Must the Moral Law Have a Lawgiver?

imageBy J.M. Njoroge

Atheists don’t believe we need God to understand what is right and wrong. Yet Christians point to a moral law that is written on our hearts by God, and our conscience testifies either for us or against us with regard to morality.

Before I respond directly to the question raised in the title of this article, let me say a word about what I take to be the place of arguments for God’s existence. To the person who has walked with God for any length of time and who has experienced firsthand the reality of God’s work in his or her life, offering arguments for God’s existence can feel as awkward as planning a surprise birthday party for Auntie Jenny in her presence. I suppose most people do not believe in God as the end result of logically airtight conclusions built upon indisputable premises; they are first confronted with their own sinfulness and the need to be reconciled with a Holy God as encapsulated in the gospel message and then build a rational case for their newfound faith as questions, and sometimes doubts, arise.[1] We should be careful not to overemphasize the intellect at the expense of the will. Just like any other good thing our Lord has freely given to us, we can use reason to conceal our flight from Him. When it comes to making a decision either for or against God, the defining issue is the deceptively simple question Jesus asked the disciples of John the Baptist who expressed interest in following Jesus, “What do you want?” (John 1:38). Doubt and skepticism are valid postures as long as they are motivated by the search for truth rather than a repudiation of it. What we want to be the case can keep us from accepting what is in fact the case, in spite of the amount of evidence at our disposal. Elsewhere, Jesus puts it this way, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17, emphasis added).

Nevertheless, there is indeed a place for taking a step back to consider the nature of the rational evidence that may be marshaled in defense of our faith. The process of loving God with the entirety of one’s being, including the mind—a major part of the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-8)—is not only commanded in the Scriptures, but it is also integral to spiritual growth. Moreover, it is true that a rational presentation of the gospel routinely serves as the catalyst that propels many to faith in God. For some people, the way to their heart is through their mind. And when the will is right—when what we want is to submit to a reality not of our own making—we find that God has really put us in a world fraught with clues of his holy pursuit. Among other things, we are rational beings, and it stands to reason that our minds, properly chastened, should not be at war with the truth, wherever it may be found. To quote the legendary scientist Galileo,

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.[2]

So, what do our senses, reason, and intellect tell us regarding the existence of God? There are many different strands of evidence available to us in answer to this question. We could, for example, consider the origin and complexity of the universe, the presence of information in the DNA, the origin of life and consciousness, biblical history, including the resurrection of Jesus, and our immediate experience of God. In this article, I will concentrate on the moral nature of our universe, which I take to be one of the peskiest pointers to God for anyone who is intent on turning his or her back on Him.

In what follows, I will offer some of the reasons why I believe we cannot make adequate sense of our experience of morality without God. My goal is not to focus on the moral argument as a whole but on the obligatory or normative aspect of the moral law that I will argue cries out for a moral lawgiver. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted several centuries ago, morality is largely constituted by categorical imperatives: nonnegotiable rules of behavior to which every human being must conform. I will argue that such a demand makes sense only if there exists a moral lawgiver who made us as moral agents capable of apprehending an objective moral standard external to us and applying it to ourselves. We exist in a world that comes packaged with a moral law that we did not invent. We discover it and once we do, we find that we are bound by it. This is, indeed, our Father’s world!


Like hundreds of other young men and women I have met in my travels around the globe, my first foray into systematized philosophical thinking as it applies to Christian apologetics was occasioned by a “chance” encounter with the spellbinding lectures and messages of Ravi Zacharias, especially his 1992 Veritas Forum lectures at Harvard University that eventually found their way into his provocatively titled book Can Man Live Without God. I was barely out of my teenage years, and I had traveled to the US to study medicine. But God used Ravi’s messages to lead me on a different path as I came to terms with the infinite value of God’s Word, properly communicated. The rest, as they say, is history.

One of the points Ravi emphasized in his lectures, one that I found to be quite persuasive, was the fact that there is a very compelling link between morality and God. Here is a succinct summary of his argument in response to a question:

When you say there is evil, aren’t you admitting there is good? When you accept the existence of goodness, you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit to a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver.[3]

Now, anyone who may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on the source of our moral intuitions might be surprised to learn that most philosophers who teach ethics, including atheists, accept almost each one of the claims Ravi makes in the above quote. In popular culture (and in a few academic circles as well), there are various attempts to explain morality in terms of evolution, social contracts, relativism, etc. [4] Much of the interaction on moral issues tends to take place at that level in popular circles. And because there exists a gap between the academy and the so-called masses (and we are all members of the “masses” outside our professional or academic disciplines), addressing these topics in the manner in which the masses grapple with them is vitally important. But academic ethicists realize that morality is too central and binding a reality in human experience to be relegated either to individual or collective human will, desires, or beliefs. Nor can it be adequately understood on the basis of social contracts or evolution.

That morality is objective, binding, and inevitable is most evident to us when we are either the victims of injustice or when our sympathies for the helpless are awakened. Everything within us cries out against such experiences. A number of years ago, I read a story about a woman who had given birth through C-section in a certain country. In the process of the delivery, something went horribly wrong. The doctors, one would hope inadvertently, inflicted deep wounds on the baby’s face. The baby could not breathe and breastfeed at the same time. The doctors assured the mother that the baby would be fine in a couple of days and encouraged her to take the baby home.

Well, the baby got worse. When the mother took the baby back to the hospital, she discovered that, to her horror, the hospital staff had purged all the records of her ever having been to the hospital. They told her that if she ever set foot in that hospital again, they would call the police on her because of what she had done to her own baby. It is impossible for me to imagine any morally healthy person reading such a story without reacting strongly against the injustice. An unabashed craving for justice is deeply woven into the very fiber of our being, and it is strongly awakened in such moments. But as Ravi notes, such a reaction betrays the fact that we are very much aware of the existence of a moral law that applies to all of us. We can’t complain about evil without at the same time invoking the primacy of good, and to do so is to acknowledge that morality is objective.

For most people, what we have said so far is enough to establish the dependence of morality on God. All the pieces we need to build that puzzle are not only present but in their rightful places. We know that some things are really wrong. Other things are really right, and there is an objective moral standard that helps us differentiate between the two. We also sense quite strongly that this can only be true if God exists. Morality is indeed grounded in God. Once one begins to realize that morality is not relative, that it cannot be grounded in biological evolution, and that it cannot be fully explained on the basis of social conventions or individual taste, one immediately feels drawn to the conclusion that God must exist.

In my travels, I have discussed the claims I’ve made so far with a lot of people, including atheists. I find that most people accept our thinking thus far. They believe that there is something rationally duplicitous about claiming that there is an objective set of dos and don’ts imposed upon human beings while denying that God exists.

“That is simply preposterous!” one self-proclaimed atheist friend said to me. “Only a person who just wants to avoid God would grant the objectivity of morality while rejecting God. If there is an objective moral standard, then there is a moral lawgiver, which means God exists.”

We both laughed out loud when I uttered a hearty “Amen!” in response. As an aside, you may be wondering how my friend could still describe himself as an atheist if he believed morality points to God. Sadly, he chooses to deny morality. He agrees that if you accept that morality is objective, then you must believe in God. But, he reasons, if you reject morality, then you don’t need to worry about morality pointing you to God. As we will see later, my friend is not alone in this. But yes, I did let him know that denying morality—denying that some things are really evil and some things are really good, regardless of what anyone says—is just as preposterous. That conversation reminded me of the following quip by GK Chesterton,

If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can make one or two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.[5]

Our experience of morality, especially when we are the victims of injustice, is too powerful to be illusory. To deny that there are things that are right, and others wrong, is as absurd as denying the cat as in Chesterton’s example. But if the point is so obvious, and if so many have turned to God on the basis of the pressure morality puts on their unbelief, how is it possible that some of the leading ethics professors in the best of our universities around the world can affirm the objectivity of morality while rejecting God? How do they manage to have their cake and eat it too?


If you are reading carefully, you will note that I said that most ethicists, including atheists, accept almost each one of the claims Ravi makes in the quote above. So what part of the argument do they dispute? Unfortunately, the most hotly debated part of the argument also happens to be the most important, i.e., the direct link between morality and God. The controversy is centered on the last line of Ravi’s quote: the claim that it is not possible to have a moral law without a moral lawgiver.

