The issue of morality and its legislation is one which is often rather carelessly considered. Secular humanists for example routinely exhibit much fuzzy thinking on this issue. Sadly however, believers can also have some rather cloudy thinking about this important topic.
Moral and intellectual clarity is therefore needed here, so that we can get a proper understanding of this issue. Let’s begin with the phrase heard so often by the secular left and others: “You cannot legislate morality”. This has to do with the broader issue of the relationship between law and morality.
In one sense almost every law on the books is an expression of morality. Most are quite obvious: it is illegal to steal because it is morally wrong to do so. Other less obvious laws can quickly be seen as having a firm moral basis. Laws about traffic lights are not arbitrary – behind them is concern for human life.
Thus we have road rules, laws about traffic flow, and so on, which are meant to protect human life – which is a high-order moral good. Other laws may not so much represent moral principle as efficiency or some such social good. Earlier in Australia’s history there were a number of different railway track gauges, making national travel difficult, if not impossible. Making those gauges uniform simply makes life far easier.
But most laws which we have in mind do have some sort of moral foundation, even if somewhat removed, and in need of a bit of digging to discover. So it is silly to talk about separating morality from law. Indeed, even the sorts of laws secularists want to see enacted (eg. the legalisation of abortion or same-sex marriage, or the prohibition of coal mines or nuclear energy) have at bottom moral bases.
These folk will argue that it is a good thing (in other words, something moral) to allow homosexuals to marry, or that it is a bad thing to allow nuclear power plants to operate, and so on. Thus the issue is not at all about whether Christians should impose their morality on society.
The real question is: whose morality should be imposed? Society does not exist in a moral vacuum. Someone’s morality will predominate. If it is not the morality found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, then it will be the morality found in another tradition.
Thus everyone, including the humanists, is pushing their morality into the public arena. They may not like Christian morality, but it is simply false for them to claim they are not equally pushing their own version of morality. And given that at least 64 per cent of the populace considers itself to be Christian, why can’t Christian moral concerns be promoted in public?
Should only the minority of atheists and secularists be allowed to determine which morality and which laws can exist here? In a democracy all sides should be allowed the freedom to share their values and concerns in the public arena. Issues can and should be discussed, debated, and if need be, voted on.
That is how life is meant to work in a free country. Yet the secularists would have all believers simply sit down and shut up. They seem to think only their values and their morality can be promoted in public. Well, they need to wake up to the fact that we are not yet a one-party dictatorship.
Thus we need to reject the myth of moral neutrality. There is no such beast. Everyone has a worldview, everyone has a set of values, and everyone has a morality. Everyone wants to see their particular agenda come to centre stage. The secularists are pushing their morality just as much as anyone else.
Indeed, the humanists are always taking the high moral ground here. They think that their agenda is the morally correct one. They believe it is the moral thing to do to oppose the US, or capitalism, or the military, or opposite-sex marriage, or whatever. So spare us this foolishness that secularists are somehow free of pushing moral agendas.
Morality according to Scripture
Yet some Christians still get rather muddled here. They think that because Christianity emphasises a changed heart, and an inward work of grace, we cannot therefore seek to promote our own moral concerns in the public arena. But they are simply confusing the issues here.
The Bible makes it clear that both outward actions and inward attitudes are important to God. Both must be addressed as we assess moral actions. The Ten Commandments for example cover both. The eighth commandment prohibits the outward act of theft, while the tenth commandment prohibits the inward disposition or attitude of covetousness.
Jesus of course ties both together when he says that lust is just as sinful as adultery, and that hatred is just as bad as murder (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). God wants us not just to do good things and avoid doing bad things, but he wants our hearts transformed as well. Sure, out of a renewed heart godly outward actions are much more likely.
But it is foolish in the extreme to argue that since God is especially interested in a transformed heart, outward actions make no difference, or are not of concern. Outward actions make all the difference in the world, regardless of the inner motivation.
If a little girl is walking down the middle of the road, it is obviously a good thing that a driver seeks to avoid hitting her. One driver may do this because of genuine concern for the little girl’s safety. Another may avoid hitting her simply because he is about to go over the limit of his demerit points, and he does not want to lose his license.
As far as the girl is concerned, she does not give a rip about the drivers’ motivations, she is simply glad both wanted not to hit her. Sure, when each driver stands before God one day, the inner motivations of the heart will also be exposed and assessed.
Other Christians say that non-believers cannot keep the law because they are bereft of His Spirit, and so on. Well, yes and no. God’s moral laws are not just intended for believers only. God expects non-believers to also keep his moral standards. Indeed, all societies believe that.
They do not care if a person is a Christian or not, they expect everyone not to rape, not to murder, not to run red lights, etc. Sure, all these laws may deal with outward actions, and offer external inducements (punishments and rewards) to these outward actions, but so what?
Again, the point is to deter certain behaviours. There are harsh penalties for breaking laws on murder or sexual assault, etc. Whether or not a person has the right inward attitude is not primary here – the point is to see that the law is maintained and obeyed.
Granted, it would be great if everyone kept the law because they wanted to be inwardly good and virtuous people. But even if they don’t, it still is good that we have laws to keep people’s wrong actions in check. Just because everyone does not act from pure motives is no reason to abandon the regulation of external behaviour in a fallen world.
Consider the work of William Wilberforce. Was he pushing his moral agenda on the rest of England? You bet he was. But so what, his moral campaign was a good and vital cause. Try telling the millions of free blacks today that Wilberforce was wrong to push his personal and religious moral concerns on an unwilling and largely secular nation.
He got all sorts of flack for what he did, but most people are so glad he continued. That is true today. I will keep pushing for the right to life of unborn babies. Many people will not like that. Many people will say I am pushing my morality on them. So what? One day a more humane society will look back and applaud the pro-life effort.
And bear in mind, pro-abortionists are pushing their morality on me. Why should only secularists be allowed to see their values promoted in the public arena? Yes, the law cannot make people good or virtuous. It mainly just keeps bad behaviour in check. But in a fallen world, that is all we can expect.
And it is a tremendous good. God created the state and God created law. He knew it would be for a fallen people. He knew it would never be perfectly kept. But in a fallen world we must have laws, we must have enforcement of those laws, and we must have governments. God ordained all three.
Much more needs to be said about this complex topic. But this introductory piece hopefully offers a few fundamental points for discussion. And hopefully it goes a little way toward clearing up some of the confused thinking that seems to abound here.