By David Hegg
G.K. Chesterton was one of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers. It is often said that he said something brilliant about almost everything in the first decades of the 20th century. One of my favorite “Chestertonisms” is this one: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.”
Chesterton explained, “The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it (the fence) and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
Today many post-modern reformers are trying to clear away fences that have for millennia protected something society considered essential. The result very well may be a decline in our national ethic that is irreversible at best and lethal at worst. Here are a few examples:
1. Respect for Authority: Since the beginning of our republic there has been a “fence” around those in authority that demanded respect. Children grew up understanding they had to speak and act out of an inner recognition that those in authority deserved to be treated with honor because of the position they held. Parents, teachers, law officers — in fact, all adults — were to be approached humbly, and treated in a dignified manner.
Sadly, we have seen this fence not only removed but also blown up. Ask a public school teacher and you’ll hear it is almost impossible to keep order in the classroom now that students realize there will be no reprisal for disrespect. Worse, it appears respect for the law and those who enforce it have become passe in too many communities and contexts. We sorely wish that fence was still strong and in place.
2. Marriage: Common sense and honest historical research will tell you marriage as one man and one woman has been the dominant and core element in ordered society since the beginning of human history. But today we are watching that fence being torn down by a radical minority that not only hates it, but also has convinced the majority that it proclaims hatred. To disagree with same-sex marriage is today branded a dangerous form of prejudicial animosity.
But there is a reason society had protected marriage for thousands of years. It is the basic relationship upon which all others rest. Those now championing the idea that the government can be trusted to determine what constitutes an allowable relationship are blind to the fact they are surrendering up a fundamental right. In replacing the historical fence protecting traditional marriage with a governmental power to define relationship, we are relinquishing a right essential to our humanity. Those in same-sex relationships have every right to choose their partners and live together intimately. But they do not have the right to cede to the government the overall power to determine what constitutes a marriage.
3. Christianity: At the founding of our democracy, Christianity was counted as a religion to be freely expressed. Given that ours has always been a pluralistic society, it never was the only faith-based worldview allowed such privilege. Christianity, along with other world religions, was even considered a beneficial element in American society.
But today the fence of religious freedom and expression is being torn down, but not in every sphere. As it becomes more and more vogue to compliment and make room for Islam, Christianity is, at the same time, being slandered and persecuted in nuanced ways. When long held, biblically-based Christian convictions on life, death, marriage and holy living become the targets of irreligious, power-seeking civic leaders, we can only say “be careful of the fences you are tearing down for they may be protections that have benefited our society for so many years.”
If you look carefully you’ll find more “traditional fences” that are being systematically torn down. And while, in some cases, it will bring progress, there is ample evidence that hasty demolition will bring lasting devastation. I only wish Chesterton were here to add his voice of warning.
Then again, maybe he already has.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.