You Can’t Legislate Morality?

“I killed my daughter.”

Toronto taxi-driver Muhammad Parvez, 60, had just strangled his 16-year-old daughter, Aqsa. So he dialed 911 and reported. Nobody could accuse him of hiding his crime.

Maybe no one was surprised when, last week in court, he pleaded guilty to the 2007 murder.

People often claim that “you can’t legislate morality.” Such a statement doesn’t square with reality.  In actual fact, all law is based on some moral code. The question is not “can morality be legislated?” but rather, which morality will be legislated.

Western society was built on the moral code of Judeo-Christian theism. But atheism also has a code, built on arbitrary absolutes. And, as the Aqsa  murder story brutally illustrates, Islam has its own (fierce) moral code as well.

The last few years in Canada have included discussion of allowing sharia law to operate in some domains (marriage, family and business disputes) “under the umbrella of Canada law.” Such a notion seems tantamount to condoning the use of brass knuckles in a street fight as long as a roped-in boxing ring is provided.

Jürgen Habermas is considered Germany’s foremost philosopher and one of “Europe’s stalwart secularists” who is “challenging the idea that religious reasoning inevitably retreats from the public sphere.”  Here’s what he says about Christianity’s contribution to freedom and human rights, essential ingredients protected by a moral code:

Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.

A society’s moral foundations cannot be separated from its institutions: the moral vision of a society informs all of public life.  Trying to entrench opposing moral visions can only result in chaos. Eventually one will emerge.

The difference is more than superficial.

- Darrow Miller and Gary Brumbelow

  
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4 Responses to You Can’t Legislate Morality?

  1. Devon Mackey says:

    Darrow and Gary,

    I have often used the phrase, “You cannot legislate morality” when discussing politics with my friends. My contention is that without a Biblical framework or worldview to support certain legislation, how can we expect people to have a morality that lines up with the Bible?

    People, by nature, are not good. They do not know what is good without having come into contact with either the Word or His Word. In what is quickly becoming a “post-Christian” culture, how can we expect to make rules based on a God that most people either do not know or have a misrepresented view of?

    Please understand, I am not advocating that Christians should be passive when it comes to politics and the legislation of laws that are in line with the character of God. However, if that is all we are doing (I would argue that this is most often the case), than we are creating a culture of do’s and don’ts and not one of Grace and Truth: a culture of proclamation and not demonstration.

    I guess when I say that “you cannot legislate morality”, what I am really saying is “you cannot legislate morality through legislation alone”. People also need to meet Jesus through the authentic lives of His followers. Habermas is right in his statement, but I think he probably has a misunderstanding of Christianity – real Christianity. It is not a set of rules that determine right and wrong – it is a relationship with a God who by his nature is righteous. It is only by knowing Him that we begin to understand what is right and what is wrong. Christians do a big disservice to the Kingdom when we proclaim God’s truth without demonstrating its power in our own lives. The world needs both.

    As you can see, this is something that I am deeply passionate about. At the heart of training missions leaders through ACMC is developing a missional (read incarnational) lifestyle. Although Jesus never went out of his way to address the political systems of the day, His life as He lived it spoke volumes about what was right and what was wrong. His existence threatened the status quo. He was a reformer simply by being. Although, we have more freedom to express our views than the average Roman citizen of His day, we cannot be content with exercising it alone. If we are to follow Christ, our lives should be a testimony to the character of God.

    Any thoughts, critiques, or affirmations would be greatly appreciated.

    Devon Mackey
    ACMC

    • Devon, on face value, I agree we cannot legislate morality. Certainly with confessing atheists or secularists, we have limited common ground. However many Americans are living from a memory. They know, for instance, that murder is wrong and thus a civil society has laws prohibiting murder. Others, probably many Christians, know that a certain act is wrong but cannot explain why, cannot make a biblical defense. As our society becomes more secular and atheistic, Christians and non-Christians have less common ground. However, we still inhabit the God’s world together.

      Yes, we are sinful by nature inherited from Adam, and by choice. We argue elsewhere that in addition to moral evil we also contend with natural and institutional evil.

      “They do not know what is good without having come into contact with either the Word or His Word.” Yes, on a conscious and willful level, I agree. Yet all people bear the image of God, even those who deny it. They live in the world God has made. C.S. Lewis argues compellingly that most societies embrace certain moral norms: “You shall not murder.” “Honor your father and mother.” These are not universally practiced, but most people in most societies would agree to them.

