Few would argue that laws reflect the nation’s values. The real debate is law’s ability to shapes those values. Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow, Peter Wehner argues not only should we not dismiss government’s ability to form the values people bring to the public square, but we should embrace the idea.
Responding to James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity, Wehner writes,
The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways that are large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history are slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.
Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble in a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize certain behaviors. That is certainly not all that laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.
A civilized society takes seriously the task of shaping habits and attitudes, mores and dispositions. That work is done by many different institutions, from the family to school, from houses of worship to Hollywood, from professional sports to the military. All of them have a role to play, and so does the state. Indeed, the state itself can have a major influence on other institutions. Their relationship is interconnected and synergistic.
Like others who seem to privilege politics over culture, Wehner asserts the law can foster a free society. The law can only restrain people. It cannot inspire them to embrace freedom and liberty. Wehner unwittingly admits this when he cites George Will, who wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft, “A polity is a river of constantly changing composition and the river’s banks are built of laws.”
Dennis Prager popularized the phrase, “The bigger the Government, the smaller the citizen.” When society looks to the State for the “habits and attitudes” it should value, one should not be surprised to find a polity composed of very small citizens afraid to move beyond the river’s banks.