As you drive down the road, the car in front of you drifts to the left and to the right, changing speeds erratically. You speed up to pass this reckless driver; trying to catch a glimpse of the person you have judged to be a sub-par human being. With a satisfied grunt you see exactly what you suspected – they are texting! “All cell phone use while driving should be banned!” you declare and when the legislature takes up laws to enforce it, you heartily support the decision.
Currently 28 states have made it illegal to text while driving and eight of those have banned all handheld cell phone use by drivers. Many of these are primary enforcement laws; police can stop you and issue a citation without any other offense to your credit. Last month, Maryland made it illegal to read any electronic message in the car, moving or stopped at a light, in an attempt to close some loopholes in the law. The only time Marylanders are allowed to touch their phones in the car is answering or ending a call on a hands-free device. These laws continue to pile up despite studies from the Highway Loss Data Institute that found accident rates due to texting stayed constant even after the bans.
What if, as you passed the erratic driver, instead of being on the phone they were eating a burrito? Or dealing with an unruly child? Or fiddling with their satellite radio or GPS? Or reading printed directions? Or putting on makeup? Or just falling asleep? Any of these is as problematic as texting; so where is the legislation making them illegal? In fact, if a universal speed limit of 35 was applied, imagine the lives that would be saved! For the record, I personally abhor the use of cell phones while driving and avoid mine when behind the wheel. I also believe laws against driving while drunk are necessary. But how far are we willing to go for the common good? As far as New York assemblyman Felix Ortiz who promoted the installation of ignition-lock breathalyzers on all cars – whether you drink or not?
The argument is always the “greater good”. If we don’t protect people and society from themselves, who will? That’s the idea behind San Francisco’s ban on Happy Meals. Obesity costs lives and society’s money so say good-bye to fatty food in a friendly package. Of course, AIDS and other STDs cost lives and money, too – a cost that would go away if sex with multiple partners was banned. Maybe San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom will tackle that next, but I have my doubts.
So what am I getting at? The regulation of behavior through legislation changes with the tides of culture and power. At one time, moral conservatives passed blue laws prohibiting work on Sunday along with anti-sodomy and obscenity laws. Now, social progressives pass laws banning cigarettes and fatty foods while requiring composting and recycling. Both are attempting the same thing through legislation – to change personal behaviors thus promoting the greatest common good as their worldview sees it. A conservative may see the good as adults staying married for life while a progressive may see the good as adults separating paper from plastic in the recycling bin. Either way, it’s a project Christians should approach with caution.
Caution is needed because the same power we might use to curb freedom for the common good might be wielded against us when the winds of politics and culture change. While controlling cell phone use isn’t a huge issue, requiring Christians in the medical field to provide care that runs counter to their beliefs is; the Obama administration opened that door last month by repealing Bush-era protections. Is requiring a Christian doctor to perform abortions part of the “common good”? It all depends on who is defining the “common good” at this moment in history.
Furthermore, using legislation to change personal behaviors typically ends in failure. Remember Prohibition? Seemed like a good idea; we’ll ban alcohol and eliminate all the suffering that comes with it. Only problem was Prohibition didn’t end drinking – it just forced it underground and turned regular people into criminals. That’s because laws don’t change hearts, they just change consequences. In the Bible after the Exodus, the Israelites broke the Sabbath by going out to gather manna on the seventh day (Ex. 16:27-30). After the Law was given on Mount Sinai, they still broke the Sabbath. The only difference is after the Law, those who went out to gather wood on the Sabbath lost their lives (Num. 15:32-36).
We need to be passionate defenders of personal freedom as long as it does not cause direct harm to another. The more power we give to any government to regulate our lives the greater the likelihood that power will make claims on our faith. Whether it’s the freedom of our Muslim neighbor, atheist coworker, or Christian brethren, we defend freedom out of the freedom Christ has given us (Gal. 5:1). We must also resist the urge to use legislation to change the behavior of the culture. Our hearts were not transformed by the law, why should it be different for anyone else? When Jesus called us to be the “light of the world” he wasn’t speaking politically. Will we do the much harder work of bringing the light of Jesus to our schools, offices, neighborhoods and cities? It worked pretty well for the early church and continues to work well for our politically disadvantaged brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
So fight for freedom and work to see Jesus change lives and cultures. And while you’re at it, stop texting while you drive. You may still have the freedom in 22 states to be foolish, but it doesn’t mean you have to.