Can You Legislate Morality?

You cannot legislate morality. Have you ever heard that thought expressed by someone? What do they mean? They can mean one of two things. One is that you cannot pass a law that will force a person to be moral. Morality is a matter of the heart or conscience. The other thing they could mean is that the government has no business telling people what is right or wrong. The first position is true morality, an inside job. The second position shows a lack of understanding of where laws come from.

All law has some moral base.
It is just a question of what the moral base is and what the source of the moral base is. The dictionary defines a law as, “All the rules of conduct established and enforced by the authority, legislation, or custom of a given community or other group.” So the group has decided that some things are right and some are wrong. They have decided that some things are legal and some things are illegal. This raises the question of why certain things are unlawful.

Who gets to make the rules?
Someone would say, “Well common sense or moral decency would tell any rational person that murdering someone is wrong.” Another would say, “But by whose morals or common sense?” A Hitler or Stalin would have different morals than most people. Some people feel that the ends justify the means. People in today’s post-modern age believe all things are relative; there are no moral absolutes. Do you really want to live in a society where people can do that which is right in their own eyes?

One major problem today is that the majority of people in our society are ignorant of the history of Western culture and the process by which our legal system developed. Because we are an increasingly secular culture, the whole concept of God is being rewritten out of our history. The role of the Bible (Old and New Testaments), Christianity, the Church and the Protestant Reformation has been a major factor in shaping both Western culture and our nation in particular. This reality cannot be denied unless you willingly choose to deny the facts of history. Laws originate within a culture’s view of God. The process is as follows: theology, God’s laws, morality,  ethics, culture and man’s laws. Let us look in more detail at this process.

There was a time in our nation’s education system that theology (the study of God) was the foundation of all education. In studying God, people came to learn God’s laws (the 10 commandments). God’s laws would then form the basis of our morality as a people (what is right and wrong). God’s laws also resonate as true within the human heart, for God says He has placed His laws in our heart (Romans 2.14-15). This morality determined the ethics by which decisions, commitments and business dealings were conducted. All of this formed the culture of a community and eventually a nation. Finally, much of these values were codified into laws by legislatures.

Today we hear talk of our nation being engaged in a “cultural war.” What does that mean? It means we are arguing as a country about whose morality will determine our ethics, culture, and ultimately, the laws of our land. Once the culture reaches a tipping point of a new morality replacing the old, then it is inevitable for laws to change. So today we see the battles being waged in state and federal legislatures over issues such as abortion, the redefining of marriage, and religious freedom, just to name a few. The root of all this change is the changing of our theological base or what is referred to as the Judeo-Christian faith. This war is simply about whose theology, morality and ethics will shape the culture. By theology, I am not referring to a particular church or denomination. However, I am referring to a particular view of God.

That view is the historical Judeo-Christian view embraced by our nation’s founding fathers. Notice how they incorporated this view into our Constitution. It is a concept called freedom of religion. It is based upon the truth of man’s free will. We were created to worship God and to enjoy Him forever. As part of this creative purpose, God endowed each of us with free will. We can choose to worship God or not to worship Him. Ultimately, each one of us is accountable before God for our decisions. This freedom was written into our Bill of Rights. People would be free to worship or not to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. No one religion would be given a preference over another. However, this did not mean that a particular theology of God and thus a moral base would not be given a preference. Our founders knew that a republic was sustainable only if the people in it remained a moral people. This was only possible if they maintained a belief in the God of the Bible. So our theological and moral basis of our legal system was set by the founding fathers upon the basis of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

They believed their system of government would provide the most freedom, good and opportunity for the most people over the most time. The great American experiment has proved to do just that. It is not a perfect system of government, for none are. However, it is the best we have come up with so far. They also understood the concept of human depravity. When this concept is applied to human government it recognizes that no one person can be trusted with absolute power. So the separation of powers (the equal branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial) became a part of the American experiment. The American dream, which is about the opportunity to achieve your potential, should not be confused with New Testament Christianity; they are different.
As believers, we must always remember our citizenship is in heaven and our primary allegiance is to Christ. Scripture fixes our theology, morals, ethics and view of what should be our laws. As citizens of our country we are allowed to work within this system to pass laws we believe follow this theology and morality. The big problem seems to be that Christians don’t know how to translate their faith into daily life decisions that are congruent with their faith. After all, faith is a set of beliefs that are to be lived out in daily life – it is to have practical application.

This problem seems to be due to at least three systemic issues in our culture. One has already been mentioned, the lack of a historical context. As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Having a historical context is critical to continuing the freedom of our nation as well as passing on our faith. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better. Before you get rid of the old, you need to understand why it was there in the first place. That reason may still be relevant.

This leads us to the second problem: the lack of a theological base. This problem lies at the feet of our churches. Many have quit teaching theology and exchanged it for a need based message and program heavy on entertainment. Churches have allowed the culture to drive their message and worship in order to attract people. The result has been large crowds of people attending church but who are ignorant of God. Religion has become a consumer commodity. The balance between relevancy and true worship has been lost in this process. Without a clear vision and understanding of who God is, a believer does not make congruent application of faith to everyday decisions. The process of theology to morals to ethics to faith-based decisions to law has been lost.

This leads to the third problem: the destruction of the family unit. The family is designed by God to be the foundation of society and culture. Through family, people would learn how to have a proper relationship with God and others. This was based upon learning to love God and to love others. These two commandments were the basis of the other Ten Commandments. If people lived by these two truths we wouldn’t need so many other laws. The more internal control people have the less external control they need. The men and women who gave birth to this nation were highly educated in the classical tradition. They had an understanding of theology and how it translated to a moral culture based upon the rule of law. This doesn’t mean they were all Christians or perfect. But it does describe a worldview that shaped our nation. This worldview was taught in the homes of the nation. These practices are fast becoming the exception rather than the norm.

You may think of other problems, but a good starting point for correcting what ails our nation would be for the education programs of our schools and churches to return to teaching the process of where morality comes from.

 What are your thoughts on our nation departing from the vision of the Founding Fathers? We want to know! Please let us know at [email protected].

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