Sin And Crime

Several years ago, I had a conversation with the Rabbi of the synagogue I had attended growing up. She had asked why I no longer belonged. When I responded that I didn’t believe in God, she retorted “Sheila, no one believes in the God you don’t believe in!”

What she meant, of course, was that I was rejecting a certain image of deity–the guy with a long white beard up in the sky who earns the gratitude of football players who win their games. (I always wonder whether they think their God hates the other team…) I have several friends who are Christian clergy who share the Rabbi’s more sophisticated concept of Godliness, and I have even thought that I could count myself a believer if we defined “God” as, say, the existence of humans’ ethical impulse.

What triggered these recollections and musings was a reminder of a class I taught for a couple of semesters “back in the day,” titled “Sin and Crime.” It was what we called a “Topics” class, a one-credit, two week offering, and it was intended to probe the consequences–and legitimacy–of basing criminal laws on religious conceptions of sin.

Given the renewed efforts of the biblical literalists who control today’s GOP, those consequences–and their illegitimacy–are worth revisiting.

The class began with a consideration of the difference between sin and crime. Sin, the students clearly understood, was violation of a religious precept, a behavior thought to be against the teaching of a particular faith tradition. An action that displeased one’s concept of God.

Crime, on the other hand, was rooted in government’s obligation to maintain order and protect the weak from the strong. Unlike theocracies, America’s particular approach to government is contractual: We the People give government a monopoly on the use of coercive force, and in return, government undertakes to keep some  people from harming others.

That practical, contractual approach was always inconsistent with plenty of laws that characterized an earlier America–blue laws that “kept the (Christian) sabbath holy” and Prohibition are a couple that come to mind. It is also inconsistent with laws against “consensual” behaviors, often called “victimless crimes.”  The Bill of Rights privileges personal autonomy, or self-government. A cherished (if often ignored) American principle is the right of individuals to form and hold their own moral, religious and political beliefs.

That focus on individual liberty and especially liberty of conscience is arguably incompatible with laws regulating prostitution, gambling, drug use, pornography, and  private, consensual sexual relations. (I still remember one of my students, a 40-something Black woman who often referenced her church, indignantly asking why she couldn’t sell her own body if for some reason she decided to do so…)

Obviously, some of these behaviors might lead to harm: the person who becomes dependent upon drugs might commit robberies to support his habit, the person consuming pornography might prey on children. But these consequences are rare and mostly conjectural, and just as we no longer  penalize drinking–we penalize drunk driving–lawmakers can make the necessary distinctions.

Turning what some religions categorize as sin into crimes creates all sorts of problems. Most consensual crimes cannot be fairly enforced (the local constable can’t invade bedrooms to ensure that no one is engaging in sodomy, for example), so these laws are usually justified as “setting a social standard.” In the real world, as many of my gay friends can attest, they are far more likely to end up encouraging selective enforcement. Research confirms that Whites use illicit drugs as much or more than Blacks, but enforcement occurs disproportionately in Black communities.

The  GOP’s single-minded focus on culture war–and especially, it’s persistent effort to deny civil equality to LGBTQ folks–is a result of the party’s takeover by Christian Nationalists. In a theocracy–the form of government they clearly favor–those in power can and do impose their religious beliefs on everyone else.

We’ve always had these Puritans, but they haven’t previously controlled one of the country’s two major parties.

Current estimates place these Evangelical Christians at 14% of the population, a percentage that shouldn’t be as worrisome as it is. But religious zealots are motivated and noisy –and they will vote, because they have remade the GOP into a religion, and by voting, they are venerating the guy with the white beard who lives in the sky, watches everything they do, and wants them to vanquish their enemies. (That would be the rest of us.)

They definitely believe in the God I don’t believe in…


  1. EMILE ZOLA, Contemporary French Author

    Civilization will not attain to its perfection, until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!
    I am so very tired of the god squad inflicting harm on the world with their hateful rules and notions. This week we see the various god squad teams bashing each other in the “holy land” with glee as they defend their personal deity. That will never end but we do NOT have to let them run our government.

  2. Is the question to argue separation of church and state or the paradox of faith and community? Our forefathers settled the question of separation of church and state given what they moved from to resettle in North America. They understood the tyranny of the church state.

