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Featured Opinion

Legislating Morality, Yes, We do That

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Our country was founded primarily by two groups of people, those desiring religious freedom and those wanting to make a fortune.

The Declaration of Independence lays out our cause of freedom with lofty ideals for mere mortals, encapsulating the American soul with, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Like all great writers, Thomas Jefferson stole the idea and phrasing from John Locke.

Locke’s then radical view that government is morally obliged to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property became the bedrock of our nation’s founding principles.

However, our nation has never fully lived up to this noble goal but we try in-spite of ourselves.

The questions never said very loudly is whose life, how much liberty and what property?

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Thus, capitalism and religion have always had an uneasy relationship. One works on the bases of self-interest, materialism and even greed and covetousness.

The other is best practiced with love, self-sacrifice, charity and humility among other more noble principles.

While, in conflict on occasions, it is something our country as worked out over time but still does divide us on some very thorny issue.

Over the last few weeks the State of Alabama has received some very good news on the economic development front. In Mobile, Airbus will be building a huge facility to employ around 1,000 people and in Wetumpka the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) broke ground on a new hotel and casino that will employ another 1,000 Alabamians.

The Airbus became the jewel in the crown of every politician that could get a headline or face time on TV. And it is something the state should crow about.

But for the PCI and the great opportunity for economic development they are providing, not many cheerleaders.

It is obvious that the PCI project is not politically popular because it involves gambling. That is understandable given the feeling of most of our citizens about games of chance.

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However, there is polling data that points out that most Alabamians support or do not oppose gaming. These are private opinions not often vocalized too loudly.

I am certainly no fan of gaming but I also know that I live in the United States of America and that according to our founding principles, Americans should be free to throw away their money anyway they choose.

Is there a special place in hell for someone who spends the baby’s milk money on gambling? Probably not but maybe there should be.

Of course, the government can legislate morality, and does—-more so than anyone wants to admit.

As a matter of fact most of the big disagreements among our citizens is about what is moral and how to legislate it.

Drugs, drinking, gambling, who you can sleep with, these are all things we try to control with laws. The war on drugs is a policy born of legislation to regulate behavior, ergo, morality.

Many counties in our state do not let you buy alcohol on Sunday, ostensibly not because of someone like me who is going to be in church on Sunday but for those who are not. But maybe it is also to make sure the deacon shows up on time.

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It is again legislation aimed at a desired moral effect.

During the past legislative session almost an entire legislative day was spent discussing what size of beer bottle should be legal in Alabama. Is this a thing we should spend so much time worrying about? Even the worst alcoholics I’ve known knew what amount of booze it took for them to reach the desire state of oblivion.

I worry that politics so greatly out weighs common sense that we can’t see the flaws in our logic.

Like most Alabamians I have witnessed first hand the devastation that comes from alcoholism, drug addiction and all manner of sins.

My older bother was murdered in a drug deal gone bad. I closed the lid on my brothers coffin, gave his eulogy as I looked into the tearless, vacant eyes of our mother.

Yes, I too know what harvest sin bares.

I am not advocating we do not try to legislate some morality but we should try to be intellectually honest.

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Heaven forbid a politician with statewide ambitions should be seen as supportive of gambling or that those who run for office saying they would like to see and up or down vote on gaming keep to their campaign rhetoric.

For me what the PCI is doing is capitalism at work, they sell entertainment, in the form of gaming, people who want it buy it those who don’t will not. Is it all good, no, is it all bad, probably not.

But that pesky “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” does get in the way sometimes, and our constitution, it has so many instances that limit government that for almost the first one hundred years of our nation, we couldn’t figure out how to legislate much in the way of moral behavior. But then came the startling revelation that the Commerce Clause gave the Congress almost complete control over every aspect of American life.

But Chief Justice John Roberts in his recent ruling on the Affordable Care Act may have put a nail in the coffin of the dread Commerce Clause.

Like many of the nation’s founders I am in favor of religious freedom and getting out of the way of people who want to make a fortune. But I am also in favor of freedom from religion and prosecuting those who make their fortune dishonestly.

In 1656, John Locke wrote a letter expressing his approval of restrictions the government had placed on Quakers-—whom he called “mad folks.” Locke welcomed the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and wrote eloquently defending the prerogative of government to enforce religious conformity.

So much for the hero of life, liberty and all that jazz.

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Unfortunately, It always comes down to whose life, what liberties and who gets the money.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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