      “In what is quickly becoming a ‘post-Christian’ culture, how can we expect to make rules based on a God that most people either do not know or have a misrepresented view of?” I agree. We need to be sharing Christ in word and deed. As Rodney Stark argues in his book The Rise of Christianity, the Christians “conquered Rome” because they had a better theology, a better set of ideas. The Word was made flesh in the lives of the early church. Christians need to be people who intentionally, and significantly incarnate God’s nature and character in an increasingly post-modern, even neo-pagan world.

      “I guess when I say that ‘you cannot legislate morality’ what I am really saying is “you cannot legislate morality through legislation alone’.” I agree entirely. Too often Christians are triumphalists. They think that if we can simply change the laws or get Christians elected to public office, all will be well. Most Christians are not willing to do the deep thinking or the hard cultural work required to turn the tide in the USA and bring hope to those in other parts of the world who may never have known Christ and the benefits of a Christian culture. On the point that you have made, we would argue that politics, economics, laws and social structures are all “down stream” from culture. In fact, culture is downstream from worship. So if you want to change laws, you must first change worship. This is the entry point for the gospel.

      “Habermas is right in his statement, but I think he probably has a misunderstanding of Christianity – real Christianity. It is not a set of rules that determine right and wrong – it is a relationship with a God who by his nature is righteous. It is only by knowing Him that we begin to understand what is right and what is wrong.” We are not saved by keeping a set of rules, but by the finished work of Christ. However, God has made the universe a certain way, to operate by a set of moral, physical and metaphysical laws. Simply put, gravity works! Gravity works for Christians and not-Christians alike. Anyone who violates the law of gravity will get hurt. It is the same way with God’s moral law. Adultery is wrong for Christians and non-Christians. When someone commits adultery, they get hurt, their family and spouse get hurt. There are three primary ways of relating to the moral law. The first are the Judaizers or the Jihadists – the law is administered externally. The second are the Libertines where “every man does what is right in his own eyes” leading to anarchy. The third is “Christian internal self-government,” Christians freely governing their own lives based on all that Christ has commanded.

      “Christians do a big disservice to the Kingdom when we proclaim God’s truth without demonstrating its power in our own lives. The world needs both.” Yes, we need both proclamation and demonstration. And in an age of people who hear with their eyes and not their ears, increasingly Christians will need to demonstrate God’s love and nature if we want people to hear the message.

      Devon, thank you for your thoughtful response to our blog. It is good dialoging with you.

      If you want to see some of the impact stories of the DNA ministry, please go to http://www.disciplenations.org/stories or to our partners story site http://harvestfoundation.org/504234.ihtml

      – Darrow Miller

  2. Devon Mackey says:

    Darrow,

    Thank you so much for your response. I believe you are right – we have much in common. That is more of a statement than an epiphany. I have been following your work for awhile and am very grateful for you and DNA and your voice in today’s world.

    I agree with everything that you said. However, I was hoping that you could expand a little on what you said in the paragraph above that started with Habermas.

    I absolutely agree that God has made the universe a certain way (with laws that have consequences when broken). These laws, as you stated, include God’s moral, physical and metaphysical laws. The consequences can not only impact our life here on earth, but also our life to come (salvation, loss of rewards, etc.).

    So, what is the answer? If I understand you correctly, we have individuals (including some Christians) who want to administer the law externally (legislating morality alone?) and demanding that the world comply. We have individuals (including some Christians) who want what they perceive is right and beneficial and are either unaware or immune to the consequences caused to themselves and others. And we have believers who, with the Spirit’s help, live lives patterned after the character and nature of God and Christ.

    How then do all of these people get along? Can we truly have freedom? Is Democracy really the best answer for man? Is it the most practical? Is the freedom we enjoy in America simply an illusion? I have often said that if man were perfect, Communism would have worked. Can the same be said of our form of government? The full manifestation of the Kingdom of God is the only viable solution for the governance of man. What do we do in the meantime?

    I guess I would say that Democracy is the best solution for man now. It allows God’s people the freedom to help bring about the Kingdom of God (we get glimpses) through the salvation of man and the redemption of cultures.

    If that is the case, how then does the “Christian Internal Self Government” group determine which laws to push and which ones to wait on? Is this compromise? Is compromise OK?

