“State Guardianship of Morality” American Sentinel 11, 6, pp. 41, 42.

February 6, 1896

THE State, in whatever its agency appears, stands for force—compulsion. The State exists not to give advice, not to persuade, but to define and enforce. Within the sphere of its action, individual option is done away.

It is quite generally assumed that one proper function of the State is to be the public guardian of morality. But in this assumption lies the possibility of untold evil.

What is “morality”? What authoritative standard have we, outside of the word of Omniscience, by which to determine it? There are various standards among men, but these differ one from another. What is considered moral in one country is regarded as immoral in another. Not even in the same community do we find one standard adhered to by all individuals.

There are, it is true, many acts, the immorrality [sic.] of which would nowhere, in civilized lands at least, be called in question. And the terms “moral” and “immoral” have come to be commonly used with reference to such acts, indicating a vicious nature rather than one that is simply irreligious. But no certain boundary line is known, in the public mind at least, separating between what is vicious and what is “irreligious.” And when human legislation sets out to deal with acts upon moral grounds, it can find no logical stopping place short of religious despotism.

State guardianship of morality means enforced morality,—morality as defined by the State and accepted as such by the majority of the people. And what will be viewed as moral or immoral will depend very largely, if not wholly, upon the form of the prevailing religion. The State will naturally turn to the Church for enlightenment upon questionable or controverted points.

From the assumption that the State is the properly-constituted guardian of morality, it is but a short step to the position that the State should also “protect” religion,—that religion, of course, which is the prevailing one. Religion and morality are found to be too closely connected to admit of dealing with the interests of one separately. When the State “protects” religion, it does so, of course, with a view to the highest welfare of its citizens. In that view force comes to be considered of value as a means of serving the interests of the soul.

This was the view commonly entertained not many centuries in the past. Our illustration, “Charlemagne Inflicting Baptism upon the Saxons,” whom he had conquered in battle, is thoroughly characteristic of the times in which this theory prevailed. The unfortunate Saxons did not comprehend the doctrine of baptism, now, as their looks show, were they at all anxious to be baptized; but the conqueror inflicted the rite upon them, doubtless having in view the glory of God and the salvation of their souls. As the historian relates, also, he did this with especial reference to the preservation of the peace and prosperity of the State.

Among the acts which are counted immoral by many to-day, is the violation of the “Christian sabbath;” in other words, the act of performing ordinary labor upon the first day of the week. The doctrine of State guardianship of public morality is held to include the enforcement of the observance of this institution, by compulsory rest upon that day. There is a growing demand for more and stricter legislation to this end. But the Sunday sabbath, when enforced as now demanded, will be as great and as useless an infliction upon the people as was Charlemagne’s “baptism” upon his Saxon prisoners.

As we have before observed, there is no rest in compulsory idleness. Voluntary idleness is bad enough, but compulsory idleness is ten times worse. The promoters of compulsory Sunday observance will not be satisfied with a law which enjoins merely cessation from work and amusement, for they do not aim at the result which would follow from this alone. The evil of enforced idleness must finally result in a demand that the people be brought into the churches, where they may receive the benefit of religious services. It will be found that to enforce idleness is not to guard morality, but to promote immorality; and a religious observance of the Sunday will be viewed as a logical necessity of the situation.

But with what grace will the individual who wishes to be free to go about his work or engage in some amusement, proceed with an enforced religious observance of the “sabbath” day? The same, evidently, as that with which Charlemagne’s Saxons submitted to the rite of “baptism;” and the effect will be of the same nature and value in the one case as in the other.

The truth is, that the State has no concern with morality, as such. The true American doctrine of the proper office of the State is set forth in the Declaration of Independence, where it is held as a self-evident truth that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” that governments are instituted among men to preserve these rights. The State, therefore, by this doctrine, considers an act not with reference to its morality or immorality, but as being either subversive or not subversive of human rights. And when it cuts loose from this doctrine, and proceeds to deal with questions of morality, religious legislation soon follows, and despotism is the inevitable outcome.

Let the State keep upon the safe ground marked out in the Declaration of Independence, concerning itself only with that which relates to the preservation of the rights of its citizens, and leaving religion wholly free to do its work of uplifting and regenerating mankind.

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