The Sin Police: Can the State Redeem You?

If you haven’t heard yet, Republican candidate Rand Paul made some controversial remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul’s basic argument was that we should prohibit racial discrimination by the government, but we should not intrude on the right of private businesses to practice bigotry.

The media firestorm over Paul’s comments seems to have subsided (for now), but the massive reaction affirms how many people believe it is the role of the State to be the sin police.

Pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson was recently asked to comment on the controversy, and his response brings up many issues worth thinking about.

Watch the video of his response here:

Wilson begins by saying the reaction and hype was spawned by a root problem in our society:

The problem that plagues us in our political discourse is that we don’t understand the difference between sins and crimes.

What Wilson means is that we always rush to pass laws to prohibit things we don’t approve of.  For Wilson, this common perspective comes from a misplaced worship of the State.

For the secularist, there is no authority above the State, and so if something is really objectionable, really disapproved of, then that thing is going to go unpunished forever and ever. The Christian knows that there is a final adjudication, there’s a last judgment. God’s going to sort it out at the end of history….there will be no outstanding injustice.

The problem with this diagnosis is that not all “secularists” follow this first path and plenty of Christians do. However, I do think Wilson is on to something. Whether secularist or Christian, it’s tempting for us to view the State as an ultimate arbiter of morality, and thus it’s tempting to allow the State to overreach.

Wilson doesn’t think the State should ignore all moral issues, but he does think the Bible makes distinctions between crimes and sins.

If the Bible defines something as rejected by God — [that] God disapproves of it — and there’s a civil penalty attached…that’s the point where you coerce. A crime is something that you’re willing to force someone to not do.


Where this gets tricky is that plenty of crimes are also sins, even though plenty of sins are not (or should not be) crimes. And although the Old Testament prescribes “civil penalties” for plenty of sins, I’m not so sure the Bible is as clear as we’d like it to be on what should or shouldn’t be considered criminal.

Rand Paul

Rand Paul ignited a media firestorm by saying businesses should have the right to sin.

This isn’t to say that such truths are not evident or discoverable in the Bible. I’m just curious as to how Wilson distinguishes sins and crimes in a Biblical context. The common libertarian perspective would be that “as long as you’re not [physically] hurting someone, the behavior should be allowed.” But is that a Biblical argument or simply a logical one? Is Wilson resting his interpretation on the Law defined by Moses, or does he see such distinctions being made throughout the Bible?

For me, it would seem that Wilson’s first argument is the stronger one — that we as humans cannot fully administer individual justice, so when at all possible, we should try our best to leave that duty to God.

In other words, we should stop pretending that the State can serve as a legitimate moral compass. It cannot eradicate our sinful nature, and it cannot redeem of us of sin’s consequences. After all, as Wilson notes, the State is about coercion, and the Christian walk involves constant choice and intentional repentance.

When the State begins to preemptively limit every choice you have — from the burgers you eat to the drugs you take — how much ownership do you really have over your flesh? How tried and tested — how real is your compassion for the poor when the State assumes that responsibility for you?

I’d be interested in hearing more of Wilson’s thoughts on this, and I’m interested in hearing yours as well.

(Note: The image of Rand Paul is provided by Gage Skidmore / / CC BY-SA 3.0)

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Matt

    It would be interesting to see a list of sins that the bible specifies punishment for and a list where no punishment is specified.

  • Jdwarden36

    You must like long lists.

  • Jdwarden36

    Moses brought down the only Laws of God. Breaking those are a crime(sins) against God. Crimes against humanity are not always sins(crimes) against God. Correlation is not causation here. If our laws were dictated by the Bible then we would be like the Muslim's Sharia law. I don't think life would be so good if the established church ruled over the judicial branch like that. Bringing God's will into the equation as the only rational for having the law, then you really need to learn more about our 'constitution' and 'bill of rights'. The laws on our books should have nothing to do with any religion. Our first amendment protects us from religion's awesome power grab on the way people live life. If anyone thinks that government is oppressive right now don't know what it has done in the name of religion.

    Anyway, I've always been a strong supporter of businesses to be able to make bad business decisions. It's not up to the state to tell them how to run their business, unless physical safety is involved. If I own a Mexican restaurant and I want to hire Mexican cooks, Mexican waiters/waitresses, Mexican cleaning staff, and only serve Mexicans that's my prerogative. If I want to allow smokers, that's my decision. You don't have to go there.

    Wilson does make a great point when he says that we have a knee-jerk reaction to pass a law when we disapprove something. Look at what Stewart Smally did right after those two pilots overshot MSP. The very next day he proposed a bill to ban laptop computers in cockpits.

  • Jdwarden36

    Sorry for the poor grammar, I'm tired and just need to sleep. I'm sure you know noooothing about that Mr. Sunde.

  • Matt

    Ha! not especially…

  • Matt

    Ha! not especially…

  • Pingback: Freedom from Porn: Steve Jobs Shapes Culture «Remnant Culture

  • Joseph Sunde

    @Walker_Andrew re: @douglaswils and the sin police, from my more unrefined, libertarian days. Good video, at least: