Legislating Morality

As the election cycle heats up, it is interesting to see which social issues come to the fore. This election seems to be mainly about the economy (code language for high unemployment, depressed housing prices, loss of household overall wealth, and stagnant wages). This elephant in the room may be so big that social issues are crowded out and seen as irrelevant. But, I suspect that a few will make a reappearance before I enter a voting booth in November.

Remember: the so-called “social issues” arena has specific issues involved. In the media world, things are often labeled so they can be ignored. This labeling strategy is especially helpful in regard to seemingly no-win issues that cannot help a certain candidate, only damage him or her. So we can take real-life issues such as gay marriage, abortion, content of health insurance policies when it comes to contraception, drug use, and others, and have them labeled as “social issues,” with the implied meaning “mere social issues that are a matter of opinion in which there is no right or wrong and therefore should not be part of the discussion.”

Often this is backed up with the long-standing truism, “You cannot legislate morality.” I would like to analyze this statement a little bit this morning.

On one level, I believe this statement is completely true, because morality comes from the heart. The truly moral person is not necessarily the one who follows the rules, but one who does so willingly. There is no remedy in the legal system to change a person’s heart. This has been recognized in the last half century by the shift in terminology for prisons from “reformatories” to “correctional institutions.” No one maintains the illusion that a hardened criminal will be reformed by a prison experience. Prison are meant to be a deterrent to criminals and as a way of removing criminals from the street.

On another level, though, I think it is possible and even appropriate to have laws in place to keep the order that will be seen as legislating morality by some. The state has the responsibility to legislate and enforce laws that are for the greater good of its citizens. The fact that these are based in the moral convictions of some legislators does not make them illegitimate. Social order depends upon people following an agreed-upon set of rules. Those who seek to change the rules that have been in place for generations should have the burden of proof upon them to show the common good, not hide behind the truism, “You cannot legislate morality” or “whatever a person does in private is of no concern to the state.”

Let me give you an example of this. Recently I read about some Florida municipalities’ battle against illegal signage, the “I Buy Houses,” “Lose Weight Guaranteed,” or “Learn to Speak without an Accent” signs posted on corners or stapled to telephone poles. These signs are illegal in most towns and cities, yet they multiply like the flower-eating rabbits in my neighborhood (that will be a future blog). These Florida cities have taken to using a robocall system to call the numbers on these signs every hour until the perpetrators come in and pay a fine and remove their signs. This has been very successful, with a reported rate of 70% fewer illegal signage in one city. (See this ABC News report.) Yet one of the offenders in illegal signage (using it to pump her Real Estate business), said, “I know this is technically illegal, but it is very productive for me.” She was willing to pay the fines and continue to operate illegally, even if her tactics were seen as wrong by a majority of her fellow citizens. You cannot legislate morality. You cannot make this woman understand that municipal ugliness and blight is not OK as long as she is making money. What is wrong in the eyes of the law is a minor inconvenience to her amoral business practices.

So, yes, you cannot legislate morality and we should not fool ourselves into thinking we can. But our legal system reflects the moral principles of someone. When our laws coincide with “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou shalt not steal,” we are affirming principles in line with what Christians believe the Bible teaches. And I don’t think we need to apologize for this or be cowed by the “You cannot legislate morality” chorus.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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2 thoughts on “Legislating Morality

  1. This is timely for me, and something I have been stewing on for three weeks. There is an initiative proposed to be put on the ballot in WA State (1192) regarding Marriage. The essence of the initiative is that it would define marriage as one man + one woman. The issue is not too complicated to me, it seems pretty clear that the definition of marriage is one man and one woman, so this is an initiative that challenges the new law which seeks to actually change the definition of the word. As a person I have no problem signing to have that initiative placed on the ballot. However we are being asked, as a church, to put it before people and have them sign it.

    Perhaps it’s more simple than it seems, but I have the distinct sense that the church has become so politically motivated that we have forgotten the gospel. That is to say, when we (Evangelical Conservative Protestant Church in general) speak about social issues as, “The Gay Agenda” for instance we end up making enemies/adversaries of the very people that we are called to love and into whose lives we are called to speak redemptively and lose our voice for the gospel in the culture. First we make them an enemy army in our way of thinking; second they see us as the enemy as cease to listen, not wanting to draw near. We cease to be people whose lives are seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

    • John, these are great comments and show that these are real issues in our lives today. I don’t know the best way to deal with the gay marriage issue. I guess if the state wants to legalize it, I can’t do much to stop it. Where I draw the line, though, is some coercion that would force me to do such a ceremony. I just don’t ever see myself doing that.

      While I was in Los Angeles, this issue came up in our church when gay marriage was legalized. I told my elders we needed a policy on this. No one had policies about this, because no one anticipated this situation. After discussion, it was clear that they were split on the issue. I think I threw up in my mouth a little, but I did not want to take a vote that would have divided the church. I told them that it was clear we were not going to agree, so I asked them to honor the current policy. That was that all wedding had to be approved by me. I told them I would not approve any gay weddings. Surprisingly, they were OK with that.

      Thanks, MK

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