“You can’t legislate morality.” I see this phrase come up in often in discussions of the government’s role in moral issues. Whether debating previous laws against adultery or current laws about drug use or marriage, many people argue that the government has no ability to dictate right or wrong.
I think part of the sentiment behind the statement is true: you cannot transform people through laws. The only way to truly bring about change is through God’s work of renewing hearts and minds. In that sense, you cannot make people moral through legislation.
However, the idea that “you can’t legislate morality” is mostly wrong. First, it is wrong because one of government’s primary God-given roles is to restrain evil and promote good (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:1-5; 1 Pet 2:14; 1 Tim 2:1-2). God instituted government as a means of maintaining morality. Second, because many of our laws are directly tied to morality. Laws against murder, theft, and rape are pretty clear examples. But other laws indirectly flow from moral understandings—the particulars of laws concerning divorce, adoption, unemployment, building codes, etc. flow from what is considered right or wrong.
In his book Politics, Wayne Grudem offers a brief reminder on the role the government plays in shaping morals as one means of highlighting how important it is for believers to work to try to get the right people into government.
Governments have an immense influence on the conduct of people in a society. The psalmist knows that there are “wicked rulers” who “frame injustice by statute” (Ps. 94:20)—that is, they pass laws to enable wrongdoing! Isaiah says, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isa. 10:1). Another psalm implies that evil rulers can influence people toward wrongdoing, because it implies that if “the scepter of wickedness” (a symbol of authority held by wicked rulers) ever would “rest on the land allotted to the righteous,” then there is much greater likelihood that the righteous would “stretch out their hands to do wrong” (Ps. 125:3). Sometimes governments can pass laws that authorize horribly evil deeds, as when Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus to sign a decree that all the people in the kingdom of Persia could “annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day” and then “plunder their goods” (Esth. 3:13).
This is one reason why Paul encouraged Christians to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions,” so that Christian believers “may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). Once again, the implication is that good rulers can influence a nation toward good conduct, while evil rulers can encourage and promote all sorts of evil conduct among their people.
In part, the influence of government comes by personal example….
Another reason that government influences conduct is that laws have a teaching function. For many or perhaps most of the people in a society, if the government passes laws that say something is legal, people will also think that it is morally right. If the government says that something is illegal, then many people will think that it is morally wrong. This is especially true for people who do not seek moral guidance from the Bible, but it can also be true for Christian believers.
The teaching function of law is one reason why there are still so many abortions in the United States, for example. Many people take the easy way out and reason that if the government allows something, society must think that it is morally right or at least morally permissible. So they decide to have an abortion, perhaps even going against the quiet inward voice of their conscience. But if there were laws prohibiting people from taking the lives of preborn children, then many of these same people would find that their conscience agrees with the law and would support it and think that it is right.
To take another example, my own conversations in the state of Arizona (where I live) suggest to me that the large majority of evangelical Christians there would think it perfectly natural and morally right for Christians to own a gun for purposes of self-defense in case of an emergency. But I suspect that a similarly large majority of evangelical Christians in England (where I have stayed many times for study or for teaching) would think it morally wrong for Christians to do this. I do not find this surprising, since the laws of England make it nearly impossible for private citizens to own guns, but the laws and customs in Arizona make it very easy for private citizens to do so. The laws have a teaching function, and they influence people’s ideas of right and wrong.
The same considerations apply to people’s attitudes about same-sex “marriage,” the proper grounds for divorce, the age at which it is appropriate for children to drink alcoholic beverages (compare laws in the United States with much more liberal laws in Europe), the place of secular religious speech in public activities, and so forth. Laws have a teaching function with respect to the general population.
In addition to this, what the government considers legal or illegal affects what is taught in schools to the children in any society. Recent court actions that legalized samesex “marriage” in Massachusetts, Iowa, and Connecticut will give added incentive for schools to teach that homosexual conduct is to be considered normal and morally right, and to attempt to silence anyone who would express the view that homosexual conduct is morally wrong. This influence on the children in a society will have a profound influence on their sense of moral right and wrong and their future sexual conduct.
Therefore the laws and policies of a government have enormous impact on the conduct of people in a society. Christians should care about this, first, because sin destroys people’s lives and Christians are commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), and, second, because the entire course of a nation is set by the moral conduct of its individual citizens, and “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). While it is true, then, that government cannot save people or fundamentally change human hearts, whenever we say this, we must simultaneously affirm that government policy and laws do have an immense influence on a nation for good or for evil.