Legislate Morality?

I read these comments from Al Mohler on Facebook:

“The argument for removing polygamy laws was simple: the state has no business legislating morality. But every legislature legislates morality. Every code of laws is a codex of morality. The law is itself inherently and inescapably moral, even irreducibly moral. The law can’t be anything other than a moral statement.”

In my early days, I made that argument rather vigorously, but have now come to modify my position. It is not so much that I have abandoned what I once believed, but that I now understand the nature of that belief with greater clarity.

Indeed, the law is moral. Romans 13:4 says that the civil magistrate is in the business of dispensing God’s wrath, which is intrinsically moral. Thus, the civil law is moral. But as I understand this more, what I always meant to say, when I said, “We can’t legislate morality” is that the civil law does not encompass the totality of moral law.

We should not be concerned with whether the law concerns morality, for it does. The activity of the civil magistrate is characterized by the sword in Romans 13:4. This is violent! There must be moral justification for this! Further, he is using the sword to carry out God’s wrath! There must be moral justification. It is on these grounds that we derive our right to challenge the activities of the civil magistrate which step outside those boundaries. It is on this principle that I derive my responsibility to speak truth to power when the civil magistrate commits violence against peaceful people by spying on them, stealing from them, enslaving them, violating their privacy, their liberty, and even going so far as to kill them.

So if the civil law is moral, why should it not include the totality of the moral law? Why should the Ten Commandments, just to pare it down, not replace the Bill of Rights? The issue is not whether the law is moral, but what aspects of the moral law does the secular civil magistrate have legitimate authority to enforce? Does he have legitimate authority to enforce moral law that covers private behaviors that do not harm another? Does he have legitimate authority to enforce moral law that affects only the voluntary participants in the sinful behavior?

I say no! His authority is limited, by definition, to acts of civil wrongdoing. We see this establishment in Genesis 9:6-7, where the principle of civil justice is first introduced. The concern is, and always has been, righting a wrong done to another by a criminal. It makes neither logical nor Biblical sense to speak of a victimless crime. Therefore, his legitimate authority is only to enforce laws concerning wrongs done by one against another, I.E. violence. Or to put it another way: civil crime is any act of coercive aggression that harms or deprives another’s life, person, liberty, or property. Such acts include murder, assault, rape, theft, fraud, kidnapping, slander, libel, false accusation, vandalism, torture, etc. These things are morally wrong no matter who is doing them, and require a high standard of moral justification in order to be excused: e.g. defense against the threat of equal or greater harm, or restitution paid for equal or greater harm having been done. (Deut. 19:21)

So, in light of 1 Corinthians 5 which commands the church to focus its efforts on purging evil “from among you” rather than “judging outsiders,” where is our Biblical justification for engaging in a political strategy designed to force unbelievers to behave in a moral way? If God gave them over (Romans 1), why can’t we?

Or if the goal is merely to “hang the law on the billboard of society,” why are we forgetting that the Biblical place for that is in the church and in our lives? (Matthew 5:13-16) And why are we ignoring that the civil law is not merely a passive billboard statement about what is right and wrong, but is sanction for the government to commit violence (Romans 13:3-4) It is this very reason that homosexuals feel threatened and hated by Christians who advocate the laws they do. Everybody in this country knows that Big Brother is coming when surveilance cameras will capture our every waking moment, and computers programmed to carry out the letter of the law will have the power to unleash automated hell on anyone stepping outside of what is written in the law. Thus the battle for what is encoded on this billboard is a battle for the right to peacefully left alone. In this ever growing police state, we would be unleashing the jack-booted storm troopers on them to encompass the totality of God’s moral law in the civil law.

Or maybe the aim is not to merely hang a law as a passive statement. Maybe the goal isn’t even to coerce outward obedience. Perhaps your goal is really and truly to carry out God’s wrath here and now on those who do wrong in this life. I would challenge you to read 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 and Romans 12:14-21

1 Corinthians 5:9-13
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judgesb those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Romans 12:14-21
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.h Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave iti to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.