Should We Legislate Morality?

The “Theology of the City” series has been raising a number of interesting questions. One that was posed to me yesterday is: should we or should we not legislate morality?

I made the point in yesterday’s sermon that the church in America has essentially tried to “re-create Jerusalem.” The church has attempted to Christianize the culture, neglecting the obvious fact that it’s impossible to do so because true Christianity requires a changed heart, not just an externally imposed moral standard. This led one Coram Deo dude to remark that Christians should stop trying to legislate morality (i.e. working against evil in society using political/social means) because it simply can’t work. The gospel works from the inside out, not the outside in.

On the other hand, many would say that it IS good and right and godly to influence cultural standards of right and wrong, and political means are a good and legitimate tool God has given for this purpose. This point of view seems to be well-supported in church history… many notable Christians have seen it as part of their duty to work against the structural evil embedded in society by working to change laws and policies that promote sin.

What do you think? It seems to me that the convictions on this issue tend to swing back and forth with the political winds. In the 80’s and early 90’s, at the height of the “Christian conservative” political movement, legislating morality was seen as a good thing. Now that the cool, hip Christians are into new monastic communities and renewable energy and voting for Obama, legislating morality is seen as a bad thing.

What are your thoughts? Is there a place for legislation that rewards righteousness and hinders unbiblical living? Or should we seek only to change people’s hearts through the gospel, and expect that individual change to have a permeating effect on cities and societies?


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  1. I think it’s an issue-by-issue thing. There are some issues like abortion where legislative and/or judicial good can be done, and yes, imposed on our culture. Other things, like welfare/helping the (american) poor would perhaps be best left alone by government and best served by the church.

    It would be impossible to go through all the issues, but suffice it to say, there are some issues that could be helped by influencing the gov’t. and some, not so much.


  2. I’ve been wrestling with and writing about similar issues in my own mind and in discussion with friends.

    I think to sufficiently answer the question, we must also explore deeper questions, such as: can freedom truly exist without a Christ-centered worldview? If not for the great equalizing beliefs of creation, fallenness, and redemption, what basis do we have for believing that all people are equal? Certainly a survival of the fittest mentality does not espouse this belief.

  3. Not really, Ben. More like Christians that are slightly hipper than other Christians, yet still totally depraved of coolness.

    Remember the adage: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. 🙂

  4. As Christians, we should never put our faith in any system of government, or in any type of legislation, or any specific candidate to bring about the transformation of people. Our hope should rest solely in Jesus, and our main focus should be in making his name known, and not the name of whatever candidate or party we might support. However, if we truly believe that the gospel changes everything, then we must also believe that it will influence our political and voting decisions. And if our voting habits look exactly like the culture around us, then perhaps we are not really letting the gospel influence the way we vote, the stigma of “legislating morality” be damned.

    There was a book written in 1998 on this very issue, titled “Legislating Morality.” I know it probably hurts my “progressive Christian” street cred to mention a book written by Norman Geisler…oh well. He does make some good points, and here’s one of them:

    “Those who protest the loudest against legislating morality are merely trying to legislate their own particular brand of morality. Since all laws declare one behavior right and another behavior wrong, legislating morality is not only ethical, it is unavoidable.”

    So, really, the question is not “should we legislate morality?” but “what kind of morality should we legislate?” and “to what extent should that morality be legislated?” In general, it’s my belief that Christians should seek to pass laws that establish justice and peace, allow the free practice of our faith, end oppression, and seek the good of the community and nation.

    Examples of this would be laws against abortion (justice for unborn lives) and pornography (I’m thinking of laws to protect children and minors who are often exploited), or laws that send tax money to help the poor (even if its through a religious organization).

    I do not believe that Christians should seek to pass laws that try to enforce standards of personal holiness, or seek to establish a “new Israel” or seek to force Christian belief on a person. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this in past, such as laws against the selling of alcohol.

    A particular area of much-needed reform that I think Christians should seek to change through legislation is education…but in the interest of any shred of brevity that remains, I’ll leave that topic alone.

  5. Thanks for killing this thread by telling us there’s already a book written on it!

    Actually, Geisler’s point is thoughtful. Thanks for sharing it.

    How exactly do I find out what kind of street cred I have?

  6. I’m not sure, it’s a complex formula. Geisler left the Evangelical Theological Society when they wouldn’t kick out Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd (they are both open theists), so I think it’s his shameful intolerance of heresy that causes him (and by association, people who quote him) to lose street cred.

