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.
Nebraska Christian College