    The paradox of faith and community frames the tension between a very personal covenant guided by a relationship with God and the community at large who collectively determines the rule of law. The faithful individual elects to join a place of worship that enjoys all the benefit of separation of church and state. Observant faith does have an impact on collective values. Collective values influence the ballot that elects representatives to office to shape the rule of law.

    Here is the rub. How do we recognize the tension emanating from the paradox of faith and community when separation of church and state seems to have been infiltrated … incrementally over time.

  3. patmcc; thank you, that is one of favorite Emile Zola’s quotes.

    I consider a sin to be action taken against basic human ethics and morals. Atheists commit sins; or do you consider Atheism to be a sin itself? Is thinking of or threatening to take action against human ethics and morals considered a sin? It isn’t a crime unless acted upon and then, not all sins are crimes. But are all crimes a sin? I have often read that a person with ethics will do the right thing even when no one is watching; my own “little small voice” (conscience) tells me when I am wrong in thought, word or deed.

    I was “attacked” on Facebook after replying to a post which referred to the legality of teaching religion in our public schools; my comment was that “separation of church and state” was meant to prevent that. The “attackers” claimed that the term was not found in the Constitution but preventing government from establishing a religion was a different meaning. My comment was referring to the use of public education budgets to fund voucher students in religion based schools. Voucher students in Catholic schools are required to participate in their religious classes but not required to participate in their prayers. Is that against the letter or the meaning of the 1st Amendment? Funding the voucher system with public education budgets is wrong; but is it a sin or a criminal act against state and federal constitutions?

  4. Your last paragraph is “off” — Christian Evangelicals aren’t “venerating the guy with the white beard who lives in the sky”; they are worshipping the fat golden (or, in this case, orange) calf… and, of course, celebrating every sin they claim to detest.

  5. In Romans the 13th chapter, if anyone is inclined to read it, basically says that Christians should obey the superior authorities and secular law!

    George Washington said in his farewell address to the people of the United states: “let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation dessert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceited to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail an exclusion of religious principle.”

    A 1955 New York times article, stated in the article, Can Morality Be Legislated: “white housewives who had been assigned to public housing projects which were racially integrated tended to develop favorable attitudes toward negroes, while the vast majority of those who occupied segregated housing tended to remain the same in their racial views.” A similar study by the US Army reached a similar conclusion.

    The times article concludes with this statement, “the Majesty of the law, when supported by the collective conscience of a people and the healing power of the social situation, in the long run will not only enforce morality but create it.”

    Morality has a direct correlation to many commandments in the Mosaic Law. Unfortunately, religion has become useless in a moral sense. Religions never cleaned up their own houses, and for the sake of membership, they usually stymied moral teachings. Hey, wouldn’t you rather go to a church that gives you a permission slip for whatever you decide you want to do?

    Al Capone was a murderer, but, he gave millions of dollars to the Catholic Church. He was never excommunicated, because that would have dried up the money.

    Concerning Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, one can say the same for Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, the permission slip concerning slavery, the actions of the ku Klux Klan, you can go on and on!

    The Mosaic law gave strict guidelines on the difference between forced slavery and indentured servitude. And jubilee years debt and servitude could be and was eliminated.

    The apostle Paul was actually talking about the Mosaic morals, when he penned in Romans 2:15; “they are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, well their conscience is bearing witness with them and buy their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.”

    Deuteronomy 15: 1-3,9 discusses the forgiveness of debt and other compassionate laws every 7th year or every Sabbath year.

    And, every Jubilee year (every 50 years or after 7 Sabbath years), indentured servitude contracts were canceled, land or properties that were unwantingly sold for financial purposes would be returned during the Jubilee year. This was meant to protect the families inheritance and not drive those families into a permanent type of indentured slavery. (The pentateuch and Haftorah’s; Hertz, London 1972)…

    So, as mentioned in the beginning, there is no integrity in the churches, or their supporters!

    They have veered away from the actual teachings from the beginning from the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic law Covenant, all the way through Christ and the Apostles.

    Religion has indentured itself to the political realm starting with emperor Constantine of the Roman empire. Hence, the Roman Catholic Church! You can research the Nicene councils, that is where most of the modern religious dogma and other practices concerning morals or the lack thereof started!

