You Can’t Legislate Morality…or Can You?


“You Can’t Legislate Morality.” “You CAN Legislate Morality.” I’ve heard both statements with equal zeal. On the surface these two statements seem diametrically opposed, contradictory, and mutually exclusive. 

These two statements are put forth by intelligent folks on both sides of the debate. So is one side just plain wrong and the other side just plain right? Or am I missing something?

As it turns out, I WAS missing something until I took the time to ask someone on the other side…”what do you mean by ‘legislate morality’?” This practice of asking questions for clarification is quickly becoming one of my primary mechanisms for bridging the gap between two worldviews. Seeking understanding FIRST. 

A simple question such as “what do you mean by…” can clarify issues, enhance understanding, and decrease defensiveness and animosity at the same time. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. 

OK…so what did I learn from asking the “what do you mean” question? I learned that both sides are speaking a different language. Similar to how men and women have difficulty communicating, people across different worldviews often have difficulty communicating. 

The Christian View: You CAN Legislate Morality

Let’s first look at the view of Christians who believe in engaging in politics and the legal systems in order to influence or enact laws that are consistent with our beliefs (aka our morals). This group more often than not believes that you CAN legislate morality. As with all things, understanding the answer is not as important as understanding the question. defines “legislate” as “to make or enact laws.” It also defines “Morals” as “of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong.” 

Christians more often than not mean that you CAN enact laws to hold people accountable to moral beliefs.

Christians more often than not mean that you CAN enact laws to hold people accountable to moral beliefs. You can take the beliefs of the majority and influence laws that encourage good/right behavior and punish bad/wrong behavior. 

And the evidence of this fact is plain for all to see. Every country I know has laws which punish bad/wrong behavior such as assault, murder, driving while intoxicated on drugs/alcohol, rape, child abuse, theft, etc… So in this sense, you CAN legislate morality…good and bad behavior. I.e. You CAN punish crimes that are based on foundational concepts of good vs evil actions which are counter-productive to a healthy society. 

When Christians are labeled as “too political”, it is not because of promoting laws related to the above examples. Few people would disagree on these laws. Instead, we are considered too political or stepping over the line when we attempt to create laws against “victimless crimes” such as fornication, buying alcohol before noon on Sunday, recreational drug use, prostitution, pornography, etc. 

Now, I could argue pretty convincingly that some of these aren’t victimless crimes. Such as what happens within a relationship when one party is addicted to drugs, a slave to pornography, or committing adultery through prostitution. Someone IS getting hurt. But let’s save that debate for another article. 

The point is that Christians (as a majority in America) DO try to enact laws that attempt to force our beliefs on others with different beliefs. I would argue that in any society, free or otherwise, there is a majority which puts laws in place that force a minority population to follow the majorities beliefs. However, we need to be very careful to protect the freedoms and the rights of those in the minority as well. 

The Other View: You CAN’T Legislate Morality

But we now need to consider what “You can’t legislate morality” means to the other side and consider their views. This side would concede that you CAN enact laws, but it would argue quite convincingly that you can’t MAKE people be moral. 

Take the topic of pornography. Even with all of our professed morals on the subject, there are countless Christians enslaved by pornography, and countless non-Christians who are equally addicted to it. 

The “you can’t legislate morality” side of the aisle is very correct in this case. You can make laws against it, but you can’t MAKE people stop wanting to see it. You can attempt to shut down the industry which prospers by producing it (especially in the case of under-age “child porn”), but you can’t force a marketplace to stop craving it. If one hypothetical definition of “being good” is abstaining from pornography, then laws can’t MAKE someone BE GOOD. 

Laws can be a deterrent right? I believe so. But, just look at our prisons. They are full of people who weren’t MADE GOOD by laws. Even with full awareness of the possible punishment, they still stole, raped, assaulted, killed, etc.

Laws can be a deterrent right? I believe so. But, just look at our prisons. They are full of people who weren’t MADE GOOD by laws. Even with full awareness of the possible punishment, they still stole, raped, assaulted, killed, etc.

