Legislating Morality: Why Everyone is Doing it

By Frank Turek

It never fails. Whenever some conservative takes a stand on a moral issue, some liberal somewhere will indignantly claim, “You can’t legislate morality!” How many times have you heard that worn-out phrase? Incredibly, it’s not even true. As the Apostle Paul declared in 2Cor. 10:5, Christians must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” It’s time we demolish the pretension, “You can’t legislate morality.”

                Morality is about right and wrong, and that’s what laws put into legal form. Can you think of one law which doesn’t declare one behavior right and its opposite wrong? The truth is all laws legislate morality (even speed limits imply a moral right to life). And everyone in politics — conservatives, libertarians and liberals — is trying to legislate morality. The only question is: “Whose morality should be legislated?”

                You say, “But what about the separation of church and state?” What about it? The First Amendment says nothing about the separation of church and state. (The Supreme Court obviously can’t read because the amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” Article 1, Bill of Rights.) But even if it did mandate the separation of church and state, the First Amendment does not prohibit legislating morality. In fact, the First Amend­ment itself legislates morality: it clearly implies it would be wrong for Congress to legislate a national religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion; it also implies any congressional attempt to abridge freedom of speech, the press, or assembly would be morally wrong. When lobbying for moral legislation in the public square, Christians must learn to cite documented evidence and appeal to the common ground of reason. This is exactly the strategy employed by the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill before the Greek Philosophers. He did not quote Bible verses to them, because they did not believe in the Hebrew Scriptures! Instead, he reasoned with them. We must do the same in our anti-Christian public square. One such reasonable distinction we must draw is the distinction between religion and morality. While it is true that morality comes from God, there’s a big difference between religion and morality: for purposes of legislation religion involves our duty to God while morality is concerned with our duty to one another. Laws against murder, child abuse, rape and theft are moral (not just religious) issues, because they are needed to restrain evil and protect the innocent. We can and should avoid legislating religion, but we can’t avoid legislating morality — that’s what laws inevitably do! We don’t want to make a law to tell people how to worship, where to worship, or if to worship; that would be legislating religion. But we can’t avoid making laws that tell people how we should treat one another; that’s legislating morality. In short, legislating religion is unconstitutional, but legislating morality is unavoidable. All laws legislate morality.


Everyone Is Trying To Legislate Morality

                Let’s use the most divisive issue in America — abortion — to illustrate how morality is always legislated and imposed on others by both sides in the debate. It’s widely believed the “religious right” (read pro-life) are the ones who want to cram morals down the throats of everyone else, while the “pro-choice” (read pro-abortion) folks are the reasonable ones who don’t want to impose on anyone. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, both sides in the abortion debate are actively seeking to impose moral standards on others.

                        Everyone realizes what pro-life people want to impose: they want to protect the baby and, thus, impose on the mother the duty to carry her baby to term. But what is so often missed in this debate is that pro-abortion activists want to impose their morals on others as well: they want to impose the morals of the mother on the baby and, in some cases, the father. When abortion is chosen, the morals imposed on the baby come in the form of a knife, vacuum, or scalding chemical. Such a “choice” also imposes on the father by depriving him of fatherhood and the right to protect his own baby.

                In short, while the pro-life side wants to impose continued pregnancy on the mother, the pro-abortion side wants to impose death on the baby. That’s right — even liberals want to legislate and impose morality on others! The only question is: “Whose morality should be legislated?”


Whose Morality Should Be Legislated?

                Thomas Jefferson had the answer: the morality that should be legislated is the one Jefferson declared is “self-evident” (the Apostle Paul wrote in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans that such morality was “written on [our] hearts”). Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are creat­ed equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with cer­tain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that rights come from the Creator, and “Life” is the first stated. In other words, true morality comes from God who bestows on His creatures certain moral rights.

                In an imperfect world, these rights will conflict at times. In such cases, the lower right must give way to the higher right. When life and liberty conflict, as they do on the issue of abortion, liberty must give way to life, because life is the ultimate right. The right to life is the right to all other rights — if you don’t have life, you don’t have anything.

                You may be thinking: “If this Moral Law is indeed ‘self-evident’ as Jefferson declared, then why doesn’t everyone agree about abortion?” We all don’t agree about abortion because some of us suppress the truth about right and wrong (Rom. 1:18). We know this truth about right and wrong (i.e. the Moral Law) by how we react to what’s done to us rather than by what we do to others. ­In other words, our reactions help us discover right and wrong better than our actions. For example, you may not be conscious of the Moral Law when you lie to someone else (your action); but when someone lies to you, the Moral Law becomes bright as the sun because being lied to upsets you immediately (your reac­tion). Likewise, a pro-abortion activist might not think abortion is wrong if she wants the convenience of getting an abortion (her action), but if you could put her back in the womb her opinion regarding abortion would change immediately (her reaction). As Ronald Reagan said, “I’ve noticed all those in favor of abortion are already born.”


Don’t Cram Your Morals Down My Throat!

Why Not?

                If Christians are to be effective in politics, then we must be able to answer this “cramming morals” objection. As with most liberal objections, Christians must learn to challenge the assumption behind the objection. This objection assumes that it is immoral to impose morals! Therefore, good questions to ask such a person are these: “Why shouldn’t I cram my morals down your throat? Is there something immoral about that? And if there is, by what standard do you come to such a conclusion? Is it just your opinion or is it really, absolutely wrong according to an objective standard outside yourself?”