    You can’t blame it on God, and you can’t blame it on God’s laws! But you can blame it on greed by religious leaders.

    An example, a white male contractor who used to dress up as a clown at kids parties,
    (His name was John Wayne Gacy) strangled young men and buried them in his basement amongst other properties!

    So, if you were to hire a contractor, and he was a white male with a kiddie clown side business, would you assume that all white male contractors conducted themselves like John Wayne Gacy? He had no universal morals, he had his own made up morality.

    He is not unlike almost all of the churches, temples and mosques today. They’ve made up their own moralities, they’ve strayed away from God’s original teachings! So, when you look at how terrible things are, don’t blame God!

    Humans are free moral agents, they have free will! And since religious leaders are human, and they have free will, they can do as they please. Interestingly, these religious leaders absolutely don’t believe their own dogma, because they, in their personal lives, are antithetical to what they claim to believe.

  6. Thomas Merton: “As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity, and even your best works will blind and deceive you. Then, in order to defend yourself, you will begin to see sins and faults everywhere in the actions of other men. And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and to your works, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning other people. Sometimes virtuous men are also bitter and unhappy, because they have unconsciously come to believe that all their happiness depends on their being more virtuous than others. . . . The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.”

  7. No one can know the nature of God. God is whatever we need, whenever we need it. Government has roles defined by the governed as a whole. (Yes, even in Russia, where the people have been content to let their strong man be the personification of evil.) That’s why religion has no place in government and government has no place in religion.

  8. Your mention of victimless crimes is interesting.

    Drug or alcohol users may not be harming anybody but themselves, up to point. At the point that they can no longer support themselves or their families, it becomes and external burden on society or other people. They may no longer be supporting the economy as a whole. They may engage in dangerous or reckless behavior. When that happens, it is a problem, but it is a crime? It is easy to make all drugs criminal with the utopian idea that making drugs criminal will stop all drug use. Other countries recognize the futility of criminalizing drugs and turned to regulating them instead. In addition, they recognize that problematic drug use might need clinical and mental health treatment and the money spent, gets benefits that far outweigh making all drug use criminal. I am speaking of the model set up in Portugal.

    The Netherlands have legalized and regulated the sex trade to the benefit of all involved. I will say that in cites like Amsterdam, the desirability for real estate in the red-light district seems to be lower than other parts of the city, so there are still externalities to allowing this kind of activity, but the citizens have decided this is an acceptable price for this trade.

    BTW…. When god speaking through our local Catholic Priest, after a Saturday Evening mass, told my mom that the pants suit she had tailored and sewn herself was not acceptable attire, that was about the time I started doubting that was the version of god I believed in.

  9. I guess this is why Jesus asked his infamous rhetorical question, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

    This topic makes for great conversation especially while the US leaders have been telling the Chinese and Russians about all their awfully sinful ways. It’s beyond laughable.

    And, when Joe Biden calls Putin a butcher or demon, it must give Vladimir a chuckle considering all the blood on Joe’s hands.

    If you believe in karma you don’t have to worry about what a man says about his neighbor, his own actions will cut him down. If you believe you can escape the negative consequences of your actions, then go for it. Better hope you’re wrong. 😉

  10. Sheila, I didn’t like your example that a “person consuming pornography might prey on children.” This is a non sequitur. It smacks of the old slur that gay men are inevitably pedophiles. If you want to make an analogy in this vein, perhaps something along the lines of dehumanizing segments of the population which could increase bigotry, perhaps even lead to violence against women (or men)?

    The only way your example works is if the person is viewing child pornography, but then the person is already committing an illegal act.

    I agree with the rest. The drug enforcement hypocrisy is infuriating. One need only look at the differing handling of sentencing for crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine. These are a perfect example of laws that aren’t written with any racist language but are clearly intended to be very racist.

  11. Albert Einstein, when asked if he were an atheist, replied that he wasn’t smart enough to be an atheist. He sidestepped the issue for reasons we will never know, as many do these days since belief in God has been equated with social custom and political necessity.

    To the argument that we cannot redefine God is a counter argument that someone at some time defined God to be this bearded human-looking apparition in the sky, sometimes armed with a sythe, though it seems that a being that is all powerful would need no arms for protection, and that if he (always a he in true Abrahamic fashion) can be defined once he can be defined again – and again – to fit public fancy of the particular age.

