Saturday, December 26, 2009

Can We Legislate Morality?

"You can't legislate morality." This is often heard when we try to legislate based on Christian principles. But is this true, and what does it mean? To make this more difficult, there is a confusion between two meanings of the word "morality". Let's look at what the options are.

The first meaning of "morality" is principles of right and wrong. It is difficult to see what else we do legislate. We say murder or racial discrimination is wrong, so we make it illegal. Now we could say that all legislation should be based solely on convenience. This means if it happens to be convenient to kill 6 million Jews in gas chambers, this is an appropriate thing to do. But let us put aside the initial reaction to this and look at it logically. The first question is, "Convenient for whom?" One might respond for society. But society exists for the good of the people in it. If not, why should we support it? Now this implies that what is good for them is solely the pursuit of selfish pleasure. And this ultimately leads to anarchy. Also, this is certainly not a position a Christian can accept on any level (Matthew 7:12; Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 13:8-10).

But the issue is not quite so simple, for there is a second meaning of "morality". One can, at least in theory, make a distinction between "morality" and "justice." "Justice" is the clear-cut requirements a society should place on the behavior of its people. "Morality" is seen as the expression of the inner character of a person. That a person does not steal or murder is a matter of justice. Whether they are kind or patient is a matter of morality. I would agree that, under this definition, we cannot legislate morality. You cannot make someone a better person just by passing laws. The problem is, there are things our society regards as morality that are, from the Christian perspective, a matter of justice. We regard the ideal for sexual behavior of one man and one woman for life as being a fundamental requirement of the societal structure (Matthew 19:1-12). If not committing murder is a matter of justice (Exodus 20:13), than the question concerning the unborn is whether they are in fact human from the point of conception and therefore should not be killed (Psalms 51:5). The issue is what behavior falls under which category.

It is not my purpose to come up with a legislative agenda. I am convinced that we are not going to Christianize this or any other nation simply by passing laws. But I do believe a Christian must stand for justice in society. This is, I believe, a difficult, long-term task in which we need to pick our fights and how we fight them carefully. But I do want to clarify a confusion that makes this more complicated.

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