Should We Legislate Morality?

One objection to Christian involvement in law and politics is that it is somehow wrong to “legislate morality.” Given the heat generated by the same-sex controversy, this epithet is often hurled at Christians who dissent on the Supreme Court ruling and who do not support laws of this kind. These objections, however, have no force.

Consider the nature of civil law. Through the threat of force, these laws constrain or require actions. They are not suggestions, but imperatives. Such laws are not akin to scientific laws which describe the patterns found in nature. Civil laws prescribe behaviors. Some moral standard or moral vision lies behind all civil laws. They do not appear out of nothing, and they are not morally neutral. As R. J. Rushdoony wrote in Institutes of Biblical Law, “It must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society.” A god rewards and punishes, forbids and requires, and defines morality. Since civil law is the last word in adjudicating human affairs, the source of that law is deemed the final authority, even if it is not.

American civil law ought to be rooted in and consistent with the Constitution, which itself is based on a philosophy of natural law or natural rights. That is, there is a law above the law to which the law should conform as much as possible in a fallen world. This powerful idea is found in the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Governments are instituted to secure rights given by the Creator. Governments do not create rights by their dicta. The American vision for law is based on the Judeo-Christian worldview—however imperfectly applied.

Some protest that religious people wrongly impose their views on others. Religion is a private and personal matter. “Get religion out of politics,” they cry. But Christians, as citizens of these United States, have just as much right and opportunity to shape law as any other citizen. This follows from the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Richard John Neuhaus expounds this convincingly and thoroughly in his modern classic, The Naked Public Square (1984). The First Amendment insures far more than “freedom of worship”—that is, activities done at home and in a place of religious assembly. That is protected, but so is political activism and legal influence.

Civil law will not make anyone good. Moral character cannot be legislated. But laws that are just make people less likely to do what is bad for society. As Martin Luther King said, laws will not make a racist like me, but they could stop them from lynching me. That is the negative or restraining power of the law.

When law restrains virtue and encourages vice, we are in a pretty pickle. Perhaps we should legislate a better morality—one based on the founding principles of the founders of this republic, who took their standards largely from the Bible.

 

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

12 thoughts

  1. Well said.
    “Some protest that religious people wrongly impose their views on others. Religion is a private and personal matter. “Get religion out of politics,” they cry. Ironically, when people say, religion is private and personal, they are trying to impose their view of religion on us. As evangelicals, we disagree with this view. Yet such people would demand that we act as though their view was true.

  2. “Some protest that religious people wrongly impose their views on others. Religion is a private and personal matter. “Get religion out of politics,” they cry. Ironically, when people say, “Religion is private and personal,” they are trying to impose their view of religion on us. As evangelicals, we disagree with this view. Yet such people would demand that we act as though their view was true.

  3. I agree with this 100%. One cannot legislate morality, that is, a particular legislation cannot coerce an individual to abide by the law, but can and should legislate the moral standard for a society. The Lord instituted the OT Law knowing very well that not one person would be able to keep the Law, until Jesus Christ who fulfilled it. Paul admonishes in Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” It is important that Christians engage in politics and the public square, to ensure that morality, influenced by the Judeo-Christian values that governed the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, continue to be at the root of future legislation.

  4. When it comes to “legislating morality,” my understanding about the concern about Christian involvement in government is some Christians advance ideas that are not susceptible to the democratic process. That is, when we are debating ideas, there is an assumption that we will all present evidence and that any of us might be persuaded by the other. There are Christian views, however, that seem to be justified by something that is out side that ordinary process of discussion. These are typically moral in nature. And because we can’t get at the justification for those views, we say that those Christians are tying to “legislate morality,” or ‘dictate moral things,’ might be a better way to express the same thought.

  5. I think it is where do we draw the line. We all agree that we should legislate morality. Murder and theft are only wrong because of our God given sense of right and wrong. Animals kill and steal food and nesting sites and there are no consequences because they are not created in God’s image, they have no conscience. So some would draw a line in the sand and say as long as it does not hurt some one else it is ok and we should mind our own business. To the Christian sinful actions can cause others to stumble in their walk with God or to keep them from finding salvation all together. Each and every sin done in public or with a second person hurts another person or person. Keeping a person away from eternal life with God is the most harm one can cause another.
    Christians have a difficult time expressing this view in a manner that does not seem like we are all just a bunch of control freaks trying to keep everyone in line. The ultimate goal is that none should perish.

    Our country has slowly moved toward immorality: drugs are legal, abortion is legal, divorce is common, now homosexuality is accepted next the pedophile and the serial killers and cleptomaniacs will claim they are genetically programmed to be who they are and demand the freedom to exercise their God given rights. Then what?

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