Legislating Morality

Have you ever heard the saying, “You can’t legislate morality?” Ever wonder whether it’s true? People love to debate this topic. The fact of the matter is, people seem to think that you can. Whether it is the militant religious right attempting to push Biblical morality on the nation, or whether it’s those godless commie liberals who want everyone to hug trees1, many people – at least those in power – seem to be interested in behavior modification. But what’s a Biblical Perspective on this? I’ve written before on Theonomy, but here’s another observation:

Matthew 23:27

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.

This is just one of many passages that can be quoted to show a very important point about righteousness. God desires righteousness. We’re well aware of that. It is for want of righteousness that the world advances toward its inevitable judgment. However, the perspective of those who I think might at least in part be correctly labeled Theonomists seems to be that the ideal situation would be for us to impose an outward righteousness on men as much as we can. However, the point I want to be seen from this passage and others like it – the Sermon on the Mount for example – is that God is not so much concerned with Outward Righteousness as he is with Inward Righteousness. God is concerned with external behavior, but only as an outworking of an inward righteousness. This inward righteousness is only present in those who have been called into the Kingdom by God’s regenerative grace.

Romans 7

I’ve written before about Romans 7, but I want bring it up because I did not make this connection before. Here is the verse again. (Romans 7:7-8)

… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.

I explained in my previous post that what Paul is speaking of here when he said “sin, seizing an opportunity…” is his lack of inward righteousness. Sin does not start as an outward act. Sin is a lack of the inward disposition toward God that God desires. Without this inward righteousness, outward righteousness is impossible – at least not outward righteousness that pleases God.

Here’s the connection I want to make. Paul here is explaining a simple truth: rebellious hearts rebel against the law. Have you ever noticed a tendency for people to do something just because they’ve been told not to? This behavior is often most observable in children, but it’s observable in adults too, you just have to be more discerning to pick it out. Want proof? Let’s look the opposite way. Portugal decriminalized marijuana and other drugs in 2001 and “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,”2. Both the rates of overdoses and HIV contractions due to sharing needles have decreased over the last decade. Why? Simply because there’s not a law to rebel against. Want another example? Prohibition => Moonshine.

Not everyone breaks every law, but everyone who has a rebellious heart and does not have inward righteousness is naturally resistant to authority. Therefore it is my my conclusion from Romans 7 that the introduction of more laws, and the stricter enforcement of existing laws will only serve to produce unrest and crime in the populace of a nation. This is in direct conflict with the most fundamental purpose of government: to promote and insure peace. It is more the behavior of a tyrant. This applies whether it is the use of drugs, the drinking of alcohol, the use of plastic v. paper at the grocery store, your carbon footprint or anything.

So I believe that Biblical wisdom would encourage us to favor a libertarian state that would allow us to live peacefully with all men, in which we can point people’s hearts toward God rather than focusing only on externals.

It’s obvious that certain laws must exist. After all there is a certain category of law that is really self evident if there is to be a peaceful society. The difference between a Libertarian Peace and an Anarchistic Chaos is that Libertarians don’t believe in abolishing all laws – only those that do not promote peace. A society cannot have peace if private property rights are not upheld – theft is a crime. A society cannot have peace of its members are constantly afraid for their lives – murder is a crime. A society cannot have peace if there is no impartial judge to preside over disputes – contract law and judicial system. But it is absolutely true that morality cannot be legislated. You can make a law that says Thou Shalt Not Murder, but you cannot make a law that says “Thou shalt not hate”3. Morality is an inward issue, not an outward one, and everyone knows that Thoughtcrime is undetectable – even if we all adopt Newspeak.

  1. Note: I’m using these pejorative terms with my tongue in cheek
  2. Read more: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html#ixzz0o9LrKPxI
  3. Matthew 5:21-26