It is not unusual for Americans to engage in debate. We are a people given to disagreement and dispute, and we rarely keep our opinions to ourselves. From our original protests, in December of 1773, to our latest, on divisive issues ranging from racial violence to vaccine mandates, we can hardly keep ourselves from an engagement opportunity. But in the course of discourse, especially on topics touching on ethics and values, we may find ourselves dismissively challenged, “you cannot legislate morality.”
Generally, this rejoinder is passed off from a political secularist to a conservative traditionalist. The more religiously conservative will defend their traditional values, arguing for the benefits and blessings of the old wisdom of the permanent things. To which the secular progressive will respond, “you cannot legislate morality.” And though the proposition has flaws and can be deconstructed, I want to present some points I, in part, agree with.
Good Law Does Not Make Good Men
In an address at Western Michigan University in December of 1973, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “morality cannot be legislated.” While laws can (and do) regulate behavior, they “cannot change the heart.” Yes, we can enact laws that accord with a consensus view on the morality of right and wrong but such laws can never purge evil from society. We may want people to be good. We may compel and decree their polite conduct. But good laws do not make perfectly good and upright individuals or societies.
Malevolent evil does not come from without. It comes from within. Admittedly, this is not a universally held position. Some hold to the view of innate human goodness, popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. But one greater than Rousseau said, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).
The things identified by Jesus as evil are regarded as such by virtually every person, everywhere, at all times. There are fundamentally immoral behaviors. God ordains laws and governments to restrain evil. Such is the underlying teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 13.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Romans 13:3-4, NKJV
This being the case, I agree, “you cannot legislate morality.”
The Injustice of Imposition
While it is true there are numerous moral theories and various ways different worldviews define “morality,” we all have a perspective on the concept of right and wrong. That is, we all have a morality. There is no such thing as an amoral human being. As the apostle Paul observed in Romans chapter 2, even those who do not possess a codified and established law “show the work of the law written in their hearts,” in the form of a conscience that excuses right conduct and accuses wrong conduct (cf. Romans 2:14-15). While there are many points of alignment in moral positions across cultures, there are also ways in which societies differ in what they determine to be morally acceptable.
As we observe and study human civilization throughout history, we can certainly identify deviations from what we consider basic morality. Even in modern times, we have observed cultures that accept, condone, and consider normal, behaviors like cannibalism, treachery, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and all manner of other acts we regard as immoral. Groups that have practiced such things have justified as moral that which we despise.
Therefore, I would argue, “you cannot legislate morality.” By which, I mean, “you cannot impose your privately held morality on me.” I would go so far as to argue that it is self-evidently true that the dictatorial imposition of private moralities is unjust and immoral. Just as irreligious individuals, who hold worldviews antithetical to mine, do not want my moral views imposed upon them, I do not want their moral views imposed upon me.
Your Morality? No Thank You.
I believe that abortion is immoral. It is the killing of an innocent pre-born child who has every one of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I do. To which my ideological counterpart, “on other side of the isle,” would respond, “you cannot legislate your morality!” She does not want my moral view on abortion imposed upon her or society. I understand. But the progressive believes that same-sex marriage is morally right and even good for society. I do not want their moral view imposed upon me.
We are obviously at an impasse, especially with the two previous examples. These two issues (the sanctity of life and same-sex marriage) are among our time’s most hotly debated issues. They are a proverbial Pandora’s Box of division and debate. But they illustrate that those on either side of the political spectrum are agreed. “You cannot legislate morality.”
“But,” you say, “that all begs the question. How do we pass the impasse? Are we damned to indefinite deadlock on critical moral issues like these?”
No. I do not think we are. But we must acknowledge that the complex problems of morality do not have simplistic and easy solutions. Issues such as these require patient, persistent, and persuasive dialogue. They cannot be casually dismissed by polemical statements intended to shut down debate, even if the statements have a vein of truth. Shouting down and dismissing our rivals gets us nowhere. If our ultimate goal is the common good and a “more perfect union,” it will require civil discourse’s hard labor.
Miles is the senior pastor of Cross Connection Church in North San Diego County, California. He serves as a board member at Enduring Word and Blue Letter Bible.
Miles has a master of divinity degree from Gateway Seminary in California, and is finishing a doctor of educational ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Miles and his wife Andrea have four children, two dogs, three rabbits, a tortoise, a chinchilla, a hamster, a cat, and a crested gecko.