02/24/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Should Public Policy Conform to "God's Law"?

It is no surprise that, as a conservative, presidential candidate Rick Santorum promises to use executive power to press for prohibition of abortion and same-sex marriage. What is remarkable is that, now that he is the Republican front-runner, he continues to argue for his social agenda by insisting that civil law should "comport with God's law."

Although Santorum's invoking divine authority for his stances is applauded by many religious conservatives, it has sparked widespread outrage among liberals and moderates, with some even warning that he seeks to impose "Christian Sharia law" on the country.

Those alarmed by Santorum's claim that human laws must align with a "higher law" should note that this belief is not inherently contrary to individual freedom or democratic values. After all, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" -- a classic defense of nonviolent resistance to racist policies -- Martin Luther King Jr., asserted that a just law is "a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God" and an unjust law is "a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson argued that King George III had lost his right to rule the Colonies because his government had repeatedly violated Americans' rights -- to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- with which all men were "endowed by their Creator."

Thus, while I don't share Santorum's ideology, I am not troubled that it is driven in part by his religious beliefs. To be sure, like many others I'm put off by his moral certitude on what seem to be essentially debatable issues about which rational people disagree. I'm also repelled by his evident contempt for the views of people who don't share his opinions on difficult moral questions. Both attitudes were on display last week when he accused President Obama of embracing a "phony" theology.

Moreover, as a Christian, I find parts of his theology -- presumably the "real" theology -- mystifying. For example, I cannot see how the freedom to practice my faith is, as his website alleges, "under attack through the redefinition of marriage." Indeed, since New York legalized same-sex marriage last summer, I have not noticed any diminution of my religious liberty.

What is more, I'm chagrined that Santorum pretends that "God's law" isn't open to competing interpretations, both across and within different religions. What he means, of course, is God's law as interpreted by the Catholic Church, but why should non-Catholics who believe in a moral law accept the Church's rendering as the correct one? In fact, on some matters -- such as contraception, one of Santorum's favorite topics -- the Church's interpretation is rejected by most American Catholics.

These complaints, however, are peripheral to the main problem with Santorum's faith-based advocacy of disempowering social policies.

In a democracy, when a political leader supports new laws intended to deny some citizens personal freedoms they see as basic liberties, he owes those citizens a reasonable justification of the policies. Hence, if he calls for outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, he has an obligation to offer Americans who are female or gay credible reasons why it is morally permissible for the government to do that.

Since we are a religiously diverse country where freedom of religion is a fundamental right, it is clearly inadequate for the leader to respond that such practices can properly be banned because they violate God's law (as he interprets it). "Your behavior must be prohibited because it conflicts with my religion" is an argument that has no validity in a political system founded on respect for individual rights and equality under the law.

In such a system, a politician who urges the proscription of certain activities is duty-bound to defend his position by appeal to common moral principles accepted, at least implicitly, by most citizens. In the public square, the argument that abortion violates the right to life we all take ourselves to have commands the respect -- if not the assent -- of other citizens in a way that "God forbids it" does not. (Conversely, those who are pro-choice properly state their case in terms of a woman's having the right to liberty of which Jefferson spoke rather than disputing their opponents' theology, even if they think it's "phony.")

There is nothing wrong with a politician's being motivated by religious reasons to champion controversial policies. But he has to understand that, in a modern democracy, such policies must be publicly justified by moral reasons whose persuasive power does not depend on their connections to religious dogmas.

Santorum is right that Americans care about the morality of public policy. But he is wrong to infer, as he apparently does, that they want political leaders who equate morality and "God's law."