For reasons such as the ones we’ve already talked about, most philosophers are unwilling to deny the reality of morality. They agree that acknowledging that good and evil exist invokes an objective moral law, but they also think that the moral law stands on its own without any need for further justification. In other words, one does not need to appeal to a moral lawgiver to acknowledge that there is indeed a moral standard that is independent of human decisions, will or desires, and that helps us differentiate between good and evil. For example, atheist philosopher Louise Anthony writes,

I take it that theists and atheists will agree about what it means to say that morality is objective: first, whether something is right or wrong does not depend on any human being’s attitudes toward it, and second, moral facts are independent of human will.[6]

Similarly, Erik Wielenberg, also an atheist, writes, “[My view] is non-theistic in that it implies that objective morality does not require a theistic founda­tion; indeed, the view implies that objective morality does not require an external foundation at all.”[7] Other examples could be given.

To understand how someone can accept that morality is objective while rejecting the existence of God, we will look at two of the best arguments for the position. These arguments are (1) we can make perfect sense of objective morality without God, and (2) invoking God in discussions about morality actually creates more problems than it solves.

Before we delve into the arguments, let’s first say a word about “arguments” in logic. An argument in logic is not a quarrel. It is the juxtaposition of statements in such a way that the truth of one of those statements (called the conclusion) is entailed by the other statement(s), which are called premise(s). Logical consistency is one of the tests of the truth of a worldview, so logic is extremely important. But logic calls for clear thinking, which can be hard at times. Like Apostle Peter, I invite you to “gird up the loins of your mind” and join me on a mental adventure. It will be rough going in places, but I promise you the trip is more than worth it. As followers of Jesus Christ, logic is our friend, not our enemy.

1. Can we really make sense of objective morality without God?

The first argument for morality without God is fairly easy to grasp. It is simply the claim that morality is not different from other truths that we grasp about our universe without having to appeal to God. It is not different, for example, from our grasp of logical and mathematical truths. Consider the following argument, one that is found in many logic textbooks. Suppose you were given these two premises,

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
You know immediately that you ought to draw the following conclusion:

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
You know immediately and instinctively that the conclusion follows from the premises. In addition, if you pardon the pun, you know immediately that 2+2 is equal to 4. These are truths that are simply a part of reality, truths that we employ in our day-to-day lives without invoking God, or so the argument goes. According to this thinking, moral truths work the same way. They are just there as part of reality, and we apprehend them and use them in the same way we apprehend and use truths of logic and mathematics. We do not need God to apprehend and apply these truths to our lives.

However, I hope you can spot a move that has been played on us, which makes this argument seem much more compelling so far than it really is. Namely, we have switched from talking about where morality comes from (what it is grounded in) to talking about how we know about morality. To use some fancy philosophical terms, the former is an ontological task (concerning the nature of reality), the latter an epistemological one (concerning the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it).

Even if it is true that we apprehend moral truths in the same way that we apprehend logical and mathematical truths (which I believe is true), it does not follow that morality is not grounded in God. It could be the case that God made us in such a way that we are in fact able to apprehend laws of mathematics, logic, and morality immediately. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures teach that this is exactly what happened, specifically with regard to the moral law. In Romans 2:14-15, the apostle Paul writes

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

The requirements of the law are written on our hearts, and our conscience testifies either for us or against us with regard to morality. That is why God judged Gentile nations in the Old Testament for their evil behavior, even though they did not have the Bible. They ought to have known better. That is why God judges people who have never read the Bible and who may not care about it. They ought to know better. So, we should not let a skeptic get away with saying that since we can tell the difference between right and wrong without appealing to God, we don’t need God to ground morality. A good number of skeptics think pointing out that we can tell the difference between right and wrong all by ourselves is enough to dissociate morality from God. It is not enough. How we learn about morality and what morality is grounded in are two very different questions.

But if that were the only reason given for the claim that we can make sense of morality without God, the argument would be too weak to convince professional ethicists to accept morality while rejecting God, though it regularly works at the level of the masses. So we must now consider the second step taken in defense of the argument. Philosophers proceed to point out that logical, mathematical, and moral facts are necessary truths. When philosophers say that something exists necessarily, they mean that it has always existed and it will always exist. It is not possible for it not to exist. That, we should note, is what we believe about God. He is from everlasting to everlasting. His existence is uncaused—He simply exists.

The argument follows similar logic in maintaining that, in addition to God who is a necessary Being, there are other necessary entities, and they include the laws of mathematics and the laws of logic. Laws of mathematics and logic simply exist. Even God, who is a rational Being, must follow these laws. He cannot violate them, the argument continues, and it makes no sense to ask where they came from or what they are grounded in.

Now, if the laws of logic and mathematics can exist without any need for a logical or mathematical lawgiver, the argument continues, why can’t the laws of morality exist in the same way? Why do we need a lawgiver for the moral law but not for logical or mathematical laws? Those who insist on uncoupling morality from God obviously insist that we should understand the laws of morality in the same way that we understand the laws of logic and mathematics. The moral law also exists necessarily and it therefore doesn’t need to be grounded in anything.

I hope you can now appreciate the reason why so many philosophers find this argument in support of the claim that we can make sense of morality without God compelling. But before we offer a response, let’s review the argument briefly. We are simply aware of the laws of morality in the same way we apprehend the laws of mathematics and logic. We responded by saying the question we are answering is not how we come to know about these laws but what they are grounded in. The part of the argument we are considering now is the claim that since these laws are unalterable, non-negotiable, and they exist necessarily, we therefore don’t need to ask where they come from or what they are grounded in. They have always existed, and they will always exist. Even God cannot change them. Now we must respond to this second strand of the argument.

In response to the argument, we begin by noting a couple of things. First, we are now well beyond the boundaries atheists normally draw around the ultimate nature of reality. We are regularly told that all of reality can be fully explained by matter, energy, and the interactions that take place among or within material particles. With the argument we are now considering, the story shifts dramatically. In addition to material particles and energy, we now have an entirely different realm of reality—a reality that consists of abstract entities that exist necessarily and to which human beings are subject. That is no small shift. We now have one foot in the unseen world, where God lives. Exit materialism, to which much of the modern atheistic movement is intricately wedded.

Secondly, the claim that the laws of logic, mathematics, and morality do not need to be grounded in anything since they exist necessarily needs to be defended, not just asserted. Showing that something exists necessarily is not the same thing as showing that it needs no explanation for its existence.

To state the point differently, something can exist necessarily and still require an explanation for its existence. As far as I know, there is no good reason to think that once one shows that something exists necessarily, questions about what explains its existence become irrelevant. As a matter of fact, argues William Lane Craig, such a position can be shown to be false. He writes,

The assumption here seems to be that necessary truths cannot stand to one another in relations of explanatory priority. Not only do I see no reason to think that assumption true, but it strikes me as obviously false. For example, “States of consciousness exist” is necessarily true, since “God exists” is necessarily true. That is to say, the fact that a personal, metaphysically necessary being like God exists explains why it is necessarily true that states of consciousness exist. To give a nontheological example, the axioms of Peano arithmetic are explanatorily prior to “2+2=4”, as are the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory to the theorems thereof.[8]

Consequently, it is not enough for one to point out that the laws of logic, mathematics, and morality exist necessarily. One must also offer valid reasons as to why we should think that they do not need to be grounded in anything and are not in need of any explanation. As Craig puts it, “…if necessary truths can stand to one another in asymmetric relations of explanatory priority, then there is no objection … to holding that moral values exist because God exists.”[9]

Thus one can argue that the laws of mathematics, logic, and morality are all grounded in God. They exist necessarily, but they are also in need of explanation, and that explanation is God. Although much more could be said about this, I would like to pursue a different line of thinking in order to show that the moral law does indeed require a moral lawgiver. I will argue that, even if we grant for the sake of the argument that we don’t need to appeal to God to explain the laws of logic and mathematics, morality is sufficiently different from logic and mathematics to demand a moral lawgiver. Specifically, my claim is that the fact that morality contains within it a normative or obligatory character does indeed presuppose the existence of a lawgiving, transcendent Personal Being. In other words, morality is agent-centered—it requires a thinking being with the authority to issue commands. But before we look at that response in more detail, let us examine briefly the second argument given for the claim that morality is not grounded in God.

