The Golden Rule

January 17, 2019

Is the Golden Rule Still Useful to American Civil Society?

(Editor’s note: Today’s guest writer is Dr. Miles Smith, Assistant Professor of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.) 

In an era when the citizens of the United States seem disunited and loathe to agree on anything political much less cultural, social, or religious, I imagine that a sizeable number of Americans might nonetheless support the admonition to do unto others as you would have them do to you. It’s a paraphrase of the twelfth verse in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and is known to history and the public as the Golden Rule. The actual verse reads: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Why should those who care about the health of the American nation care about something as trifling and as simple as the Golden Rule—an ancient and simple principle so omnipresent that even small children are taught—and its relation to the health of the republic? Perhaps a more pressing question is why should an increasingly less Christian American populace care about it? Can an Agnostic, Atheist, Buddhist, or Muslim properly benefit from the application of the Golden Rule in American politics?

Politicians and journalist regularly invoke the Golden Rule to support policy objectives across the political spectrum. In 2015, the progressive-leaning Huffington Post argued that federal politics in the United States might be greatly improved if American politicians heeded the rule in St. Matthew. If American politicians, “and all of us — really want to change the tone in our politics then we need to keep in mind that there is no better tool than the Golden Rule.  It can have a transformative impact if we just give it a chance.” In the aftermath of the 2016 general election, the Aspen Institute asked: Will Anyone Follow the Golden Rule of Democracy? The Aspen Institute concluded that they probably couldn’t expect a democratic politic to adhere to the Golden Rule, but they held out hope that American civil society might nonetheless provide examples of the Golden Rule at work as Americans from diverse backgrounds and different beliefs interacted in their communities.

Knowledge of the Golden Rule or of other biblical precepts in the United States’ civil life has precipitously decreased in the last two decades. More specifically, the United States’ citizenry doesn’t know the Christian scriptures as well as they once did. But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s rigorous and influential flagship, Southern Seminary, argued that a “larger scandal” was “biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible. It shows.” Mohler cited studies by the Barna Group and others to confirm his point.

Mohler and other denominational leaders understandably bemoan the loss of biblical literacy from their perspective as Christian ministers. For those who laypeople and ministers who pray for the nation and civil order, the loss of biblical literacy is equally worrisome because much of the American civil, political, and social lexicon regarding equality and justice comes from the Bible. Lincoln’s call to create a united anti-slavery nation in his House Divided speech owes its central rhetorical construction to St. Mark’s Gospel. Frederick Douglass invoked the Old Testament image of wayward Israel to indict the United States for what he believed was a national sin of tolerating chattel slavery. American Jews appealed to the Bible as they argued for the principles of pluralism eventually embraced by the United States. Even progressives like Walter Rauschenbusch appealed to scripture to argue against the capitalist American economic order.

In the early twenty-first century, it is vogue for left-leaning American Christians, Protestant and Roman Catholic, to lament orthodox Christianity’s supposed harmful historical effects on society in the American republic. But even the ability to bewail Christianity’s affects illustrates the profound influence of Christian principles of toleration and free exercise of religion. The ten largest Muslim-majority countries by population all maintain blasphemy laws and regulate and prosecute those who fall afoul of the statutes. One might ask if a young Muslim in the Islamic world could have replicated the actions of Christians at the Urbana Missions conference and showed a video apologizing for the supposed harmful effects of their religion throughout history.

The United States, thankfully, is not a Christian or an Islamic national government, but one devoted to freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution and informed my historic Christian teaching. The biblical injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself is universally useful to Americans from every religious group. While we would not enshrine the worship of the Christian deity in our laws, we should do what we can to keep the admonitions in the Christian scriptures current in American civil society for the good of all Americans. The greatness of the liberal capitalist order has been its ability to actualize a stable civil and social order without statist religious coercion. The principles of non-coercion, however, rely on a populace biblically literate enough to understand the benefits and duties that come with Judeo-Christian influenced Western liberties. President John Adams understood this when he argued that the United States’ Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams understood moral and religious people to be deeply read and educated in Christian virtues and ethics, and educational endeavor that undoubtedly meant familiarity with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Put simply, the citizens of the liberal order must read the Bible. If they do not, they are unlikely to stay liberal very long.

2 Responses to Is the Golden Rule Still Useful to American Civil Society?

  1. This is the kind of thoughtful, sober, balanced approach to Christianity’s positive influences on a pluralistic society we need. Well done.

  2. Carin Lanier says:

    I agree with Chris; while society at large may be increasingly indifferent to reading the Bible…they are quick to observe behavior…then perhaps a query…

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