    You don’t seem to have proper respect for Rob Bell, and you believe and preach that people are really going to hell, so my guess is that you might be in trouble. On the other hand, you crack jokes about Casting Crowns and Third Day, so maybe it all evens out.

  7. Paul,

    I think your street cred just got hurt by mentioning Rob Bell 🙂

    That’s a good quote by Geisler, though. I know some Christians were trying to pull off the “new Jerusalem, especially in the 90’s. Now, though, there seems to be an overreaction in the other direction.


  8. Hey all,

    I haven’t read any Geisler so maybe…that is..good for my street cred?? This is a great topic in which feel there is a lot of hesitation from christians to answer. Certainly our culture and has made it apparent that they feel some things are just none of our business, as christians. But I think that christians, especially those in the city, are to be in the business of redeeming all things.

    I read The Shack by William P. Young (which probably kills my street cred). In one chapter ‘God’ explains to the main character that all forms of structure, government, policies etc. are a result of humanity’s lack of dependence on God and turning away from trust in Him. Interesting thought. Maybe this what Samuel foresaw in Samuel 8? Nevertheless, God (cuz he knows all) foreknew that their desire for an earthly king would lead to a perfect opportunity for His glory and redemption to be shown so that in the end we could be fully satisfied in him when he revealed himself again as the True King over all.

    My connection is that kingships have ultimately turned into democracies. And, just as with the Israelites long ago there is opportunity now for sin to abound in government and policy and for us to have trust in what man has made with his hands, rather than God. But as 1 Chronicles 29:11,12 and Romans 13:1 explain God is really in control: and not just sovereign over but working through our independence or “freedom” to bring about His glory.

    Therefore, as God uses all, we also should not “waste anything” or better said let “nothing be lost” and thats means government/politics(John 6:12). If Jesus can use a few measly loafs of bread to teach his disciples about trusting in God, how much will we be blessed when we glorify God by attempting to redeem government?


  9. I don’t know what “legislating morality” is. Most would say murder is morally wrong, but it’s not hard to see the utilitarian purpose for a ban. If legislating morality means the sole purpose for a law is morals-based, I don’t think we should legislate morality. However, there seem to be few laws that are purely morals-motivated. Anti-sodomy laws might be an example, and after Lawrence v. Texas they may not be constitutional. Even prohibition could be justified on grounds other than morality. In short, legislation must be backed by more than a moral justification. A hot button example: “Abortion is morally wrong, therefore we should create a law banning all abortions.” I don’t think that oversimplifies how many people think; this logic should be eradicated. If that’s correct thinking, we would have laws banning acts like premarital sex and drunkenness. Legislation must be passed with social utility in mind and serious thought beyond morality is necessary. It’s not by chance that what’s good and utile for society often aligns with most people’s moral views, but there’s a point where social and moral interests cease to intersect. That’s where legislation should stop–if legislation is motivated purely by morality, we should take a step back and reconsider.

    This post, albeit a little repetitive, is meant only in part to provoke, but as an “outsider” I wanted to chime in with a skeptic’s perspective. Thanks for reading.

  10. Dan, thanks for chiming in. I would simply point out that your utilitarian perspective on law-making is open to really serious abuse, which is why utilitarian ethics (though certainly well rooted philosophically in thinkers like Immanuel Kant) have sort of run their course. Exterminating Jews was deemed to be socially utilitarian by the Germans, but it was morally reprehensible.

    You say “legislation must be backed by more than a moral justification.” Not sure what that “more than” would be. As I have just shown, social utility is not more foundational than ethics, but less so. We can only talk about social utility by starting from some particular ethical theory.

  11. I would submit that lawmaking based on a religious sect’s moral code is subject to the same abuse. It’s not hard to come up with examples of reprehensible actions deemed biblical in our nation’s/world’s own history. The fact that one uses a theory to justify an action doesn’t mean the action is consistent with the theory. Furthermore, any utilitarian justification for the Holocaust is patently unconvincing. Finally, God’s flood seems pretty morally reprehensible to me, but can only be justified on a retrospective utilitarian theory. I guess if we were all omniscient it would be easier to legislate (or would it?).