2. Does invoking God in morality create more problems than it solves?

At this point, the skeptic has another weapon in his arsenal. For someone who is not philosophically inclined, the subtlety of this argument can easily make it seem quite abstract and irrelevant, not to mention bewildering. So, once again, I implore you to gird up the loins of your mind. We’ve come too far—it’s too late to turn back now!

Here is the argument: If we say that moral obligations are commands that God issues and which He requires us to obey, we must be assuming that we are already obligated to follow God’s commands even before He issues any command at all. In other words, the fact that we have the obligation to obey commands issued by God is itself an obligation that is simply true—it is not one of the commands God issues. You obey God’s commands because you already have the obligation to obey God. God cannot make it the case that you ought to obey the commands He issues if it weren’t already the case that you ought to do so

An example might be helpful here. Suppose you are made aware of the command that you must set aside Wednesday as a holy day and you are to do no work on that day. You ask who issued that command. Would you really feel obligated to do so if you found out that the order to keep the Sabbath on Wednesday came from your next-door neighbor, Bill? I suppose the answer is “No!” You are under no obligation to keep any commands issued by Bill. So, why think that we have the obligation to obey God’s commands but not Bill’s? J.L. Mackie stated the objection as follows:

The commands of a legitimate human ruler do not create obligations: if such a ruler tells you to do X, this makes it obligatory for you to do X only if it is already obligatory for you to do whatever the ruler tells you (within the sphere in which X lies). The same applies to God. He can make it obligatory for us to do Y by so commanding only because there is first a general obligation for us to obey him. His commands, therefore, cannot be the source of moral obligation in general.[10]

We could respond by saying that God has the authority to issue commands, yet a human being, like Bill, doesn’t. Given who God is, I am under his authority and I must obey his commands. The crucial point here is this: Just as Bill cannot make it the case that you ought to obey the commands he issues just by issuing that as a command, God cannot make it the case that you ought to obey Him just by commanding you to do so since, if you are not already obligated to obey Him, you would not need to worry about this command either. You obey his commands because there is an antecedent, independent obligation owed to Him simply because of who He is, whether He has issued any commands or not.

But that creates a problem for our original claim that our obligations are commands issued by God. We have said that God doesn’t need to issue any commands for it to be the case that I am obligated to obey his commands. But if I am already obligated to follow God’s commands before He issues any commands, then it follows that there is at least one obligation that is just true, namely, the obligation to follow any command God issues. Here is the linchpin of the argument: if it is possible for there to be just one moral obligation that is simply true, i.e., one that is independent of any commands issued by God, why can’t we say the same thing about all the other obligations, especially if we concede that moral truths exist necessarily?

If your head is spinning at this point, don’t worry. The argument will become crystal clear to you right before you go to bed, and then you’ll stay up all night wondering how to answer it! If that happens, just come back to the next section of this article for a brief but, I believe, effective response. The first thing to note about the claim being made here is that it can be applied to any moral theory. If we say, for example, that morality is a matter of human convention, then we must assume that we have the prior, independent obligation to obey the directives of the community. If we say that what is right is determined by the majority, then we must suppose that we are obligated to follow the dictates of the majority. Here is how Mark Schroder states this point:

So if [this] argument successfully shows that not all obligations can be explained by God’s commands, then it looks like it must also show that not all obligations can be explained by self-interest, by hypothetical contracts, by what would maximize the good, by what is in accordance with rules no one could reasonably reject, or any other source.[11]

In other words, we are left with no possible way of offering an explanation for the source of our moral obligations.

The skeptic set out to uncouple obligation from God and ended up making the idea of obligation even more mysterious. The reason this has happened is because the attempt to show that obligations do not come from God rests on an equivocation.[12]

Consider these two statements:

We are obligated to do what God commands.
There exists an antecedent obligation to obey whatever God commands.
In order to make the argument against explaining our moral obligations in terms of God’s command work, the skeptic must assume that the second statement above is true. But the theist is not at all committed to the second statement; all the theist needs is for the first statement to be true. There is no antecedent, mysterious obligation that needs to be explained.

The moral of the story thus far is that even the best of the reasons routinely given for thinking that we do not need to appeal to God to ground morality do not succeed. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral lawgiver. But we can strengthen the argument even further by showing that morality, and specifically moral obligation, is both agent-relative (it can only arise in the case of persons) and objective (it transcends human will). If moral obligation is grounded in a person (or persons) and it is not dependent on human beings, then it must be grounded in a supernatural Person, i.e., God.


We normally take it for granted that we have obligations to do or not do certain things. When tragedy strikes, our political leaders invoke this sense of obligation to justify the actions they believe we should support. Speaking about the need for the US to take care of its veterans, President Obama stated, “The bond between our forces and our citizens has to be a sacred trust, and that for me, for my administration, upholding our trust with our veterans is not just a matter of policy, it is a moral obligation.”[13] It’s a common assumption that we have the moral obligation to act in certain ways. Morality binds us, leaving us with no choice in the matter. Shame and guilt are the result of disregarding the dictates of morality.

But as far back as 1958, Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that the concept of moral obligation in Western philosophy has its roots in Christianity, which conceives of ethics, and especially moral obligation, in terms of laws given by God.[14] With the abandonment of Christianity among many in Western philosophy, Anscombe counseled her fellow philosophers to jettison the concept of obligation as well since its metaphysical foundation was no longer plausible for them and talk of obligation has thus become incoherent.

When we consider what it means to say that we have moral obligations or duties, we quickly begin to see the validity of the point that Anscombe was making. The eminent moral theorist John Stuart Mill described the concept of moral duty as follows:

We do not call anything wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it—if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience…. It is a part of the notion of duty in every one of its forms that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt.[15]

JT-24.3-John-Njoroge-DesignNot only are certain things wrong to do, we are prohibited from doing them. Not only are some things good to do, we are required to do them. As Mill notes, duty is something we owe in the same way we owe debts. One is hard-pressed to make sense of owing duties (and debts) to no one in particular. The best way to make sense of talk of duties is in a social context where duties (like debts) are owed to other persons.

In support of the claim that obligation requires agency, Yale philosopher Stephen Darwall argues that neither the moral “ought” nor practical reason is sufficient to bring about obligation. One can have very good reasons to do something morally right and still not be obligated to do it. Accountability and responsibility are also needed, and we are responsible to someone. Darwall notes that such diverse philosophers as Suarez in the late 16th and early 17th century, John Stuart Mill, and Nietzsche have defended this view. He says,

I think it’s a conceptual truth that what we are morally obligated to do is what we are responsible to the moral community for doing. Exactly who is the moral community is itself contestable. Theological voluntarists might believe it is really just God. You and I might believe it is just persons—people who are capable of holding one another morally responsible.[16]

As is evident from the quote, Darwall defends a secularist approach to morality. Similarly, Susan Wolf, another secularist philosopher, points out that it is not enough to say that moral requirements are requirements of morality; that to follow moral obligations is simply to do what morality requires of us. When we demand of people that they live up to their moral duties, “…we mean to say that we require [them to do so] on moral grounds or for moral reasons.”[17] For Wolf, the “we” that stands behind these requirements is the social community. In other words, human beings are the moral community that gives obligation its normative force.

The point made thus far is that moral obligation is a social concept. Accountability makes sense only if we are accountable to other persons. In the next section, we will see that the Person we are ultimately responsible to is God. Since obligation is not only a social concept but also an objective one, the existence of God makes the most sense of our experience of morality. Human societies or communities cannot adequately account for moral obligation.

But it is important to address a common misconception about the normative character of morality in a more direct way. It is often assumed that reason by itself is adequate to give us all we want in terms of knowing and acting upon our moral obligations. What is moral to do, the claim goes, is what is reasonable to do. But although morality is indeed reasonable, the relationship between the two is not as clear cut as the foregoing claim implies. It is one thing to have good reasons to do something and quite another to be obligated to do it. Having reasons to perform an action does not necessarily imbue one with the kind of obligation morality requires.

