Tag Archives: consensual crimes

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…