Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lack of Laws or Edwards' Morality?

You can't legislate morality.

You want proof?  Here it is:  you can't prosecute immorality.

The acquittal today of disgraced senator John Edwards on one count and a hung jury on five more represents yet another misguided attempt to hang a politician by his belt - or perhaps, his lack of one that got him in trouble in the first place.

Edwards, a Democrat, was found guilty on one charge of violating a technicality in our complex campaign finance laws.  Conservatives were hoping to send him to the slammer for fudging and lying about an affair that produced an offspring, both of which Edwards vehemently denied while he was running for President in 2008.  Oh yes - and all while his longsuffering wife was battling cancer.

Ostensibly, the government prosecuted this case based on the altruistic claim that laws had been broken during Edwards' campaign, and justice needed to prevail.  On its face, that's reason enough to bring a defendant into a court of law.  Although breaking a law is indeed immoral, a campaign finance law is a quantifiable entity that can be either proven or disproved based on objective criteria.  As we saw today, apparently the government didn't even have enough of that objective criteria to nail Edwards on more of the counts against him.

Courting Laws?

From how this case has been reported, it appears the government was banking on the sensational influence of subjective evidence to sway the jury.  Prosecutors made a great deal of the former candidate's unfaithfulness to his sick wife, but in the end, while it wasn't irrelevant to their case, they couldn't prove it was incontrovertibly pertinent to the legal code they accused Edwards of violating.

Of course, we don't need anybody to prove that Edwards is a cad, a miserable father to his illegitimate daughter, an adulterer, or a liar.  But unfortunately, none of those things are illegal, for the simple reason that they can't be legislated against.  Well, perhaps somebody could make a law outlawing adultery, but it would be like Prohibition - and look how effective liquor laws were.

Maybe in the coming days, we'll learn more from the jurors in this case about their deliberations, and the sticking points over which they couldn't all agree.  Even Edwards' defense team never bothered to deny that he was having an affair, that he played shell games with a wealthy donor's money, and that he lied about the paternity of his lover's daughter.  But hardly any of it was illegal - only one charge was proven to be so.

And it's quite possible that the technicality in campaign finance law on which the jury convicted Edwards is a common technicality that many politicians violate.  It's just that Edwards got caught.  Perhaps if he hadn't been so irresponsible with his libido, he wouldn't have found himself needing to violate any campaign finance laws in the first place.  But by then, it wasn't just federal law he was violating, but God's.

God's moral law.  The same law with which Republicans tried to dethrone President Bill Clinton, after his dalliance with Monica Lewinski.  Sure, they got Clinton impeached, but what difference did it make?  He came on stronger than ever - in more ways than one - and won a second term.  Today, he's still remarkably popular.  Even conservatives look back wistfully on Clinton's administration as "the good ol' days," at least in comparison to the current Obama administration.

Tell It To the Judge

What should these two tawdry episodes be telling us?  That morality is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, not of government.  As our post-Christian culture lurches into a future of gay marriage, abortion rights, steadily rising unwed maternity rates, and other sexual perversions that are consuming traditional virtues, evangelicals need to remember the lessons we're supposed to be learning from cases like Edwards'.

We're called to be salt and light to a dying world.  We're called to live out the truth of the Gospel in everyday life.  We're called to model a moral code that speaks of Christ's holiness.  And we're to do all of this with love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

We can't rely on laws to set a moral example for us.

Roughly half of the world's lawyers live and practice in the United States.  That should be testament enough that our laws can't make people moral.  The answer to America's social ills won't come through laws, lawyers, and even legalistic Christianity.

We can hope that people who live without Christ will somehow see the incentive they have to live as morally as possible so they can benefit from morality's broad amenities, like peace, a beneficent prosperity, security, and justice.  But other than that, honoring Christ is the only true motivation producing the lifestyle that benefits everyone around us.  Just as you can't force people to love someone, you can't force people to abide by laws.  They have to want to behave in a certain manner whether the force of law exists or not.

But let's not cluck too much at Edwards and his sins.  Or our government's apparent waste of a trial.  We may not be able to legislate morality, but neither are we entirely moral ourselves.

Which means it's probably just as well that we can't legislate morality.
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