An illustration given by C. Stephen Evans might be helpful here.[18] Suppose someone is offered, say $5,000, to deliver a lecture he has delivered several times before on an afternoon when he is free and has nothing to lose should he accept the offer. He would have a very good reason to perform that act. But he would not be considered morally blameworthy should he choose to play golf instead. The point, once again, is that having good reasons to do something is not the same thing as being obligated to do it. Alternatively, violating rationality is not the same thing as violating moral obligation. As Robert Adams puts it,

To the extent that I have done something morally wrong, I have something to feel guilty about. To the extent that I have done something irrational, I have merely something to feel silly about—and the latter is much less serious than the former.[19]

The only time when failure to heed the demands of reason bears serious consequences is when there is a moral component involved. For example, an error of calculation in designing a bridge is more serious than getting an answer wrong on an engineering examination. Moral obligation has a certain, distinct characteristic that gives it its compulsive force with blameworthiness or guilt attached to it. Moral obligation has the unique capacity to override any other reasons we may have to do or not to do something. Such a decidedly law-like character of obligation makes sense within a social context where demands or imperatives and accountability are in force. Moral obligation is a social concept: it is based on the assumption that there are persons involved.


So far we have seen that we have good reasons to think that moral obligation is a social concept. As already mentioned, many philosophers agree with this conclusion. Some of those who argue that obligation is a social concept claim that human societies can adequately account for it. It is the society, period, that places moral demands on its individual members. But while it is true that we have obligations that are created by the societies to which we belong, the imperatival force of morality makes it doubtful that appealing to the society can account for the entire range of the obligations we acknowledge.

To begin with, societies often err in prescribing behavior for their members. For example, those who obediently followed the laws issued by the Nazis during the Second World War were indeed carrying out their societal obligations. But their society was gravely mistaken about the obligations morality prescribed for its citizens. This suggests strongly that moral obligations are not decided by the society. They are objective—what we are obligated to do transcends individual or the collective human will, desires, or beliefs. Thus unless there is a law above human law, it is hard to see how we can justify our claim that some things commanded by certain societies are wrong.

Philosopher Joel Marks has argued that obligation does indeed require the existence of God, though he sadly rejects morality instead of seeing it as further evidence for God. He writes,

I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander—whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.[20]

Similarly, Yale law professor Arthur Leff concluded his powerful critique of morality without God with the following words,

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.


Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and

Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us. 21

Secondly, the demands of morality frequently conflict with our self-interests in a way that suggests that they transcend mere individual or societal conventions. If we were solely responsible for assigning moral obligations to ourselves, why would we make them so difficult to fulfill, and why do we keep on trying to meet them when we have proven that we are incapable of doing so perfectly? Why not adjust our obligations to match our practical abilities? Our very struggle in this area shows that we recognize the transcendent, otherworldly source of our moral obligations.

The hound of heaven is ever on our trail. Consider the words of the following poem written by A. E. Housman22

And how am I to face the odds

Of man’s bedevilment and God’s!

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

They will be master, right or wrong;

Though both are foolish, both are strong.

And since, my soul, we cannot fly

To Saturn nor to Mercury.

Keep we must, if keep we can,

These foreign laws of God and man.

The speaker acquiesces to the weight of moral obligation that he finds to be undeniable, even though it is foreign to his preferred mode of existence. Morality doesn’t ask for our permission before placing its burdensome demands on us. How is such compulsion to be justified? Why should one yield to such demands? Christine Korsgaard’s statement in this regard is worth considering:

… the question can become urgent, for the day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question—why?—will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral? 23

In Christian terms, we should be moral because we are moral beings made by a moral God in his image. We find our proper telos or purpose when we become what we were originally intended to be. That process begins in this life and continues on to the next, where it will be fully perfected. Morality doesn’t always keep its promises in this life; not only do nice guys not always finish last—sometimes they don’t finish at all. But if this life is not all there is, then the scales will eventually be evened out, and morality and happiness will one day coincide.


I find it absolutely mystifying that some would choose to deny the reality of morality rather than acknowledge the fact that it indeed points us to God. That is their prerogative, though in the end they will find themselves “without excuse”: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Thankfully, there are many others who have found their way to the cross after pondering the implications of an objective morality that is simply a part of the fabric of the universe. After discussing some of the points I have raised here with a seemingly hardened, lifelong atheist university professor, he completely caught me off-guard by confessing to me that the argument makes his atheism untenable. I have seen students give their lives to Christ when they learn how to think clearly about morality and when they consider what the gospel of salvation has to offer them—not just for this life, but also for the life to come, as we will see at the conclusion of this article.

Moreover, CS Lewis’s classic book Mere Christianity has played an incalculable role in leading many to faith. One of the most compelling sections of his book is the section where he deals with the moral argument for God’s existence. In his autobiography, Chuck Colson recounts the impact the moral argument had on him in his journey to faith as he read Lewis’s book,

As a lawyer I was impressed by Lewis’s arguments about moral law, the existence of which he demonstrates is real, and which has been perceived with astonishing consistency in all times and places. It has not been man, I saw for the first time, that has perpetuated moral law; it has survived despite man’s best attempts to defeat it. Its long existence therefore presupposes some other will behind it. 24

Similarly, Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health, recalls his reaction to the moral argument as presented by CS Lewis:

The hard part for me [as an atheist] was the idea of a personal God, who has an interest in humankind. And the argument that Lewis made there—the one that I think was most surprising, most earth-shattering, and most life-changing—is the argument about the existence of the moral law. How is it that we, and all other members of our species, unique in the animal kingdom, know what’s right and what’s wrong? In every culture one looks at, that knowledge is there. Where did that come from? 25

The Christian has a ready and compelling answer to the question: morality comes from a God who made us in his image and who makes it possible for us to apprehend and apply morality to our lives. Christianity makes an empirically verifiable diagnosis of our spiritual condition; we have broken God’s law. We are at odds with a system of morality that we did not invent, and we stand condemned. But Christianity does much more. It offers a solution to the human condition through the Cross of Christ. At the cross, God marvelously honors his justice while demonstrating his infinite love at the very same moment. And, finally, the Word of God promises that we will one day be made morally perfect. At that point, morality will no longer be a subject of debate—we will just live it out the way we breathe oxygen today, only without the threat of air pollution. Imagine that: we will one day live beyond right and wrong!


In addition to accounting for the objectivity and agent-centeredness of moral obligation, Christianity fulfills and complements morality itself in ways naturalism can never hope to do. When we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we fail to keep the moral law that we know exists. And our failure to keep it is more than just a matter of ignorance; it bears the marks of what the Bible calls rebellion against God. As a result, we all stand in need of forgiveness. The Bible thus offers both an accurate diagnosis of the human heart as well as the solution for our primary malady.

In a chillingly profound passage, atheist philosopher Joel Marks makes the following observation:

Philosophical ethics [has become] the pursuit of grounds independent of either God’s fiat or God’s instruction for telling the difference between what we should do and what we should not do. Thus, ironically, secular ethics seeks to replicate the religious origin of sin (of wresting the knowledge of good and evil from God’s providence).26

Did you catch that? Marks says that the philosopher’s struggle to account for morality without God is reminiscent of the account of the fall of humanity in the Old Testament book of Genesis, which offers an explanation for the origin of human evil. In Genesis 3:4-5, the serpent assures Adam and Eve that they are mistaken to let God define right and wrong for them. He says to them, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

What the Tempter meant was not that Adam and Eve would know about good or evil or that some things were wrong to do. They must have known that already, or the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would not have made any sense to them. What the Tempter meant was that Adam and Eve did not need to let God define good and evil for them; they could determine that for themselves. Marks detects the same spirit in the denial of God’s place in morality in contemporary philosophical ethics. When that happens, we become incapable of appreciating and appropriating the power of the gospel in our lives. This gospel is the forgiveness of sin and the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross—revealing also that human beings are morally at odds with God’s righteousness.