    I tried to give examples of what would be “more than” a moral justification. Murder, for example, is more than just morally wrong. We have learned that it’s in everyone’s best interest to not let others kill for no reason. At the same time, our murder laws are “less than” moral because we have numerous exceptions (death penalty, war, etc.). So are murder laws “morally legislated” or not?

    If you mean to suggest that by saying “more than” moral I am conceding that morality is the foundation, that was not my intention. Unless I’m misunderstanding, your last sentence could be flip flopped: We can only talk about a particular ethical theory if we start with social utility. Couldn’t “morality” just be an attempt at codifying what we’ve learned throughout history is the best for all parties?

    Ultimately, the problem is it’s unclear what legislating morality even is. How do we determine what is moral? The Bible seems to me a pretty nebulous guide. To stick with the murder example, isn’t it a commandment to not kill? Yet we would probably all agree that the commandment should be revised to read, “thou shall not kill, except when thou shall.”

  12. Dan, you’re making some good points, not the least of which is your statement that “the fact that one uses a theory to justify an action doesn’t mean the action is consistent with the theory.” Very true. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

    You say “any utilitarian justification for the Holocaust is patently unconvincing,” but you don’t say why this is so. It’s unconvincing to ME, because I am coming from the standpoint of biblical ethics. But based on your viewpoint of social utilitarianism, why exactly is a utilitarian justification of the Holocaust unconvincing?

    “Morality” COULD be an attempt at codifying what we’ve learned throughout history is best for all parties. But common sense says it isn’t, because all kinds of people deem certain actions “right” and others “wrong” – and they mean something more foundational than just “approved by lots of people” or “rejected by lots of people.” You are arguing that it would be WRONG to legislate based on a religiously driven moral code. But what does the word “wrong” mean, in a utilitarian system?

    Taking your point of view (that is, starting from utilitarianism), I could easily argue that since 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God, it is socially utilitarian for America to have a religiously driven moral code.

    I want to beat up on your last point, but please know I’m doing it in good humor… sometimes writing doesn’t convey that well. In love, I would chide you: don’t start a biblical argument if you don’t know your Bible well enough to finish it. There are 6 Hebrew words for the verb “to kill,” and the one used in the 6th commandment is a very specific word that translates to “murder” in English (assumes premeditation, no extenuating circumstances, not in wartime, etc.). The Commandments are highly nuanced in this way, which is why they have been consulted as a foundation for ethics in almost every Western society. The Bible is far from being a nebulous guide… in fact it is one of the clearest and most respected ethical guidebooks in all of history.

  13. Thank you for your responses Bob. I sincerely apologize if I denigrated the Bible’s text in my last point. I’m glad your translation more aptly matches what we think it logically should say. I am unconvinced, however, that the Hebrew word is so specific and clear. If it were, why would several translations use “kill” in the sixth commandment? Assuming the translators were educated in Hebrew and had an interest in keeping the integrity of the text, the discrepancy only goes to reinforce my main point that the Bible is not a steadfast “how to legislate” guide, or at least not a guide that voters can understand. Scholars cannot even agree on the Bible’s words, let alone what those words mean.

    Bible translation, however, diverges from the issue.You’re right that I do not know my Bible well. But I need not know my Bible very well, nor be well-versed in Hebrew to finish the point I attempted to make. In fact, if my argument left any conclusion unclear you helped me finish it. That is, if Bible scholars cannot even agree on the central text of the “highly nuanced” commandments, and if one must have a theology degree to begin to argue a side, how can Christians be expected to legislate based on the Bible’s direction as to what is moral? That is where the Bible’s guidance is nebulous. I agree that the Bible is one of the clearest and most respected ethical guidebooks in all of history. However, the fact that the Bible, in relation to other moral guides, is more clear or even the clearest guide, does not mean it’s a clear guide to consult when deciding how to legislate and govern a culture. For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself” may be crystal clear, but how do we go about legislating that rule? Enforcing it?

    That a utilitarian justification for the Holocaust is unconvincing seems self-evident in how it ended up. But I’ll attempt to show my reasoning, despite the fear that I’ll walk into some trap you’ve set up… Rules that prohibit harming others have a strong utilitarian justification. Everything else being equal, a society that abides by a set of rules that prohibit harming others creates a greater amount of net utility in the long run than a society that does not abide by such rules. An essential purpose of a society is to further the interests of its members as far as possible. There is a fundamental interest that all human beings have in being able to realize their potential to lead a life as a person. Killing a large portion of your population cannot rationally be justified on the ground that there will be a greater amount of net utility among all members.

