There are many reasons, writes Walter Russell Mead, that move people to keep discussions of religion private, or limit them to houses of worship: the fear that one’s opinions will stir others to anger, reluctance to become a hypocrite by—in the New Testament’s phrase—“casting the first stone” when one is far from sinless, and the very modern sentiment that religion, and even morality, are fundamentally private matters. Mead makes the case for resisting such impulses:
If only perfect people were allowed to write about faith and morals, nobody will ever say anything on the subject. Parents wouldn’t try to teach their kids right from wrong; teachers wouldn’t try to help students build moral character. No minister, rabbi, imam, or priest would stand before a congregation to preach a sermon. No Buddhist monk would give advice to the faithful; no Sufi master would counsel disciples on how to approach God.
For some, like the group of atheists who rented billboards a couple of years ago to denounce all religions as scams, if a sudden silence were to fall over all the pulpits in the world, it would be very good news. But before too much time passed, even the most intemperate atheists would begin to notice that something was wrong.
Morality isn’t a private affair. Your personal morality is your own choice and your own responsibility, but the consequences of those choices matter much more to other people—and their choices matter much more to you—than we sometimes remember. Society really does depend on the imperfect virtue of its members. Self-restraint and moral behavior, even only realized in part, really are the foundations of liberty. If too many people do the wrong things too many times, nothing can protect us from the consequences.
The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be. If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger. If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force—and give them more authority under less restraint.