What do you think of political activism by Christians? Isn’t it true that we can’t legislate morality?
This idea that you cannot legislate morality is one of the slogans we often hear recited by those who oppose Christian involvement in the political or legislative process. And on the surface it seems to have some plausibility; so we need to examine it carefully.
The statement, “You cannot legislate morality” is a fairly ambiguous statement. That is, it’s true or false depending upon what you mean by it, because it’s capable of at least two very different meanings.
It’s possible to construe the words to mean, “You cannot change people’s hearts by passing laws;” or the words may be taken to mean, “You ought not impose morality by means of the law.”
According to the first meaning, the statement is true; according to the second, it is false.
If, when someone says, “You cannot legislate morality,” he means that you can’t change people’s hearts by passing laws, then the statement is of course true. Laws do not change hearts. But then again that is not the purpose of law. Legislation is designed to suppress evil behavior through the threat of civil penalties. We legislate against murder, for instance, not in an attempt to change the heart of the would-be murderer, but in order suppress his evil behavior through fear of punishment.
No, you cannot change people’s hearts by passing laws. However, to admit this is not to say that law does not serve a valuable purpose. What would life be like if we did not have law? We would have no civilization. If we didn’t have law, we would have chaos. We would have anarchy. No one would be safe. Our lives and property would be at the mercy of the wicked. Everyone would have to defend himself and seek his own justice when he was wronged. It would be hard to imagine a more miserable state of society.
No, you cannot legislate morality in the sense of changing people’s wicked hearts. You can’t change sinners into saints by passing laws. You can’t make a thug a respectable citizen simply by outlawing thuggery. But you can make the price of thuggery higher than he’s willing to pay, by punishing it in a court of law. You can’t make a violent and perverse man chaste by outlawing rape, but by outlawing rape you can make him think twice before he attempts to prey upon our wives and daughters.
No, you cannot change people’s hearts through legislation, but legislation is still necessary for the good of society—for the protection of the innocent, for the redress of wrongs, and for the punishment of those who do evil.
But the statement, “You can’t legislate morality” can be understood in another way. It can be taken to mean, “You shouldn’t impose morality by means of law.” But this is absurd, when you think about it, because all legislation is a legislation of morality—a legislation of someone’s ideas of right and wrong.
It is never a matter of legislating morality versus not legislating morality; it is always a matter of whose morality will be legislated. Legislating morality is inevitable as long as there is legislation. Legislation is simply the imposing of morality by means of law.
All legislation is a legislation of someone’s morality, and it makes a world of difference whose morality is being legislated. Will we have laws to govern us based upon the word of the all wise and holy God, or will we have laws based upon some fallible humanistic source?
Again, it’s never a matter of legislating versus not legislating morality, but whose morality will be legislated? And Christians ought to be advocating for legislation which is consistent with the biblical standard.