    Your 9 out of 10 example assumes that (a) all people who believe in God believe in a single religiously driven moral code and (b) what is utilitarian = what a supermajority of the population believe should drive our laws. I would challenge both of those assumptions. What happens when the atheist population (10%) protests, a civil war breaks out, and the 90% can’t live up to their own standards? Everyone will be worse off because of the “moral” legislation. It’s a hyperbolic example, but these are the kind of utilitarian considerations it seems should (and do) play a part in our legislation. For example, I assume you think premarital sex is immoral. If you don’t think premarital sex should be a crime (or at least prohibited), how are you not engaging in the same utilitarian balancing that I advocate? On the other hand, maybe now I’m getting at the “how” to legislate morals rather than whether to legislate them (e.g., abstinence only education; no contraception if you believe it encourages sex).

    I’m not sure I follow your paragraph about right and wrong. It sounds like you’re saying there is a fundamental, moral right and wrong because a lot of people feel like there is. It reads like the justification of a conclusion with the conclusion itself. I AM arguing that it would be wrong to legislate based on a purely religiously driven moral code. By wrong I mean it in the same way I would if I said, “It was the wrong decision for me not to wear my seatbelt yesterday.” That is, not correct; undesirable.

    The article posted above does make some good points. Here’s an excerpt:

    “We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence.”

    An exercise based on the excerpt (I apologize that it’s quite crude): What would you legislate if it were a proven fact that banning or reducing the number of abortions would increase the number of cocaine-addicts, thefts, child-abuse cases, and illiterates? Conversely, allowing abortions would absolutely decrease the addicts, thefts, child-abuse cases, and illiterates. Furthermore, assume that all aborted babies go straight to heaven and of all abortions that are prevented by morals legislation, 25% (I’m an optimist!) of the children who are born go to heaven (of course, this means 75% will spend eternity in hell). Should that affect how we view morals legislation? How it’s effectuated? What would the Bible say is moral legislation under these circumstances?

    Thanks for reading. And by all means, feel free to chide any or all of my remarks (but please continue to do it in love). I intend for this to be my last comment on this subject so you can have the last word if you want. To be sure, this exchange has been helpful–thank you for your attentiveness.

  14. Dan, really my goal is simply to show that your point of view (social utility) fails based on its own presuppositions. The clearest example of the failure of a social utility ethic is the Holocaust, so I will continue engaging that point.

    You wrote: “Rules that prohibit harming others have a strong utilitarian justification. Everything else being equal, a society that abides by a set of rules that prohibit harming others creates a greater amount of net utility in the long run than a society that does not abide by such rules. An essential purpose of a society is to further the interests of its members as far as possible. There is a fundamental interest that all human beings have in being able to realize their potential to lead a life as a person. Killing a large portion of your population cannot rationally be justified on the ground that there will be a greater amount of net utility among all members.”

    In this paragraph, you use the words “essential” and “fundamental” to describe the purpose and interests of society. These words prove that you see something as lying BENEATH the concept of social utility. You cannot argue that social utility IS the basis (or essence, or fundamental starting point) of ethics and then justify that claim by talking about some more basic “fundamental interest” of society. In other words: something must provide the foundation for the concept of utilitarianism. And that “thing” is an appeal to some sort of moral absolute. This is evidenced by the language of your own argument.

    I believe the folly of the last sentence is evident to all readers: “Killing a large portion of your population cannot rationally be justified on the ground that there will be a greater amount of net utility among all members.” Actually, it can, because that’s exactly what happened in the Holocaust. Killing a large portion of the population (the Jews) was rationally justified on the ground that it provided a greater amount of net utility to the society as a whole. The dominance of the Aryan race was seen as the greatest benefit to all the members of society.

    The same thing is true of abortion today. In America, we kill 1/3 of all babies. We do this based on the rational justification that it provides a greater amount of net utility among all members. Again, I am simply arguing that your ethical worldview ultimately collapses on itself. It cannot provide a solid foundation for either morality or just legislation.

    My goal in tackling your arguments is not to win the day or to beat you up. My prayer for you is that you would see the insufficiency of your worldview, and that God would use that to draw you toward Christ who alone is Truth.

    Certainly there is room for healthy debate on legislation and on exactly how we arrive at good, just, moral legislation. But such debate is only possible if we start from a coherent view of truth and meaning.

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