You Can’t Legislate Morality?

You cannot legislate morality. How many times have you heard that? Whenever certain moral issues arise in a political context the stock answer is, “Well, you can’t legislate morality.” I have heard it over and over ad nauseam. I have to admit that I have even made that statement before, and then I started thinking and stopped saying it.

To a great extent, just about all legislation is an attempt to “legislate morality”. There are prohibitions against stealing, murder, abuse, and rape. Why? Because they are morally wrong. Legislation on healthcare, disability, and welfare are all attempts to legislate morality because it would be immoral to allow people to suffer or be without certain necessities. Again, morality is legislated all the time.

Often, when one hears “You can’t legislate morality”, what that really means is “I don’t like the brand of morality you are trying to legislate.” If you watched the Vice Presidential debate last night you probably noticed Vice President Biden’s response to the question on abortion. To paraphrase, he basically said that he was personally against abortion, but he would never impose that belief on others in the realm of government. Why not? Because you can’t legislate morality, right? But the fact is the pro-choice stance is a moral declaration in the legislature. The underlying moral is that it would be immoral to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. Whereas the pro-life argument comes down on the side of the unborn child, saying that it is immoral to take life.

Regardless of how you spin it, someone’s morality is being legislated. The question is whose morality wins out? What do we anchor morality to? Do we ground morality in the herd mentality? Should we take a utilitarian approach to morality and base our legislation on what is best for the greatest amount of people? Does the majority get the privilege of deciding what is moral? If majority of our legislation is to establish what is moral and enforce that decision, then on what do we base it? Our founding fathers based it on the natural law. Notice what Thomas Jefferson penned 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.

Where do our rights come from? “They are endowed by the Creator.” Our rights flow from God. Jefferson and our founding fathers believed there was a Higher Authority on which our morality was based. It is on this natural or moral law that we construct legislation. Now, our founding fathers never instituted a religion. It was never said that morality is rooted in a certain religion or denomination. In fact, the First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Our founding fathers were explicit that no religion should be imposed, but the establishment of a national morality was not prohibited. Again, this morality was to be built upon natural law.

So what is natural law? It is what people intuitively know to be right. We have an inner moral compass that was endowed by God in the heart of every man. We find in Romans 2:15 that the moral law is written on our hearts. Our consciences reflect what God has deemed to be moral. Everyone has equal value. Sex, life, and race are all sacred. We should help those in need. These truths are self evident and rooted in the natural law that has been written on our hearts.

Now, we cannot force people to desire to be moral. We cannot force people to respect one another and value what is found in the moral law, but we can protect the rights of others and uphold what is sacred. As Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me. But it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important.”

Morality is legislated. Morality is the very reason we have laws. Much would change in our country if we reverted to the belief that morals are grounded in natural law and legislated accordingly. But this is unlikely to happen unless people’s hearts change, and they begin to stand upon what they believe.

Our country will continue to spiral downward as long as we hold to the idea that we cannot impose a national morality. First, we need changed hearts. Before we start pointing our fingers at all the problems in America we should start by shining a light into our own hearts and seeing if our lives reflect the laws written on our hearts.

America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. -Alexis de Tocqueville.

Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.

Weigh in for today: What are you thoughts about the recent debates and moral climate in America?

1 Comment

  • Joe says:

    This Natural Law reffered to by our founding fathers was in essence the Law of the God of Christianity. They were simply politicians just like we have today, with their wording appealing to the masses. W/O this natural law being explicitly demonstrated in writing so that no majority could interpret otherwise. We are back to this Natural Law not being grounded with God and His word being the Standard at which congress Legislates. Utilitarianism is the default….. With this world and the population therein headed from perfection to chaos we see the future easily predicted. The majority will eventually be the lawless seeking after more of their morality being legislated. It paints a picture that i do not want to be around to see. The Gospel is the only thing that can change hearts and by default will change the motives of men.
    We must preach one dying man to another

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