But the hope offered in the gospel message goes well beyond morality. In Christian terms, merely recognizing and even keeping the moral law is ultimately beside the point; one of the key goals of the biblical call to righteousness is to be transformed to become like God’s Son (see Romans 8:29). When we have achieved the status for which we were made, morality will cease to occupy the central place it does in our day-to-day lives. In a world where perfection reigns and where all types of sin are completely absent, talk of “right,” “wrong,” “duty,” etc., would at best be forgotten altogether or be mildly entertaining. As George Mavrodes notes, a theistic view of the world “gives morality a deeper place in the world than does a [naturalistic] world and thus permits it to ‘make sense.’” Perhaps it also “suggests that morality is not the deepest thing, that it is provisional and transitory, that it is due to serve its use and then to pass away in favor of something richer and deeper.” 27

Similarly, CS Lewis penned these profound words:

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. 28

When we complain about evil, we do indeed presuppose the reality of the good. Good and evil invoke an objective standard of right and wrong. Such a standard in turn points us to the God who made us, not just so we can recognize and apply morality to our lives in this life, but so that we can actually enter into an intimate relationship with God and a process of discipleship in his kingdom that begins to prepare us for the noblest existence possible: being in God’s presence forever. We know that we flout not only God’s standards, but also our own. How wonderful to know that forgiveness and eventually eternal restoration are available for people like us. What an incredible promise: that one day we will be able to live beyond right and wrong!

John Njoroge is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and wrote his PhD on this subject.

[1] I am convinced the reverse is also true: most people do not reject the faith due to arguments. They develop arguments to defend a position they’ve already accepted on other grounds.

[2] Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany Galileo, 1615.

[3] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 182.

[4] I should note that in this article I use the terms “morality” and “ethics” interchangeably.

[5] GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994), 11.

[6] Louise Anthony, “The Failure of Moral Arguments,” in Debating Christian Theism, edited by JP Moreland, et. al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 110-111.

[7] Erik J. Wielenberg, “In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 26 no. 1 (January 2009), 24.

[8] William Lane Craig, “The Most Gruesome of Guests” in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?, ed. Robert Garcia and Nathan L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 170.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted in Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 2014), 157.

[11] Mark Schroder, “Cudworth and Normative Explanations,” in Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 3 (October 2005), 4.

[12] For an extended discussion, please see Schroder’s article and Copan and Flannagan’s relevant section in their book.

[13] See

[14] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” in Philosophy, 33, no. 124 (January 1958).

[15] John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism” (originally published in 1861), in Hackett edition, 1979, 47-48. It is important to note that duty, or obligation, holds even when no punishment is intended. All that is needed is for there to be a person with the authority to issue a command.

[16] Stephen Darwall, “The Second-Person Standpoint,” in The Harvard Review of Philosophy, vol. XVI 2009, 125.

[17] Susan Wolf, “Moral Obligations and Social Commands,” in Metaphysics and the Good: Themes From the Philosophy of Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 351.

[18] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 9-10.

[19] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 238.

[20] Joel Marks, “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist,”

21 Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1979, No. 6, 1249, online at

22 A.E. Housman (1859-1936), “The Laws of God, The Laws of Man.”

23 Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9.

24 Chuck Colson, Born Again (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008), 134.

25 See

26 Joel Marks, Ethics without Morals: In Defence of Amorality (Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory) (Kindle Locations 412-414). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

27 George Mavrodes, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality” in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 213-226.

28 CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 132.

Courtesy of



Acknowledging the Almighty: The Foundation of American Law

Building a wall of separation between law and morality, between God and government, severs the Constitution of the United States from its transcendent roots: the moral law origin of natural rights embodied in the Constitution as the basis for civil and religious liberties.

    This is a secular wall of division.

    Not recognizing government officials’ expression of their Christian values in the public arena as a constitutionally-protected activity under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, in effect allows discrimination against Christianity in the name of the Establishment Clause, while at the same time denying that any such discrimination is occurring.

    Such privatization of Christian belief–saying that a public official can believe, yet cannot act on his thoughts in his public actions (a sort of “faith without works”)–is grounded on a two-fold legal, historical, and philosophical assumption:

    (1)    It assumes that only one jurisprudential philosophy is valid: legal positivism.

    And (2)    It assumes that the United States’ judicial system was founded on this legal positivism.

    Both statements 1) and 2) are demonstrably false.

     The United States was founded on the other legal philosophy: moral law.  And an opinion denying (explicitly or implicitly) the existence or validity of that moral law, is of course contrary to the moral law itself.

    God’s Biblical moral law is the source for American morality-based codes (the societal codes that undergird and legitimize secular law).  Thus in theory, such a code cannot deny its own source.

Crucified on the Three-Prong Test

    A 21st-century problem is: Religion is not being judged by the standard of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment; it is instead being judged by the “three-prong test” standard laid out in a judicial opinion, Lemon v. Kurtzman (Supreme Court of the United States) (1971).

    This is subjecting the Constitution itself to a rigorous judicial “religious test”–like a tripartite “cross” on the back of Christianity that burdens religious liberty.  Numerous products of the Christian worldview (including Christian values that give rise to motives for legislation and other acts of public officials) sometimes are judicially “condemned” on the basis of one or more of Lemon‘s three prongs.  What some secularists claim to be “encouragement” or “favoritism” toward a religion, may be just acts upholding the validity of the moral law which verifies secular law.

    Thus the Lemon test can be used to “expand” the Establishment Clause to encompass more than religious denomination(s) in its net: Such use also envelopes the jurisprudential philosophy upon which judging itself is based.  Any deviation from the legal positivism favored by secularists is labeled “theocracy”, and that legal philosophy of secularism (the philosophy prevailing in secular nations’ legal systems) is dubbed with the exclusive label of “the law”.  Judges who adhere to the legal philosophy upon which the United States’ Constitution was based, are said by secularists to be “establishing religion”.  That’s what is meant by the assertion in Pretexts and Commandments that the issue is really historical, not religious.  The Establishment Clause is being used to stray outside the religious realm.  And “rewriting” Early American legal history in the process.

    Really, the doctrine of separating law and morality is but a “reinvented” form of the political philosophy that American Revolutionaries Samuel West (1776) and Samuel Stillman (1779) defined as unlimited passive obedience to the higher (secular) powers–which in seventeenth-century European history undergirded the doctrine of the “divine right of kings”.

    The view that judges can “make” the Constitution say things against its inherent principles, to say whatever they want it to evolve to be–this is not democratic or republican.

Stuck with a Lemon

    The contrast between a European government in the early modern era suppressing religious liberty by placing restrictions on religious worship–even to the extent of forbidding ministers to preach–and government acknowledging, “We are going to follow God’s standard of justice, and to make that clear, we are going to recognize God as the ultimate Sovereign authority, by saying ‘One Nation Under God’ or its equivalent,” provides one reason why the Lemon test should be abandoned in constitutional jurisprudence.

    United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said in Part III of their dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987):

    Our cases interpreting and applying the [Lemon] purpose test have made such a maze of the Establishment Clause that even the most conscientious governmental officials can only guess what motives will be held unconstitutional.

[* * * * *]

I think it time that we sacrifice some “flexibility” for “clarity and predictability.”  Abandoning Lemon‘s purpose test–a test which exacerbates the tension between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, has no basis in the language or history of the [First] Amendment, and, as today’s decision shows, has wonderfully flexible consequences–would be a good place to start.

Right of Conscience vs. Divine Right of Kings

   Public officials should be protected from suffering their consciences to be impinged–because they, of all people, are entrusted with upholding the true foundations of American ordered liberty, its Constitutional Republic based on moral law values.

    Before the American Revolution, in 17th and 18th-century Anglo-American history, a non-Anglican (“dissenting”) governor had to be resolute, strong, and firm, in order to walk the fine line between placating his English (and often, Church of England) superiors while at the same time trying to safeguard the liberties of the American people.  (Many governors were Anglicans (members of the Church of England).)

