civil government, is chosen to represent the people only in a purely civil capacity. And as that which is purely civil has no connection with religion, the legislator, judge, or other government official, can have anything to do, as an official, with religion. He can concern himself with religion only in his private individual capacity. In religion, he can represent only himself. As a representative of others, is nothing to do with religion.
“Then,” says one, “according to this, as a representative of the people he can throw religion and morality to the winds, let any evil become rampant in society, and have no responsibility in the matter!” Can he?
No; that is not what we say. Yet the “National Reform” party and their allies persistently hold this up as the only alternative to their doctrine that the legislature or other civil official ought to guard the religious as well as the secular interests of the people.
Every representative of the people is bound, everywhere and always, by the laws of morality, and in morality and religion, must always represent himself, whether in public office or out of it. Public office does not in the least shield him from personal condemnation for wrongdoing. But he is not in public office to represent the moral or religious beliefs of the people. In such matters he is bound by his own belief, and by that only.
What is moral? and what is immoral? What religious beliefs are true? and what false? These are questions that are in dispute. The people are not in agreement concerning them. Some people say the theater is immoral; others say it is not. Some say the use of tobacco is immoral; others say it is not. Some say that doing secular work on Sunday is it immoral; others say it is not; and so on. The diversity in religious beliefs needs no illustration. These conflicting beliefs cannot be represented in the civil government; no person can at one and the same time, stand for beliefs that are in conflict with each other.
The legislator is a representative of the people. He is asked by certain ones to work for the enactment of a law for the observance of Sunday. But some of those whom he represents, and for whom he acts in his official capacity, do not believe in the sacredness of Sunday. Others whom he represents—who have chosen him to act for them—do not believe in the sacredness of any day. He cannot work for a Sunday law without misrepresenting some of those who have put him in office. Neither could he work for the passage of a law against Sunday observance, or for a law against religion. He must simply leave religion alone, taking no action for or against it. As a public official, he is neither religious nor irreligious, but non-religious.
Suppose he is asked to vote for measure which he believes will work moral injury to the community,—as a law allowing the circulation of pernicious literature, or permitting immoral shows, or favoring the sale of intoxicants. Can he be morally free to vote for such measures, and justify it on the ground that as a representative of the people, he is not within the sphere of religion or morals?—No; certainly not. While he is not within the sphere of morals as a representative, he is always within that sphere as an individual, and can never escape individual accountability for his acts. He was refused to sanction, as a legislator, what he believes to be morally wrong, not because of the ideas of other people, but because of his own belief. He must refuse it, acting not for other people, but for myself; bound by a personal responsibility from which he can never become divested.
Suppose, however, that he has been chosen to office by people who want him to sanction a measure against which his conscience revolts. What then? In that case he is still bound by his own personal responsibility to do right. He must refuse to be the representative of such people. He cannot violate his conscience, but he can resign his office.
The common ground upon which all classes can stand in the affairs of government is this: “All men are created equal,” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” “To preserve these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” People have diverse beliefs, but no diversity of rights. In respect of their rights, they can choose a representative to act for them. And he, in his actions as representative, must consider and be guided by the question, What are the rights of the people? Questions of morals and of religious belief must be acted upon and settled in other ways than by the action of representatives of the people.
And even though there were no conflict of beliefs concerning morals and religion, so that there could be representation of the people in this respect, it would still be altogether wrong. For in religion and morals, one person cannot act for another. Moral responsibility cannot be delegated. Each one is morally responsible for his own account, and this is God’s eternal plan for all. Each one being thus morally accountable before God, each one has an unalienable right to decide for himself questions of morality and religion. In a true sense, from the Christian point of view, there is no distinction between morality and religion; Christianity includes all morality. And every person has an undeniable right to decide for himself what Christianity is, and whether he will be bound by it or not. For a mistake or for wrong doing in this, he is accountable alone to God.
As soon as force is brought to bear on an individual for moral or religious reasons, there is an invasion of his unalienable right to conform his conduct morally and religiously to his own belief in what is right. And to invade man’s right is to deny and set aside the right of Him who ordained rights on earth, to interfere with His purposes for mankind for this life and for a life beyond. If any person’s belief respecting morality or religion leads him into acts which invade another person’s rights, then he can properly be restrained by civil force; not upon moral or religious grounds, but because civil governments are instituted to preserve rights. This is American doctrine, and the only rule by which we can render to Cesar what is Cesar’s, and to God that which is Gods’ [sic.].