Christians are often told that they shouldn’t try to legislate morality and that they should keep religious values out of public policy. Sometimes it is phrased, “Christians shouldn’t force their values on others.” Just how true are these sentiments? What does the Bible say about how our faith and values should influence the law?
Law and Morality
The answer to these questions will largely come down to how we define “legislating morality.” If we use this phrase to mean “using morality as a basis for making law,” then legislating morality is unavoidable. All law is derived from someone’s morality. Behind every law is a lawmaker, and whether you are talking about one individual or the collective will of a nation’s elected representatives, everyone uses morality in making laws. Every law presupposes that something ought or ought not to be done on the basis of moral principles. Thus, it’s not a matter of whether the law imposes morality but whose morality is being imposed.
If “legislating morality” means “trying to put every moral principle into law,” then this is something Christians should oppose. Why? Consider the fact that God does not compel us to believe in him. Is it a moral issue whether one believes in God or not? Yes! Unbelief is a form of unrighteousness (John 3:18-19, 16:8-9) and, as Charles Spurgeon said, “It is the parent of every other iniquity.” Yet, God does not use force to compel our belief in him or our obedience to him. If God does not compel belief (although it is a moral issue), neither should government. Just because all legislation is moral by nature, that doesn’t mean that all morals need to be legislated. At the same time, God does issue commands and has appointed human governments to be his “servants” and to “carry out wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4). This requires some morals to be put into law.
Again, the question is not whether moral principles should be legislated but which moral principles should be made into law. While the Bible doesn’t directly answer this question, it gives us several principles that can help inform our thinking.
Which Moral Principles Should Become Law?
First, a distinction must be made between laws regulating someone’s relationship with God versus laws governing people’s relationships with one another. A government has no right to regulate one’s relationship with God as it is a sacred relationship that is personal and spiritual in nature. However, the government can and should make laws that regulate the relationship between two neighbors or the rest of society. This can be derived from a proper understanding of separation of church and state. Both the church and the state have different functions in the Bible. To the state, God gives the power of the sword (coercion/force) to establish moral order and justice among people in society (Genesis 9:6, Romans 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-17). The Church (among other roles) serves to strengthen and regulate one’s relationship with God and with other believers (Ephesians 4:11-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14; Hebrews 3:13, 10:25). Thus, the government should not make laws governing worship, the internal workings of a church, or the morality concerning how we are to act towards God. But, it can make laws which determine how we interact with one another, such as preventing and punishing murder or theft. As ethics professor Andrew Walker notes, Romans 13 says that governments are to punish “wrongdoers,” not “sinners.” If all sinners were to be punished by the law, we would all be in jail because all have sinned (Romans 3:23).
Second, we must distinguish between private issues of the heart versus public issues of one’s actions. While the Bible ascribes moral weight to our thoughts and intentions of our heart (Genesis 6:5, Mark 7:21-23), the government has no purview over such things. Romans 13:4 says that governments are to punish wrongdoers, not “wrong-thinkers” (or “thoughtcrimes” to use George Orwell’s language from his novel 1984). We can use our common sense to see that the government cannot force anyone to think a particular way and that it would be tyrannical to do so. While things such as racism, sexism, or unforgiveness are morally evil, you can only make laws against when someone acts on such impulses, not when they think them.
Lastly, we have to look at the line between private and public actions. In one sense, no action taken is purely private in nature. By crossing the threshold from thought to deed, it will have some kind of effect on the world, however minimal. The question then becomes, “How much does it need to affect the world for the government to have a legitimate interest?” Some might answer this by saying that if an action deprives another person of justice or their rights, then the government has a legitimate interest. Since the government’s primary concern seems to be upholding the morality of justice and maintaining people’s rights (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3), actions which have little to no effect on others would not be a great concern to the government (if for no other reason than the government has a limited ability to respond to the actions of its citizens). Thus, the government should generally not legislate morals concerning personal actions of little consequence or do not violate principles of justice.
Of course, this final point gets into a lot of political theory about what constitutes justice, where rights come from, what kinds of rights there are, and much more which this article cannot address. Suffice it to say that much of this is a matter of wisdom and is not explicitly laid out in Scripture. Christians can come to different conclusions about when the government should legislate certain morals of a public nature. But at the very least, we should oppose legislating morals dealing with 1) our relationship with God, 2) private thoughts and beliefs which the government cannot forcefully change, and 3) actions that have little or no bearing on justice or the rights of people.
Can Changing Laws Change Hearts?
One of the most common counterarguments to the concept of using morals in lawmaking is that we can’t change people’s hearts through legislation, and therefore, we shouldn’t try and put our morals into law. There’s both truth and falsehood in this statement. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this very topic in a speech he gave at Western Michigan University. In it, he said,
“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.”
In other words, it is true that external laws cannot truly change a person (Romans 8:3, Hebrews 7:18-19). God’s law must be written on our hearts (Psalm 37:30-31, Jeremiah 31:33-34), which ultimately happens through Christ (Hebrews 10:12-17). Nevertheless, the law serves to protect the innocent and punish those who would do wrong to another (Romans 13:4, 1 Timothy 1:8-11). Additionally, Scripture informs us that God’s laws can already be written on people’s hearts (Romans 2:14-16). This can be because we are created in God’s image with a moral nature. Or, those who do not believe God can adopt their morals from the surrounding culture and laws. Thus, even though laws do not truly change a person, they still can influence them.
All legislation is moral, but not all morals need to be legislated. This is a basic principle on which Christians should agree. The law is fundamentally based on moral principles, and thus it is impossible to create laws apart from morality. At the same time, there are certain morals which lie outside the government’s biblical mandate. This would include morals dealing with our relationship with God, morals about private thoughts and beliefs, and morals governing actions that have little or no bearing on justice or the rights of others. Even though changing the law cannot change people’s hearts in the truest sense, it nevertheless informs people’s sense of morality and protects the innocent from harm.
Christians should neither live nor die by the sword in seeking to make a good government (Matthew 26:52-53). In a fallen world, earthly governments will never perfectly reflect God’s moral order. Nevertheless, seeking to uphold appropriate morals in the law is a legitimate way for Christians to love their neighbor (Mark 12:31).