    One governor who was not Anglican was Governor Jonathan Belcher (January 8, 1682-August 31, 1757).  When he became governor of the twin colonies of Massachusetts and New Hampshire (at that time joined under one governorship) in 1730, the English Test Act of 1672, which affirmed the establishment of the Church of England, required such a royal governor to submit to a religious test in order to attain the gubernatorial office (held from 1730 to 1741)–even though Governor Belcher was a Puritan.  He attended a variety of church services during his lifetime: mostly Puritan congregational, but occasionally he attended Presbyterian, Anglican, and Quaker services from time to time.  (Non-Anglicans–Puritan congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc.–were classified as Dissenters from the Established Church of England.)

    Though Puritan Governor Belcher tolerated the Church of England, his heart literally belonged to dissenters persecuted for conscience’ sake: Both Governor Belcher’s beloved first wife (Mary Partridge) and his beloved second wife (Mary Louisa Emilia Teale) were Quakers.  Such a marriage between a Puritan and a Quaker showed uncommon tolerance of religious views for that time period, since Quakers (members of the Society of Friends) had been among the most persecuted of Christian groups.  Quakers’ main political strongholds in the colonies, where they were particularly numerous, were Pennsylvania and New Jersey–perhaps one reason why Jonathan Belcher was selected to be governor of New Jersey in 1746.

    New Jersey’s Governor Belcher showed friendly respect to Quaker ministers like Samuel Fothergill.  Governor Belcher helped arrange and attended a meeting that Fothergill held in a Presbyterian church in the New Jersey capital.  Following this meeting, the two gentlemen enjoyed a cordial dinner together.  In his prior governorship of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher had promoted a bill (which he signed into law) giving greater tolerance to Quakers for the sake of liberty of conscience.  Such an act was simply amazing, considering that era of Anglo-American history.

    In sharp contrast was the treatment dissenters received at the hands of New York’s Governor Cornbury, who favored the Established Church.  In New York, Francis Makemie (c.1658-1708) of Virginia, the “Father of American Presbyterianism”, defied Cornbury when that governor refused to give him a license to preach in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1707.  Makemie preached, anyway, in a private home.  Irate Governor Cornbury arrested Makemie for preaching without his permission, jailed him for over six weeks, and put him on trial.  Rather than focusing on the applicable statute (under which Makemie was not subject to punishment), Cornbury asserted the authority of the governor’s royal instructions (the executive prerogative).  (Cornbury claimed the English Toleration Act of 1689 didn’t apply to his colony, thus depriving Makemie of his defense.)  Cornbury’s exercise of power did not prevail over the rule of law (either English or colonial) because Makemie was acquitted by the jury.  His acquittal proved to be a great victory for religious liberty (synonymous with liberty of conscience), as his case put a stop to the coercive suppression of dissenting Christian preaching in New York.  Religious liberty, by the way, was a totally different concept than 21st-century secularists’ concept of “separation of church and state”.

    Religious liberty actually has been stood on its head in 21st-century America: Liberty of conscience previously meant equal participation in the public square, in terms of dissenters receiving fair and non-arbitrary treatment through legislation or other government acts.  Arbitrariness like Cornbury’s was real coercion–which was not equivalent to “mere offense” at the sight of seeing, for instance, a Ten Commandments monument.  In no way can voluntarily saying “under God” or placing the moral law in the public square be equated with coercing anyone to worship a certain religion in the same manner as persecuted dissenters were once excluded from preaching.   To suggest equivalence between the two is to redefine the dictionary definition of “coercion”.

    As United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) said in 1833, when read in context:

    […] [T]he duty of [government] supporting religion, and especially the Christian religion, is very different from the right to force the consciences of other men, or to punish them for worshipping God in the manner, which, they believe, their accountability to him requires.  It has been truly said, that “religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be dictated only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”  Mr. [John] Locke himself, who did not doubt the right of government to interfere in matters of religion, and especially to encourage Christianity, has at the same time expressed his opinion of the right of private judgment, and liberty of conscience, in a manner becoming his character, as a sincere friend of civil and religious liberty.  [***]

    It was religious tests like the English Test Act of 1672 that were establishments of religion.  It was tests like these that the United States Constitution’s Article VI and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause sought to prevent.  The goal of the Constitution was not to forbid a public official from upholding public morality as defined by moral law.  (Moral law philosophy is implicit in the Constitution itself–and the Constitution should not go against itself or its moral law source.)

    A beautiful statement of the moral law basis for natural rights (i.e., acknowledging the Almighty) was said in pre-Revolutionary America by Benjamin Stevens of Kittery (then in Massachusetts), who married Mary Remington (1718-1763), a descendant of Governor Jonathan Belcher’s aunt Martha Belcher Remington.  Echoing a view that the governor also shared, “nephew Stevens” (as the governor called him) wrote in 1761:

    All power is originally from God, and civil government [is] His institution [….]  Civil power ought therefore ever to be employed agreeable to the nature and will of the Supreme Sovereign and Guardian of all our rights.

    Interestingly, the jurisprudence of moral law was an issue Jonathan Belcher had to face as he assumed his new governorship of New Jersey in 1747.  By promising fairness (a Christian principle) to a New Jersey group asserting the “principles of natural justice”, Governor Belcher restored peace to New Jersey and maintained the rule of law.  (Governor Belcher wrote: “[…] in answer I told them that it was my duty and my peremptory resolution to support the King’s authority and that offenders and breakers of the public peace would bring themselves under the lash of the law–and withal I spoke kindly and assured them they should have my countenance and protection in all things consistent with reason and justice–soft words turn away wrath but the wringing of the nose brings forth blood–and I think this sore is at present in a likely way to be healed.”)  In so doing, Governor Belcher acted on the basis of his Christian principles; he actually quoted a Bible verse (Proverbs 30:33) (he knew the Bible so well that he could spontaneously quote it by heart and did so quite frequently–a practice noticed by some secular-minded historians).

    Governor Belcher told the New Jersey legislature, regarding the justice-seeking New Jersey group:  “I am persuaded, Gentlemen, that to keep this matter at a distance or as the trite saying is to put far off the evil day cannot consist with the ends of good government,” and then went on to propose that when people are “yet unsatisfied they have a dernier [appeal] to his Majesty in Council where they will find freedom of access, their case heard with great patience and finally closed according to the strictest rules of reason, law and equity.”

    The New Jersey advocates of natural equity praised Governor Belcher for his adherence to the principles of “God’s Law”:

And as Your Excellency hath had among us the name and character of a good ruler; with all thankfulness we accept it as a mark of his Majesty’s royal favor to us, in sending Your Excellency to preside among, and over us; for whose accession, we humbly offer our congratulations; trusting God is favouring us with such a blessing viz. one acquainted with the rules of righteousness; and who will act in concert therewith in all administrations relating to causes, without respect of persons; a student in God’s Law and who will consult a good conscience, and what may be pleasing to God, in making and establishing laws, (being far from framing mischief thereby, as too many do,) and who in executing the laws of men will not give judgement for such as cross the Commandments of God; one who can never take comfort in the misery of the subjects, but contrarywise; eyeing them as children, and accordingly endeavouring they may have and lead their lives in quietness and peace; and who will (to this end) see to, that men enjoy their rights, liberties and properties without oppression or molestation; […]   [***]  We declare we have acted only (as we thought our duty) in defense of our own, and poor (yet we believe honest) neighbor’s rights, liberties and properties who together with many both their and our families (by what we call unjust molestation and even virulent oppression) were like to suffer ruin.  We humbly take leave to hope and pray your Excellency may be the blessed and happy instrument, under God and our King for the repairing of our breaches and restoring of our paths to dwell and walk in, that righteousness and equity may be done unto, and for men; [….]

    Governor Belcher’s belief in fair and impartial justice was a masterful exercise–a shining example–of Christian principles in government.

    It is unfortunate that public officials are discouraged from explicitly acting on that basis in the 21st century.  During the 18th century, dissenters whose consciences did not permit them to take the church sacrament required by the English Test Act were effectively excluded (self-prohibited by their own consciences) from attaining public office.  And likewise, one’s values can in effect subject one to a type of religious test if the explicit or implicit prohibition works the same effect as a religious test.   The same is true whenever, in order to attain or hold a public office, a public official is required to deny the sovereignty of God–to reject the idea that he should be subject to God’s higher law.  He is being asked, in essence, to submit to a denial of the exercise of his Christian worldview.

