It’s a simple idea. We say it a lot: “That’s horrible. There ought to be a law.” I’ve been thinking lately about our penchant for throwing that phrase about. What started my thinking was a news article, or more accurately and indicative of our times, it was a blog about a news article. It seems that several cities are considering outlawing baggy pants and exposed undergarments under municipal decency laws. For instance, under a proposed ordinance in Atlanta, it would be misdemeanor to wear one’s pants in a way that showed underwear as is the fashion.
Anthony Bradley at the Acton Institute’s highly recommended Powerblog drew my attention to this very simple idea. Now I had already heard about Atlanta’s concerns about baggy pants and had already formed an opinion about the impracticality of this kind of decency law. After all, how would it be enforced? Would it require armies of cops with tape measures playing the part of assistant principals checking skirt length and dress code? I also listened to (and largely rejected) the ACLU worries about racial profiling. But then I read Bradley’s comments on why the law is bad:
“Maybe we want to pass a law because changing a mind-set would require getting personally involved in the lives of people who wear saggy pants. We would much rather pass a silly law than to roll up our sleeves and sacrifice our own time to offer those individuals a different vision for their own dignity. This requires time and energy and it comes with no guarantees for change. It’s risky … If you want a kid to stop wearing his pants below his butt then personally get involved in his life. This is how true virtue is cultivated–from one person to another. Passing fashion laws will not cultivate character, virtue, nor wisdom.”
This started me thinking about my motivations. I looked into my heart expecting to find a conservative Christian, instead I’m afraid I found a Pharisee. Often when I say, “There ought to be a law” I ought to first ask if a law is the best way to change behavior. Granted conservatives typically think laws are justified not only to prevent harm but to keep public order, but Bradley’s thoughts got me to thinking: Do I want the law to help change people, or do I want the law so I don’t have to deal with behavior I believe is bad? And more importantly which would be the goal of Jesus who never proposed a single law but invested himself in the lives of others and had a lot to say about the corruption that comes from well-meaning law?
Now this isn’t another installment of WWJL “What Would Jesus Legislate,” though that is an important debate. I’m only suggesting that we consider that laws are often the worst answer to a problem of morals and values because forcing others to abide by our values means we don’t have to persuade them to change theirs. As Bradley said, virtue is passed on by investing in lives, one at a time.
And I knew I was on the right track when I presented this idea on my radio show. I host a late night political talk show with two agnostics on a college station here in Bowling Green. So it was not for nothing that my co-hosts respected my Christian beliefs enough to let me passionately present this idea on our show. But I got flak from a caller who intimated that “those people” –-meaning people who routinely and as a matter of culture wear their pants below their underwear—“those people” are not interested in me or any religious people investing in their lives, so my argument just didn’t matter. Now I have no idea if the caller was religious, let alone Christian (in hindsight I should have asked) but what I tried to get across to him was that as Christians, that is exactly the attitude we can’t have about “those people.” We are not allowed to divide the world into those who are eligible for our love and our Gospel and those who are not. No one, not Osama Bin Laden, Lindsay Lohan, nor the entire population of “those people” are somehow beyond the love and reach of Christ. In fact it seems Jesus singled out “those people” in society that the Pharisees openly and self righteously disdained as “tax-collectors and sinners.” Jesus offended the Pharisaical sensibilities and consciously made it a point to reach out to “those people” investing Himself by eating, drinking and teaching them. He did this in such a public way that we read in Luke 7:34:
“The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
And that led me to the conclusion that for Christians, “there ought to be a law” should not be our battle cry because it might have a tendency to make us Pharisees rather than followers of Christ.