“You Can’t Legislate Morality”

Many of my readers may remember the World Council of Churches. They are an organization whose basic function is to periodically issue leftist tracts disguised as theological reflection. With the catastrophe of the American elections, they are reflecting all over themselves as reported in a Reuters article that is characteristically blunt in its Euro-dogmatic title: “Council of Churches: God Has No Place in U.S. Politics”. The article instructs obnoxious conservative Christians who intruded on the process of democracy with their silly concerns about abortion and gay marriage:

God has no place in politics and should not have been used by churches in the United States to influence the presidential election, a council representing 342 Christian groups around the world said.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) told U.S. member churches in a letter that they should not ask whose side God was on in an election but only offer “a moral and spiritual compass for their community, their nation and the world.”

Basic message: Too many Scary Christians legislating morality for others. Keep the Naked Public Square Naked!

So much for William Wilberforce, the abolition of slavery, the Magna Carta, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

In fact, of course, the very nature of law is to impose the conscience of the community on the individual. The only question is On What Basis, and With What Limits?

The community’s conscience imposes itself everyday–by direct state interference using the coercive power of the police and jail systems–on those who have no personal problem with pedophilia, theft, murder for a Higher Cause, tax evasion, and heroin distribution. Every day, all over the world–even in Sweden!–police go around imposing morality on free spirits who just want to be left alone as they pursue these and other worthwhile activities that bring them so much personal fulfillment and happiness. If we, being normal, support such state interference with human autonomy and freedom, we call it “good government”. If we oppose it, we call it “legislating morality” or “social engineering”.

That’s why “You can’t legislate morality” is such an empty phrase to me. What on earth is law but legislated morality? We think it immoral and wrong to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow and so we pass laws protecting immigrant workers, street kids, and 9/11 widows, for instance. We believe the purely mystical doctrine “all human beings are created equal” (a doctrine which, to Aristotle, would have been completely contradicted by the empirical evidence of the senses) and pass laws against slavery and giving women the vote. Voila! Legislated morality. Is it good government or social engineering? The only basis from which to judge is the basis, ultimately, of natural law and revelation. Otherwise it’s whatever the majority thinks it is, according to the whim of the zeitgeist.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, in law is exempt from this fact. There is no law that is not ultimately founded on a moral judgment and there is no moral judgment that is not ultimately rooted in your view of the human person and his place in the cosmos–which is ultimately a religious question. Legislation to build a freeway or put in a drainage ditch is founded on the idea that commerce is good and poor sanitation is bad and those are moral judgements about the worth of the human person versus the worth of, say, a wetland area. That is exactly why environmentalists fight with such passion: because people fight passionately for moral questions while they merely chat about abstractions. Even a legislator who votes himself a raise or sweeping dictatorial powers is clearly operating on a moral basis: He thinks that “Best” equals “What is Best for Me”. That’s a moral judgment: a wrong one. And the people who eventually storm his office to hurl him out the window or guillotine him would be the first to agree with that.

It does not follow from this that all morality should be legislated. I don’t want a law making sure everybody honors the Sabbath. I don’t think homosexual activity should be criminalized. I don’t think we need laws commanding people to pray without ceasing or to believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved.

Civil law is the floor of human behavior, not the upper atmosphere. It is supposed to guard against the lowest aspects of human behavior so that a civil society can function. What we really mean when we say you can’t legislate morality is that the Law cannot put the things of the Spirit in the heart. It cannot instill love of neighbor, for instance. But it can and does punish those who can’t even bring themselves to keep from harming their neighbor. It says, if you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t beat him to death with a baseball bat or cheat him out of money. That’s a really moral function. It’s just not the highest moral function.


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