Double Standard

   United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had this to say in a case involving a public appointee who “was refused a commission to serve because he would not declare his belief in God”:

    When our Constitution was adopted, the desire to put the people “securely beyond the reach” of religious test oaths brought about the inclusion in Article VI of that document of a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI supports the accuracy of our observation in Girouard v. United States, 328 U.S. 61, 69, that “[t]he test oath is abhorrent to our tradition.”  Not satisfied, however, with Article VI and other guarantees in the original Constitution, the First Congress proposed and the States very shortly thereafter adopted our Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.  [***]

[* * * * *]

The fact […] that a person is not compelled to hold public office cannot possibly be an excuse for barring him from office by state-imposed criteria forbidden by the Constitution.  This was settled by our holding in Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183.  We there pointed out that whether or not “an abstract right to public employment exists,” Congress could not pass a law providing “‘… that no federal employee shall attend Mass or take any active part in missionary work.'”  [***]

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 489, 491-492, 495-496 (1961) (BLACK, J.) (emphasis added).

    Even in situations not involving the issues of pro-life, creation science, theological studies, prayer by public officials, crosses on government seals, inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or displays of the Decalogue, the religious test situation can come up.

    What is the difference between a public official verbally or symbolically acknowledging the moral foundation of law, and him or her applying that moral foundation as a basis for official decisions?  The answer is: None!

    Christian officials have a worldview, like everyone else–liberal, secular judges included.  And everyone’s actions and decisions are based on their beliefs, which determine their workstyle.  Liberal secularists act according to their worldview all the time; that’s why their decisions read the way they do.  Secularism’s tenets are materialism and naturalism (the philosophical bases for evolutionary philosophy (it’s not a true science)–moral relativism (not seeking absolute truth as the objective standard)–and subjectivism (deciding things according to one’s personal feelings about them).  Yet they, in turn, expect Christians to not apply the Biblical worldview in making decisions.   That is a double standard.

Moral Law Verifies Secular Law:

American Jurisprudence Historically

Protects and Upholds Moral Law Definitions

    “[…] Congress could not pass a law providing ‘”… that no federal employee shall attend Mass or take any active part in missionary work.”‘ “

   Note the words of Justice Black.  And the implication: Christians cannot be forbidden the practice of their faith.  And for sincere Christians, lifetime practice of the Christian worldview is very much a part of–indeed, is the total expression of–their Christian faith.

    The concept of the religious test has been stood on its head in 21st-century America.  In the days of “divine right of kings”, the oath was to the established government denomination (i.e., the Church of England).  However, in these 21st-century days of the “divine right of secularism”, there is an increasing trend to apply a disguised religious test–excluding sincere Christians of Biblical conviction from public positions if they won’t pass the secular “litmus tests” that intersect with and impinge upon Christian values and principles–thus requiring public officials to go against their consciences in order to keep their jobs.

    Included within this trend is an objection to legislation simply because the statute’s promoter(s) are enacting Christian values through it.  A case in point was Edwards v. Aguillard (Supreme Court of the United States) (1987), in which a Louisiana legislator sponsored what became a statute to allow equal time for teaching creation science whenever evolution was taught in the public schools.  The statute was struck down by the United States Supreme Court on the basis of the legislature’s Christian motive in enacting the statute.  (See Justice Scalia’s dissent.)  Really, the statute was about the balanced presentation of scientific evidence (evidence for Intelligent Design has been shown to be the most scientifically logical view, whereas the roots of Darwinism are progressively being discredited–on the basis of scientific evidence).

    The Christian motive behind the balanced treatment statute was fairness.  Creation science didn’t have to be taught if the school didn’t teach evolution; it was only when evolution was taught that equal opportunity for countervailing scientific evidence was sought.

    The Bible is filled with life and happiness-giving equality before the law (the following is the true definition of it):

“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.'” (Leviticus 19:15)

    Note that Jesus’ famous summation of God’s law was actually written in the law itself:

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the LORD.'”  (Leviticus 19:18)

    Therefore, the figure that holds the impartial scales of justice, representing impartiality and equal justice under the law, is not the “goddess” Themis; it is the One True God.  The impartial scales are His, and His alone.

    He gives the people the power to consent to join together in a social compact, make a constitution, and transfer the power of the people to elected officials.  But ultimately, one has to recognize the power originally came from God and thus is subject to His higher law (“one nation under God“).   It is only to be exercised in accordance with His purposes and definitions.

    So actually, all our democratic Constitutional rights flow from this source.  Impartiality, fairness, equality, humanity bearing the image of the Creator: these are the fundamental bases for our civil and religious liberties–within the moral law’s definitions for natural rights.  (True “civil rights” are natural rights–as in moral law rights–not whatever people decide they want them to be.  Thus, people’s consciences are constrained by moral law definitions: this is ordered liberty within the constitutional system.)

    Government is the pillar of the earth, and God is the pillar of government.

    In 1779, Dr. Samuel Stillman (a supporter, as was Samuel West, of both the Massachusetts Constitution and the Constitution of the United States) wrote in The Duty of Magistrates (excerpted from the longer text):

    Some of those principles which, I apprehend, may be called fundamental, have been mentioned; to which I beg leave to subjoin:

    That the great end for which men enter into a state of civil society is their own advantage.

    That civil rulers, as they derive their authority from the people, so they are accountable to them for the use they make of it.

    That elections ought to be free and frequent.

    That representation should be as equal as possible.

    That as all men are equal by nature, so, when they enter into a state of civil government, they are entitled precisely to the same rights and privileges, or to an equal degree of political happiness.

    That some of the natural rights of mankind are unalienable, and subject to no control but that of the Deity.  Such are the SACRED RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE; which, in a state of nature and of civil society, are exactly the same.  They can neither be parted with nor controlled by any human authority whatever.

    Subjecting legislators, governors, presidents, judges, and other public officials to implicit religious tests through an absolutist view of legal positivism, exclusively (a “divine right of secularism”), would effectively sever law from its moral base.

    Indeed, such a separation is not required by the Federal Constitution.  Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 341-342 (1890) (Field, J., writing for the Supreme Court of the United States), said the following (with emphasis added):

The term “religion” has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will.  It is often confounded with the cultus or form of worship of a particular sect, but is distinguishable from the latter.  The first amendment to the Constitution, in declaring that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or forbidding the free exercise thereof, was intended to allow every one under the jurisdiction of the United States to entertain such notions respecting his relations to his Maker and the duties they impose as may be approved by his judgment and conscience, and to exhibit his sentiments in such form of worship as he may think proper, not injurious to the equal rights of others, and to prohibit legislation for the support of any religious tenets, or the modes of worship of any sect.  The oppressive measures adopted, and the cruelties and punishments inflicted by the governments of Europe for many ages, to compel parties to conform, in their religious beliefs and modes of worship, to the views of the most numerous sect, and the folly of attempting in that way to control the mental operations of persons, and enforce an outward conformity to a prescribed standard, led to the adoption of the amendment in question.  It was never intended or supposed that the amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order and morals of society.  With man’s relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his belief on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with.  [* * *]

    Included within “the obligations [a person] may think [man’s relations to his Maker] impose” is the maintenance of Christian principles, in all arenas of life, including the public square.  Religion simply cannot be “privatized” in the way that secularists wish it to be.

    Note that Justice Field, writing in 1890, does not advocate a separation between law and morality: rather, “the laws of society” should “secure […] the morals of its people”.

    The same was said in 1776, in 1779, and in 1833.

    The Bible was the Founders’ “political textbook”.   

    In 1860, historian John Wingate Thornton wrote (emphasis has been added) regarding the Massachusetts constitution adopted in 1780:

Their [the constitutional framers’] political ideas were happily expressed by the device on the bills of public credit, of August 18, 1775, which was the figure of an American, with a sword in his right hand, bearing Algernon Sydney’s celebrated line, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” and in his left hand Magna Charta; around the figure, “Issued in Defence of American Liberty.”  This, modified, is emblazoned on the shield of the “Commonwealth;” the motto is still retained; and thus Massachusetts displays in her state arms a memento of the cost of her liberty, and in the legend a perpetual memorial of her historical and political fellowship with that eminent school of republican statesmen of which Sydney, with Russell, was the glory, and whose “Discourses on Government” was, next after the Bible, the political text-book of the fathers of the Republic.