                Notice that the person stating this objection is really trying to cram their own morality down your throat. As we have seen on the issue of abortion, liberals are trying to impose their morals through political (or judicial) means. They also seek to do so on each of their pet causes including affirmative action, homosexuality, smoking, euthanasia, government health care, arts funding, welfare, etc. Indeed, all political positions are attempts at legislating morality. Once again, the question is not whether morality can be legislated; the question is: “Whose morality should be legislated?”

                Whose morality? The answer is very simple. We shouldn’t impose my morality or your morality; we should impose our morality — the one inherited by us all. So when someone protests “Don’t cram your morals down my throat!” — after pointing out that their position actually does that — simply respond by saying, “These are not my morals, I did not make them up. I didn’t make up the fact that abortion is wrong, that murder is wrong, that stealing is wrong. In fact, if it were up to me, I might like it if some of those things were not morally wrong. Abortion might help me get out of trouble, and theft could solve my money problems. So I’m not imposing my “personal” morality on you any more than a math teacher is imposing her “personal” math when she teaches her students that 2+2=4. Morality like math is not based on subjective feelings; it is based on objective facts.”

                If they say, “Well, that’s just your interpretation!” Respond this way, “Of course, but that doesn’t mean my interpretation is false. I also interpret that Mother Teresa was better than Hitler, and that interpretation is certainly true. Second, your position is also an interpretation. For example, when you say that the unborn are not human beings so abortion is okay, you are indeed making an interpretation. Why should your interpretation be the law of the land? Why should your interpretation go unchallenged? The question is not about who is interpreting; the question is: “Whose interpretation and conclusion best fits the facts?” While many in our society may want to suppress the medical facts which affirm the humanity of unborn children, those facts compel the conclusion that the morality which should be legislated is the pro-life morality. This is the morality inherited by all of us, but only accepted by some of us. It is our common morality. Facts are hard things.”


Why Christians Should Be Involved In Politics

                Some Christians believe we should not be involved in law-making and politics. They believe we should stay out of politics and concentrate only on evangelism. After all, laws can’t change people, only a commitment to Christ can. I believe this thinking overlooks three very important facts which support Christian involvement in politics.

                First, the evangelism-instead-of-politics plea presents a false dilemma. There is no good reason why evangelicals cannot both win souls and participate in politics. Indeed, we are commanded to do both! When Jesus instructed believers to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16), He did not qualify that command by excluding politics. Moreover, why would it be wise for Christians to stay out of politics? Would the nation be better off if only atheists were allowed to provide the government with moral leadership (we’ve been trying that for the last 40 years and the results have been disastrous)? You say, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” To which I respond, “In our representative republic, Christians can run for office to become ‘Caesar’!” We should all be thankful that our Christian founding fathers got involved in politics, otherwise our country would not exist today.

                Second, since many people believe whatever is legal is moral and vice versa, the law is a great teacher. It helps teach people right from wrong. The Apostle Paul wrote “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Rom. 7:7) .

                Third, the law actually does help implement changed attitudes and behaviors. Two major moral issues in our nation’s history prove the powerful effect of the law on attitudes and behaviors. The first issue is slavery. One-hundred-and-forty years ago, there was so much controversy over the question of slavery that many people thought it better to divide the nation and kill their own relatives rather than agree on a legislative solution. Today, outside of the tiny fraction of racist extrem­ists in this country, everybody believes that slavery is morally wrong. Did attitudes change overnight because we outlawed slavery? No — behavior changed immediately because slave owners did not want to go to jail — but the law did help change pro-slavery attitudes over time. Legislating against slavery helped change attitudes over the long run because many people have always believed that whatever is illegal must also be immoral and vice versa. Before the Civil War, slave owners could rationalize the obvious immorality of slavery under the cover of “it is legal.” Afterwards, the law did not provide that convenient excuse, and attitudes slowly changed.

                The second issue, abortion, also demonstrates the power of law to change attitudes and behaviors. For nearly the first 200 years of our nation’s history, abortion was outlawed in all cases unless the mother’s life was in danger. (In 1967, a few states such as New York began to include rape and incest as other legal exceptions, but abortion on demand remained illegal). So when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, they overturned 200 years of judicial and legislative precedent as well as the laws of every state — all 50 — which prohibited abortion. In effect, seven un-elected judges reversed the expressed will of the nation’s majority by judicial fiat. And when all 50 states have outlawed something, the prevailing attitude of the country is not hard to figure out — in 1973, the vast majority of Americans believed abortion was immoral.

                But today, the country is about evenly split. What happened? Why has there been such a change in attitude about abortion since 1973? Simple: the law was changed. In a situation the reverse of slavery, what was once considered illegal (and thus, immoral) became sanctioned by the federal government. Couple the impact of the law change with the fact that abortion has since been deceptively promoted as a private “choice” that entails a “safe medical procedure” to “terminate a pregnancy,” and we can understand why more people now believe abortion is morally acceptable.

                Not only has the law helped people believe differently, it has also helped them behave differently. Upon legalization of abortion by Roe, the number of abortions performed in this country exploded and soon reached approximately 16 times the pre-legalization level. The law obviously had an effect on behavior.

                For these reasons Christians work to pass moral laws. If Christians do not get involved in politics, then the other side will continue to legislate the immorality that is bringing our country pain and suffering and even death. As Edmund Burke declared over 200 years ago,

       All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”                                                          

                Adapted from Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? by Frank Turek and Dr. Norman Geisler. The book is now available in paperback from Bethany House at 1-800-328-6109, Amazon.com, or your local Christian bookstore.


                Frank Turek, a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary, is a professional speaker and author who conducts training programs for businesses and apologetic seminars for churches and para-church organizations. Dr. Norman Geisler, Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary (1-800-77TRUTH), is the author of over 50 books and world-renowned defender of the Christian faith.