“You can’t legislate morality!” We often hear that refrain used to silence conservative viewpoints. But what does it mean? Was the Roman Empire legislating morality when it abolished the bloody gladiator games, or was the British Empire wrong to outlaw slavery based on a Christian view of morality? Martin Luther King, Jr., opposed segregation because of biblical commands for equality. Were his efforts inappropriate?
In reality, it is difficult to identify any law that contains no moral component. Laws preventing animal cruelty or environmental destruction, for instance, derive from a sense of humanity’s moral interaction with other living things and natural resources. And does anyone seriously believe that laws preventing human sex trafficking are flawed because they are based on a moral ethos?
Laws are motivated by a number of moral concerns, including the protection of life, liberty, and property. Frequently, advocates on both sides of a legal issue, such as capital punishment, support their positions with moral arguments. So the question is really not whether we should legislate morality, but whose morality we will legislate.
This does not mean that simply obeying the law will make a person good. Even though most laws may restrain sinful acts, few sins are actually covered in the criminal code. The law does not criminalize coveting your neighbor’s property. Failing to honor our parents is not a crime. You can obey every single law in a society and still fall far short of living a sin-free life.
Instead, other forms of authority help shape those principles and convict sinners of the character traits the Creator expects of humans made in His image. In assessing moral issues that we should legislate, our focus should be on God’s design for government and His bigger program for our submission to authority.
Government is one of at least three authorities God has instituted in society. Parents are to raise their children according to moral principles (Proverbs 22:6) and children are to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1–4). Employers are to act fairly and godly toward employees (James 5:4; Ephesians 6:9). Employees are to serve their employers respectfully and heartily (1 Peter 2:18; Colossians 3:23).
God instituted principles of government in Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 9:6, and government’s role is to promote good (Romans 13:1–7). We obey God when we obey governmental authorities, because “the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). (That does not mean we should comply with governmental dictates that violate His commandments [Acts 4:5–20]. Rather, we must work within the law for change or accept government’s punishment of our faith.)
To say that a nation’s laws must avoid any moral basis ignores centuries of laws spanning diverse religious and nonreligious cultures. More important, it is an impossible and antibiblical standard. Even if a society rejects God’s authority, believers have an obligation to advocate God’s standards for civil government as revealed in the Bible.
“Should we legislate morality?” That’s the wrong question. We should ask, “What is the best way to promote God’s role for government and other authority?”