Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

With the 2015 election season nearing the finish line, voter guides of all political stripes have made their rounds, including the Commonwealth Policy Center's. It focuses entirely on social issues and asks candidates’ views on the defense of the unborn, opposition to the industrialization of gambling, the protection of religious convictions in the public square, and marriage between a man and a woman.

These issues can ignite debate from the kitchen table to the floor of the General Assembly.  Tempers rise when pro-lifers tell a woman she shouldn't terminate her pregnancy, or when a secularist insists that someone’s religious commitment can’t influence how he does his job.  One person’s freedom often becomes another's offense in our increasingly diverse society.

While offense is bound to come in a free society, our greatest concern is not when people disagree with conservative values, but rather when these issues aren’t debated at all because the debate itself has become off-limits.  As soon as pro-life candidates announce their plan for legislation that would require an ultrasound before an abortion (a measure that’s repeatedly blocked by the Kentucky House), the left hurls its classic retort: “Who are you to impose your religious convictions on everyone else?”  Quite the conversation stopper.

A lot of otherwise productive discussions are shut down prematurely because of this often invoked objection. But values voters shouldn't be ashamed to promote policies they believe best for human flourishing. Indeed, everyone has their own moral categories, and come election season both sides of the political spectrum aggressively work to persuade the middle of what is morally right.

Why did Franklin Roosevelt defend the New Deal?  Because “economic morality” is good for the country, he said in his second inaugural address.  Why did Lyndon Johnson push the Civil Rights Act?  “Because it is morally right,” he said.  How did Bill Clinton argue for affirmative action?  Because discrimination is “morally wrong.”  Why did Gov. Steve Beshear expand Medicaid to Kentucky?  Because it was the “morally right thing to do,” he argued.

Politicians have been appealing to a higher moral order to justify their political ends since government began, so when social conservatives oppose expanded gambling because of its penchant for hurting the less fortunate, or when they feel a county clerk should be able to have a religious objection without losing her job—they are walking a well-worn path.

We believe in separation of church and state.  We do not expect anyone’s tax dollars to fund our mission trips, build our church buildings, or that membership in our congregations is a litmus test for citizenship or holding office.  Nor do we expect the state to advance our doctrinal convictions.  Jefferson got it right; there really is a wall of separation here.  Church and state have different jurisdictions. This protects the church from being controlled by the state and vice versa, but we must never accept the separation of state from morality.

Laws against theft, child abandonment, and racism institute morality by definition.  Laws about civil rights and women’s suffrage impose morality.  Every time a bill is signed into law, someone’s moral vision is being implemented. The fact is that government has to deal with moral issues.  That’s its job.  Laws codify right and wrong, which means there is an inevitable intersection between governing and moral inquiry.

The question is not “Does the government impose morality through laws?” but “Whose morality will the government institute?” So let’s have a robust debate about social issues and morality in the public square.  It’s a fair conversation that shouldn’t be silenced by angry platitudes. And a candidate's response to a voter guide is a good place to begin the conversation. 

Rick Hardison is the chairman of the Kentucky Baptist Convention Public Affairs Committee. He also pastors Great Crossing Baptist Church in Georgetown. Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonpartisan public policy organization.

This column appeared in the  Lexington Herald-Leader and Cincinnati Enquirer on November 2, 2015.