    We seem to be very interested in certain laws such as “marriage defined as a man and a woman”, abortion and stem cell research etc. (all of which I think are very important), but does not adultery and divorce do as much damage as homosexuality and what about other issues like homelessness and the like?

    I know that I have been all over the place here (I tend to ramble when I am in over my head). Honestly, I am not sure where to go from here. I guess let me just close with this. It seems to me that a “Christian Internal Self Government” believer would actively try to support laws that align with the character and nature of God always. At the same time, sharing Christ (Truth and Grace) through their words and actions knowing that as more people come to know Christ and more Christians are discipled to pattern their “whole” lives after Him, more people will support legislation that is be-fitting the Kingdom of God. In addition, those believers who are called by God to enter the spheres of “Law” and “Politics” would strive to create laws that reflect Christ’s character while living lives that do the same.

    What would happen, if all of the believers in America operated in this way? I think God could change our country, if not the world.

    Devon

  3. “Habermas is right in his statement, but I think he probably has a misunderstanding of Christianity – real Christianity. It is not a set of rules that determine right and wrong – it is a relationship with a God who by his nature is righteous. It is only by knowing Him that we begin to understand what is right and what is wrong.”
    Devon, you hold a good balance in the statement below, but my sense is that what you have just said is not balanced. We are not saved by keeping a set of rules. And it is not a set of manmade rules that determine right from wrong. It is the finished work of Christ and a relationship with him, by grace, through which we are saved. However, God has made the universe a certain way, to operate by a set of moral, physical and metaphysical laws. Simply put, “gravity works!” Gravity works for Christians and not-Christians. If anyone tries to violate the law of gravity, they will get broken. It is the same way with God’s moral law. Adultery is wrong for Christians and non-Christians. When someone commits adultery, they get broken, their family and spouse get broken. All this raises another issue that we will need to look at in more detail another time. There are three primary ways of relating to the moral law. The first are the Judaizers or the Jihadists – the law is administered externally. The second are the libertines where “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” This will eventually lead to anarchy in a society. The third is “Christian internal self government” where Christians freely govern their own lives based on “all that Christ has commanded.”

    “How then do all of these people get along? Can we truly have freedom? Is Democracy really the best answer for man? Is it the most practical? Is the freedom we enjoy in America simply an illusion? I have often said that if man were perfect, Communism would have worked. Can the same be said of our form of government? The full manifestation of the Kingdom of God is the only viable solution for the governance of man. What do we do in the meantime?”
    That depends on who we consider to be sovereign. If man is sovereign and thus does what is right in his own eyes (a la libertarianism) you move toward a state of anarchy. If the government of the church or mosque is sovereign then you tend to move towards tyranny. If God is sovereign then the possibility for freedom exists. Freedom comes wham men and women govern themselves internally based on biblical law. Right now in the United States a growing number of people are doing what is right in their own eyes, lawlessness is increasing, and the government is growing (in terms of new laws, and agencies). We have more and more police and prisons because as a people we are less and less self governed. We are ceasing to be a free people.

    “I guess I would say that Democracy is the best solution for man now. It allows God’s people the freedom to help bring about the Kingdom of God (we get glimpses) through the salvation of man and the redemption of cultures.”
    I would agree. However I would refine this by saying that a constitutional republic is the best form of government in a fallen world. We need to design our form of government based on reality, not on an ideal. I do not see the Bible establishing one form of government. What I see is the Bible describing reality and giving us principles. When we design our government, the more biblical principles we use, the more free and prosperous a nation we will have. The less we apply biblical principles the more tyranny and poverty will result.

    “If that is the case, how then does the “Christian Internal Self Government” group determine which laws to push and which ones to wait on?”
    My sense is that we need to prioritize them by significance. Laws that support the dignity of life of all people from conception would have priority over laws to increase the size of our national park system. Is the park system important? Yes! But if you only have so much time and energy then one must focus on the more significant laws.

    “We seem to be very interested in certain laws such as “marriage defined as a man and a woman”, abortion and stem cell research etc. (all of which I think are very important), but does not adultery and divorce do as much damage as homosexuality and what about other issues like homelessness and the like?”
    Yes it does! And this is why, before we pass laws, we need to work on culture. Laws are always downstream from culture. The church needs to spend more time discipling her members and then the larger society at the level of culture. Once there is a critical mass of citizens who have been discipled at the level of culture the laws will take care of themselves.

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