    Doubting Thomases are on the rise as TV preachers and other charlatans have introduced profit and greed into soul-saving of those hysterically fearful of death. Capitalism has invaded the pulpit. The Vatican has its own bank etc.

    What to do? Nothing, other than prosecution of TV preachers who live the life of a Musk, being careful in such prosecution to stay away from their religious First Amendment protections and focussing instead on their fraudulent sidelines of commerce and politics from the electronic pulpit. Can’t be done? Not according to a civil god.

  12. Peggy, I think you are right that religion has no place in government, but I don’t think the reverse is true in the same way. Religions can believe as they will, and practice as they will, within their own group. Government should have no say in that. (In truth, I get very unhappy when I see people that eschew medical attention because they believe they must “pray away” their child’s cancer. So, it’s complicated even in the purest sense.) But, as soon as religions start attempting to inflict their dogma on people outside their religion, and particularly in public squares (like public schools), then the government must step in and restrict that.

  13. Brings back the old “kill a commie for Christ.” I have some of that blood on my hands

  14. Sheila, what a beautiful way to put it. I love the rabbi! I haven’t believed in that god since I skipped my Bar Mitzvah.
    Good Shabbos and Happy Pessach.

  15. It has been said that the most ardent atheist said, as he lay dying, “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”

  16. From this atheist’s perspective sin and crime are tangentially connected. I see them as both related to a society’s need to ensure peaceful cooperation among its constituents. The various myths of “Godly” beings help to show the way to such mutually beneficial behavior.
    But, when taken too literally they create just the sort of problems they were originally set up to avoid, as seen in the “HolyLand” at this time.
    “Thou shalt not kill,” becomes, “Unless THEY are different.”
    Literal believers come to think they have a duty to enforce their perspective on everyone else. From where I sit, THAT is equivalent to a sin.

  17. Just once, I’d like to see a discussion of religion, not just the Christian version, quoting the same “accepted” poo-bahs.
    I prefer the direction Confucius was going.
    Religion is faith, and the brainwashed aren’t capable of seeing their mistake.
    Sheila’s emphasis on governance seems headed in the right direction: laws should be based on the best evidence, but we’re seemingly locked into voting Christians into office, guaranteeing faith-based laws, not sociologically-based ones. (Despite the Constitution specifically stating that no religiously-based requirement may be imposed for any public office.)

  18. Lester,
    I love that quotation by Thomas Merton. It’s pretty close to spot on.

    I really appreciate the last paragraph of your comment! I’ve been there done that.

    A lot of folks have blood on their hands because the churches condoned murder! If the religious leaders wanted to stop the first World War or the second world war, all they would have had to do is tell their people not to fight! But instead, they were blessing the weapons on both sides, each side was killing Catholics each side was killing Protestants each side was killing Baptists or Anabaptists. Even Jews were killing Jews! How can a religious leader condone its members murdering each other? It’s not even hypocrisy. It’s much worse!

  19. Don’t forget the Catholics. Conservative Catholicism is as powerful a force as Evangelicalism.

  20. Well … we got through another day that began with another provocative post by by Sheila.

    Just a few moments ago, I sent a message to colleagues who observe different high holy days this weekend. Over the past 5 decades , each of us took turns of a watch as Director General of a legendary charitable institution at the seam of conflict in central Jerusalem. Our most cherished memory is the laughter and joy of children just outside our office windows during open playtime. The children, by design of open enrollment, came from families of the observant traditions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. The kindergarten is known as Gan Shalom, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a sitting parliament. For these children, they enjoy sharing 32 special holiday celebrations learning stories, songs, and food especially presented by parents during these occasions. Where there is intention, hope and peace are possible.

  21. Notably, this ideological battle goes all the way back to the Middle Ages (and even to the 4th century); and the Christian Nationals have no problem regressing back there, ignoring history and throwing away the entire Renaissance.

  22. Please don’t call them “biblical literalists.” Some of them claim to be that, but it doesn’t take much inspection to realize that they don’t do that consistently even according to their own stated principles. It is important in my opinion to not grant them a consistency they don’t have and to not affirm their slogans when they are false advertising.

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