Beware of those evil Christians. They’re always mixing politics and religion. Don’t you know that you can’t legislate morality? Don’t impose your beliefs on me! Stop trying to make America your Christian theocracy!
That’s some of the hysteria that’s out there. And there are some well-meaning Christians who are happy to agree with some of this sentiment will say things like “laws can’t change hearts. Only Jesus can”. How do we think this about all of this?
First of all, it’s very naive to say that you can’t legislate morality.
What do you think laws are, exactly? All laws are about legislating morality.
We have laws against running red lights because we believe human beings have intrinsic moral value and worth. So they shouldn’t be hit by cars. We have laws against abusing children. Why? Again, we believe human beings are valuable. We have laws against robbing people at gunpoint. That’s because it’s immoral to take someone’s property.
Healthcare, diversity, the death penalty, guns, drugs, euthanasia, abortion. These are all legal issues and they’re all moral issues. Legislating morality is inescapable.
All laws are a reflection of a moral viewpoint.
Whose morality is it anyway?
This is where things get a little deep. People chafe at the idea of imposing God’s laws on the rest of society because they think Christians are trying to establish some sort of theocracy.
Now there are some real loonies out there, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t know of any Christians who want to mandate that you must join their church. There’s no group of Christians out there that want to make state laws regarding baptism, prayer, mandatory church attendance, etc. True Christians don’t want to legally coerce your worship – or lack thereof. But like everyone else, Christians are concerned about regulating behavior towards your fellow man. Morality is about our duties to each other.
Now here’s where it gets philosophical. And controversial. In order for legislation to be morally “correct”, it has to be based on God’s laws. And if it fails to be in line with God’s laws, it’s an unjust law. Why?
Because without God, there is no morality. The basis of morality isn’t some natural thing. You see, morality has to do with the way things should be in the world. But if the world is here for no reason, then there is no way things are meant to be.
Natural facts are about what is, not the way things ought to be. Animals kill each other. They forcibly mate with each other. There’s no #MeToo movement in the animal kingdom. We don’t arrest a tiger for eating a gazelle. Some animals even eat their own young after giving birth. We might think it’s gross, but these things are facts of nature.
But if natural facts are the only type of facts that there are, then the same applies to human beings. People steal, torture, rape, lie and exploit each other. It is what it is. There is no way things should be. Our ideas of right and wrong might help us survive, but they have no objective basis. Regarding morality as a mere survival mechanism, Charles Darwin himself said:
“If…men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”
But I think we all know from our daily experience that there are moral duties. And they couldn’t be different than what they are. No more than we could change the laws of logic or math. That being the case, the basis of morality isn’t natural. It has to have some sort of supernatural basis.
Morality seems to have some sort of intention, and that intention or purpose basically leads to us “loving your neighbor as yourself”. Intention or purpose is the property of persons, not abstractions. Therefore the best way to think about morality is that a supernatural person, namely God, brought it about. (There’s a lot more that can be said about this, so check out the video and link at the bottom).
We hold these truths to be self-evident
Paul said that God’s law or morals are self-evident to everyone. (Romans 2:14-15). Our founding fathers thought the same thing, it’s why they believed everyone had a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So then, laws that allow for us to exploit, abuse and kill each other aren’t moral laws at all. They’re out of line with God’s purposes. It’s why many Christians fought against slavery, child labor, infanticide, gladiatorial combat and abortion throughout the ages. There may have been some “Christians” who supported some of those things. That just means they were hypocrites. They were living outside of the “love your neighbor as yourself” ethic that is written on our hearts.
Non-Christians like Gandhi and others can see the need for reform too. That’s because they’re also made in the image of God. They too recognize God’s law whether they acknowledge God as the source of it or not.
“Laws can’t change hearts, only the gospel can.”
Here’s a quote from Relevant Magazine:
Legislating morality doesn’t actually change people. It just makes them look like they are changed.
As Christians, we have to ask what we are really after. Do we want people to look like they are changed by Jesus or do we want people to actually be changed by Jesus? Do we want to encourage people—albeit unintentionally—to have a form of godliness but reject the power of Christ that actually transforms their lives? (2 Timothy 3:5)
This sentiment sounds spiritual, but it’s wrong-headed. And I’d add anti-Christian because it fails to love its neighbor. And it’s a belief that can hinder the gospel itself.
To illustrate this, take a look at this satellite picture of Korea:
That’s a pretty stark contrast. Christians believe everyone needs the gospel. But not everyone will hear the gospel. I can’t legally preach the gospel openly in North Korea. But I definitely can in South Korea. They enjoy religious freedom. And in fact, it’s one of the most Christianized nations in the world. As Christians, we should be concerned with religious freedom. Paul asked that we pray that “the word has free course, and is glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1-3).
But as Christians, we should also recognize that not everyone is going to receive the gospel. And yet God is kind. Even to the unjust and the evil. If we had a choice, would we prefer our neighbor live North Korea or South Korea? The difference between the two nation all comes down to politics – the type of economic, social and religious freedom they allow or do not allow. If I love my neighbor, I’m going to oppose those who oppose those freedoms and support those who support those freedoms. The devil gets in the details, and sometimes it requires choosing the lesser of two evils. I can do this while “speaking truth to power” to that lesser of two evils and telling them where they need to reform — where they are falling short of God’s standards.
Laws might not change hearts, but you definitely want it to regulate behavior
Also, saying that the law can’t change a heart is true. But it’s only half true. I really can’t say it any better than the great reformer MLK Jr.
“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here.
Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. 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, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”
TL; DR version:
All legislation is legislated morality. There’s no neutrality here. Moral values and duties can only come from God. So the only right morality is what is in line with God’s law. And God’s law is wrapped up in one simple phrase. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “do to others what you would have them do to you”. (Matthew 7:12) Laws that promote theft and murder are wrong and should be overturned. And those laws by themselves cannot change a heart. But they can keep them from being stolen from, killed, abused and exploited. As Christians, we obviously ought to be interested in that type of thing. This isn’t about establishing a theocracy. It’s about our duty to the world around us.
For more on God as the foundation for our morality, watch:
For more on legislating morality, watch:
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.