You Can AND Can’t Legislate Morality

Jerry Sandusky is in jail because he was not made GOOD by laws against pedophilia. I think this last point makes the case perfectly for both sides. You CAN legislate morality (ie. You can make laws which punish those who do BAD things), AND you can’t legislate morality (ie. You can’t make BAD people BE GOOD by enacting laws). 

As Christians, we should be experts on this topic. If you have cracked open the Bible and read through the Old Testament, it’s full of Mosaic Laws which the Israelites were utterly incapable of following. 

In fact this whole question is foundational to our Christian faith. It’s the very reason that Jesus Christ is necessary for our salvation. To argue against it is to deny our Christian faith. No law, and no amount of trying to be good people MAKES us good. It is only by accepting the freely given gift of grace, by faith in Jesus Christ, that we are made good in God’s eyes.

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  1. Ian M. says

    The point about asking questions is a very important one in the pursuit of critical thought. In this case, I would like to ask, What do you mean by morality? The Western Culture has blended the two words “ethics” and “morality” and the confusion between these two words creates the dichotomy between the two statements in question. While one CAN legislate the ethics of a culture, one cannot dictate, through law, the morality. Interestingly enough, this came out in an episode of NCIS, of all places. One character asked “What is the difference between ethics and morality?” the othe character answered, “Ethics is when a man knows not to cheat on his wife. Morality is when he doesn’t cheat on his wife”. All of the ethical norms of our society are embodied in the Law Books of our culture. There are still a need for police and lawcourts and the whole infrastructure to deal with those who’s sense of morality does not line up to the ethics of the collective.

  2. Thomas Peck says

    The lesson of the Old Testament is that one cannot force people to be moral – that has to be their choice. God could MAKE us follow His moral Law, but then we would not longer be free and He would be a tyrant. Hence, even God does not ‘legislate’ morality. That is why I get somewhat frustrated at my brothers in Christ who go around trying to stop sinners from being sinners while sinning themselves! However, when I have been given that statement, my reply is this: “every law is a moral statement’. Every law indicates what is proper conduct or improper conduct, so when a law is passed it is a community indication of what those in authority (or majority) believe is moral. That becomes an uphill battle (or slippery slope) when a Godly moral is no longer seen by the public as a moral. For instance, adultery is still frowned upon socially, but no longer illegal. When the laws are becoming more and more in opposition or ignoring God’s morals, it is time to preach the Gospel more and less to try to pass laws that make sinners more because God’s wrath is at hand. After the results of this latest election, it seems we have moved one tick of the clock closer to that day.

  3. Ian M. says

    I share your frustration, Brother. (I assume you are a brother) In other discussions I have made mention of some of the concepts gleaned from a book called “The Next Christians” by Gabe Lyons (of the Barna Group). There, as I was reading, it became clear to me what the errors of the North American Church were. If we understand that there are three main expressions of culture, dominant culture, sub-culture, and counter-culture, we see that the Church in the last century was attempting, with some success, to play the role of the conscience of the dominant culture. This has blown up in our faces to the point that the dominant culture doesn’t want to hear us any more and they are quite vocal in their opposition (and rightly so because we were never meant to be part of the dominant culture). They are, right now, endevouring to press us into the mold of being a sub-culture. If we go away and look after our own stuff and leave them alone, all will be well, according to them. Accepting that role is the second error of the Modern Church. It is the role of being a counter-culture where the Church functions the closest to the biblical model. We are to be there to collect the ragged victims of the dominant culture’s folly. We are to be there to comfort, support, and assist the people who’s lives are in ruin because of their adherance to the lies told to them by Government, Business, and, unfortunately, the Church. If the worldview under which I live is true, the bureauacracies of our dominant culture will continue to move away from the designs of God in the various aspects of our world and the number of victims will continue to mount until some breaking point in the forseeable future. The Church in North America is woefully unprepared for the enormous job to which God is calls us. God has two (or more) choices to make here at this juncture in eternity. He can super-naturally intervene and force preparations on the Church; a path that He seldom walks. Or He can fold the tent, as it were, and move to another point in time to set in place the circumstances where His Church can shine with all the Glory she is meant to have. The ball is in our court.

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