    The shared Anglo-American Christian and constitutional heritage was stated directly in a work titled God Arising and Pleading His People’s Cause; Or the American War in Favor of Liberty, Against the Measures and Arms of Great Britain, Shown to Be the Cause of God (1777), by American patriot Abraham Keteltas (1732-1798) of New York City, who ministered in Elizabethtown, New Jersey from 1757-1760–the town where Governor Belcher lived from November 1751-1757.  (Incidentally, Keteltas was married to Sarah Smith, a cousin of William Peartree Smith (1723-1801), one of Governor Belcher’s best friends.)  Keteltas said that “the cause of this American continent” was also the cause of “the rights of mankind”.   The principles animating the American Revolution were liberty, truth, and righteousness.  Indeed, they were the same “excellent” constitutional principles upon which Great Britain herself had fought for liberty in the past–especially during the Glorious Revolution that brought William III, Prince of Orange-Nassau, to the British throne, through the “votes of a free Parliament”.   (This was one reason why Governor Belcher named Princeton College’s building “Nassau Hall” (originally to have been named Belcher Hall). 

    Keteltas directly stated that the “rule” of the “universal righteousness” for which America stood was the “moral law, or the ten commandments”.  He identified the principles of those commandments as including, among other things, “universal love, benevolence, compassion, humanity, peace, and righteousness” together with the impartial administration of justice.  The moral law “commands magistrates to be a terror to evil doers and a praise to them that do well”.

    Another American patriot who thought much the same was Dr. Samuel Cooper (1725-1783), friend of Governor Belcher.   When Cooper visited the governor’s house in Burlington, New Jersey, Governor Belcher wrote on his birthday, January 8, 1751, about conversing with Samuel and forming a high opinion of him.  Praising Samuel’s sermon that was preached to a large church gathering at Perth Amboy, the governor declared Samuel to be a valuable asset to his country–as indeed he later proved to be, during the American Revolution.

    In A Sermon on the Day of the Commencement of the [Massachusetts] Constitution (1780) (preached before Governor John Hancock, first signer of the Declaration of Independence), Dr. Samuel Cooper, like the Massachusetts motto itself, quoted English political philosopher Algernon Sidney.  Sidney thought ancient Israel’s constitution was established by God and “‘so far as it respects civil and religious liberty in general, ought to be regarded as a solemn recognition from the Supreme Ruler Himself of the rights of human nature'”.  In Cooper’s eyes, also, the American political philosophy was “to be found in the immortal writings of Sidney and Locke” and other liberty-loving (predominantly English) writers.  They were “the principles” of William III’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which had produced the English Toleration Act of 1689)–principles upheld by “reason and Scripture” (moral law and revealed law).

“Powers Only to Do Good”

   However, as Dr. Cooper noted, the Massachusetts Constitution embodied “powers only to do good”:

How effectually it makes the people the keepers of their own liberties, with whom they are certainly safest.  How nicely it poises the powers of government in order to render them, as far as human foresight can, what God ever designed they should be, powers only to do good.  How happily it guards on the one hand against anarchy and confusion, and on the other against tyranny and oppression [….] [***] [W]hat a broad foundation for the exercise of the rights of conscience is laid in this constitution!

    But the good is contained in the Divine Source of the human rule of law built into the constitutional system of government.  Cooper said, of the Massachusetts Constitution: “It considers, indeed, morality and the public worship of God as important to the happiness of society.  [***]  […] [T]he public worship of God has a tendency to inculcate the principles thereof, as well as to preserve a people from forsaking civilization and falling into a state of savage barbarity.”

    There is indeed an inseparable connection between morality and good government.  Forget that, said Cooper, and the nation returns to barbarism:

    Our civil rulers will remember: that as piety and virtue support the honor and happiness of every community, they are peculiarly requisite in a free government.  Virtue is the spirit of a republic–for where all power is derived from the people, all depends on their good disposition.  If they […] are lost to the fear of God […], all is lost.   Having got beyond the restraints of a Divine authority, they will not brook the control of laws enacted by rulers of their own creating.

(Emphasis added).

    Cooper warned: “We have a government free indeed–but, after all, it remains with the people, under God, to make it an honorable and happy one.”

    A nation based on pre-existing natural rights is under God.  That is why “under God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance, and why the United States has “In God We Trust” on its money.  As Dr. Cooper stated, the public worship of God”–not the private worship, but the public worship–is what “inculcate[s] the principles” so necessary for a right ordering of society.

    As Justice Joseph Story said in 1833:  “It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape.”

    Dr. Samuel Cooper’s sermon implied grounds for displaying a “monumental stone” acknowledging the Almighty:

    Cooper saw “a striking resemblance” between the “circumstances” of the Early American republic and the circumstances of the “ancient Israelites, a nation chosen by God”.  This resemblance largely consisted of a direct parallel between the American constitutional system and “[t]he form of government originally established in the Hebrew nation by a charter from Heaven, [which] was that of a free republic, over which God Himself, in peculiar favor to the people, was pleased to preside.”   The Ten Commandments were this ancient “constitution”.  This ancient Israelite government was tripartite, consisting of a “chief magistrate”, a council, and “general assemblies of the people”.  These legislative assemblies selected by the people were “considered as the fountain of civil power”.  The moral law “was not imposed” upon the people of ancient Israel; rather, “they freely adopted it, and it became their law, not only by divine appointment, but by their own voluntary and express consent”.  That’s why, said Cooper, the Scripture called the Divine Law a “compact”.  (Here Cooper was saying nothing different than what West and Stillman had previously said.)  Obviously, what the American Revolutionaries thought they were forming by entering into the social compact based upon the will of the people was an American government based upon the Divine moral law, a direct parallel of the ancient government of Israel.

    Cooper said the Massachusetts Constitution was “granted to us by Heaven”, and Cooper called it the “sacred compact”.  In this context, Cooper recounted the story of Joshua, the chief magistrate of Israel, who made a compact with his people, and, after recording the compact, he “at the same time erected a monumental stone” as a “memorial of these sacred stipulations and as a perpetual testimony that the Supreme Ruler Himself had not established their polity without their own free concurrence”.   This compact, Cooper called a “civil and religious constitution” established by the consent of the people, who were “governed by laws” enacted by the people’s will–in other words, a republic governed by the rule of law.   

Acknowledging the Almighty:

Moral Law Definitions Validate Constitutional Liberties

   From the definition of religion given in Davis v. Beason: “one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will”–one can infer a reason why the Establishment Clause and the Lemon test (and its companion, the “endorsement” test) should not be invoked–for instance–to strike down a Ten Commandments monument in a government building: The monument represents not each individual’s views of spiritual obligations, but rather of government’s acknowledgment that the laws of that nation or state (as a government entity) are based on the supremacy of the moral law over the political and legal system.  (Thus, a government building is actually the proper place for such a monument or display; placing it in a private museum, for instance, doesn’t serve the same purpose, and actually sends the message that the moral law is “privatized”.)  It’s government’s obligations to the Creator that are represented by the monument: government’s “obedience to his will” as the source and legitimacy of the will of the people in a democracy (the social compact).

    As Justice Joseph Story said in 1833:

The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion; the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues;–these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community.  It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them.  And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity, as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects.  This is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.

    “We the people” founded our government on the Biblical concepts of justice, fairness, equality, and God-given right to life.  Since these Biblical values form the basis of Christianity, historic crosses, for a similar reason, should be allowed to remain on government symbols or displays.  Christian values give the political legitimacy to form the social compact that forms the basis of rights in American constitutional society.

    In that way, God is in the United States Constitution.  We can recognize His principles–if only we live up to them.


Courtesy of Belcher foundationa at http://www.belcherfoundation.og/acknowledging_the_almighty.htm