“You Can’t Legislate Morality”?

In response to Christian attempts to preserve the moral order of our society, those opposed to the natural law and the law of God often retort, “You can’t legislate morality.” Legislation informed by God’s revealed law is portrayed as being contrary to freedom and to a free country, and unjustified imposition of religion on people who want none of it. And so, in response to every attempt by Christians and others who acknowledge the existence of a moral order given by God to have that order reflected in the law of the land is met with the dismissive words “You can’t legislate morality.”

To say that you cannot legislate morality is true in a trivial way, but it is false in the most significant way. It is true only in that people will not become good and moral simply through legislation. Outlawing adultery does not keep people from committing adultery. (It does, however, help undermine the pernicious concept of a ‘no-fault’ divorce, provides some measure of protection for the injured parties, and expresses the norm of virtue to which a society aspires.) Though law in itself does not render citizens virtuous, when enforced it serves to restrain evildoers and to protect the innocent. Though pointing to the good, it can’t make people good. Thus, in the sense that by passing laws you cannot make people good, the slogan is true.

Apart from the foregoing, the claim that you can’t legislate morality is false. After all, what is law? It is the legal standard which defines what is considered to be bad, unacceptable behavior in a particular civil society. Hence, the law is always legislated morality—it is always reflects someone’s standard of right and wrong. When it is said in these United States that “you can’t legislate morality,” what is usually meant is that the one making the statement does not want Christian morality reflected in the law. But keeping Christian morality out of the law does not keep us from legislating morality; it only means that some other morality can and will be legislated.

Make no mistake: all law is legislated morality, a legal definition of right and wrong for a society. In the Soviet Union, law was based on Communist morality and the revolutionary consciousness of those who overturned the old order. In Nazi Germany, law was based on Nazi morality. Given the principles of Social Darwinism (survival of the fittest) and the superiority of the Teutonic race, it was good and right to exterminate lesser peoples, much as men kill vermin such as rats and cockroaches, to protect the long-term viability of the human race. Every ideology provides a ‘moral’ way of looking at the world; in power, every ideology naturally will attempt to construct a social order based on that vision of the world.

Though the prevailing notion today is that right and wrong (morality) are relative, Christians hold that God has created a moral universe, a moral natural order. He has designed us to live and interact in certain ways; other ways in which we can act are contrary to the way He made us—contrary to nature. The goal of the Christian and past Christian societies is to conform to nature, to God’s moral order to God’s will, and to have that order reflected in the social order. The Christian recognizes God as the higher legislative power, the Lawgiver and King, to whom he must ever strive to submit himself and conform himself to His will. In this view, God’s law trumps human legislation and human notions of right and wrong, good and evil.

So why in these largely Christian United States Christian attempts to influence legislation should be effectively dismissed with this slogan is not at all evident. In a Christian land, should not the law  largely reflect Christian notions of right and wrong, just as in a Muslim land, Islamic notions of right and wrong prevail? In a Communist country, notions of right and wrong determined by the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, are enshrined in law. The prevailing world-view in a society generally provides the norms of right and wrong to be enshrined in law.

Our problem in these once-Christian United States is manifold is that we are no longer  consistently Christian in our thinking. Much of our thinking in the civil realm is guided more by the anti-Christian slogans and animus of the so-called “Enlightenment” than it is by the Gospel. The fruit of the Enlightenment may readily be seen in the French Revolution (1789-99) in which the revolutionaries sought to recreate French society from the foundation up even to the point of rejecting the Church, the seven-day week (because it is grounded in the Biblical account of creation), instituting a new civil religion of their own making and a new calendar with 1792 as year one, ten-day weeks, and new names for the months. The Revolution sought to reject decisively the Christian heritage of the French people and replace it with a new one based on Reason (as they perceived reason, in any case). It failed (by 1806, the old calendar was back), but its anti-Christian principles are alive and well in our midst to this day.

Those who say morality cannot be legislated are being duplicitous. They seek to replace the prevailing moral system with a new one more to their own taste. If in the past, Christian norms were privileged in law because our land was consciously Christian, today other norms are privileged among our elites and opinion makers and Christian norms are marginalized or excluded altogether because to incorporate them would be to violate the mythical ‘wall of separation between church and state’ and to ‘legislate morality’, a most intolerant thing to do. Though rejecting Christian morality as the basis for legislation, these same people promote another morality, another non-Christian standard of good and evil, as the basis for legislation (without calling it morality, of course).

The day is evil when man loses the moral compass with which God created him. When he says that “good is evil” and “evil is good”, when he arrogates to himself the right of defining right and wrong, he has been deluded by our great enemy, the destroyer of souls. Unfortunately, not only those who actively promote the “new” anti-Christian morality are harmed; many souls passively take it in (primarily through our media and educational system) and are set up for destruction.

We can no more give the despisers of Christianity and Christian morality a free pass to dismiss our moral vision of the world with the words “you can’t legislate morality”. Let it at least be seen by all that our choice in legislation is between competing moralities to enshrine in our laws, not between Christian morality and some sort of secular, rational, enlightened legislation–a mythical creature which does not exist.


Published in: on Friday, 27 November, 2009 at 18:34  Comments (2)  

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  1. I found today’s reading (Timothy 1:8-14) especially relevant to the topic. While he may have been taking about Covenant law, governmental law is not an unrelated thing. Laws made with the morality professed by the Church at the center seek to raise people up towards Christ. When laws are severed from the Good how can they bear fruit?

    This doesn’t mean that all laws made without due deference to the teachings of the Church are bad, it just means that those laws should be viewed with caution. If I hold a lantern at night and cross a dangerous path, I can lead others across. If I have no lantern and get lucky, others may follow, but at their own peril.

    Additionally, we are, if left to our own devices, subject to our passions. It would seem that what is taboo today can be slowly chipped away at by those who want to normalize aberrant behavior. So while I can’t shift an entire river’s path in one go without people noticing, I can certainly do so by slowly shunting more and more water along a new path. When they say you can’t legislate morality, everything is fair game. It simply takes a bit of patience and chicanery to accomplish what they want.

    “TIMOTHY, my son, we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

  2. “…all law is legislated morality, a legal definition of right and wrong for a society.”

    Excellent post! Thank you Father. Even the most innocuous administrative rules are derived from accepted standards of behavior. From Aristotle’s “Politics” to the Roman Stoics, the discussion of government/law *is* the discussion of virtue. They are one and the same.

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