Can We Legislate Morality?

We Christians, whether politically-liberal, conservative, or moderate, all share a common pain: We bristle at the thought of our nation’s moral decline. It concerns us to see high divorce rates, child custody and support battles, children lacking both parents, rampant promiscuity – among both gay and straight people, entertainers competing to see who can sell the most records by pushing the envelope of lewdness the farthest, alcohol binging, drug abuse, and, for those who like to dance, the art of dancing being reduced to an exhibition of simulated sex.

As those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we Christians are driven to take action. We know that all Americans, especially children, would be so much better off in a nation with minimal moral sin. God has called us to do His will on earth as it is done in heaven, so it’s natural for us to desire heaven on earth. It’s a longing the Holy Spirit has placed in us. All of this begs the question, “How do we reduce immorality?”

The instinctive reaction for most of us is to take political action. As one pastor in a former church of mine put it, “Who says you can’t legislate morality? That’s what legislation is for.” This sounds fair. We live in a democracy, and we are entitled to vote according to our beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with voting for what’s right.

In fact, over the last couple centuries, Christians have voted against some of these immoralities, and they were indeed illegal. Alcohol was once illegal, various drugs, including marijuana, have been illegal, and homosexual behavior has been illegal at various times and in various places throughout American history. Yet, these immoralities have not only survived, but thrived, despite being illegal.

Why is this?

The answer is simple: These sins are, for all practical purposes, victimless crime. In other words, at the time of the violation, no disapproving person is present. If two consenting gay people do their gay thing together at home, no one will call the police they way a victim would when having their property stolen or their body injured.

Thanks to this reality, most victimless immoral behavior goes unpunished. If enough people engage in such behavior, the behavior becomes a topic of conversation, and it turns out that conversation, not legislation, dictates the direction in which morality will go. Cigarette smoking has decreased in America, not because it’s been banned, but because conversations have turned people against it. On the flip side of that, marijuana was illegal in all 50 states for decades, yet support for its legalization grew through conversation to the point where the people of Colorado and Washington legalized it.

Yes, we can legislate morality. But the reality is that doing so doesn’t work. Our only hope is to get more people to fall in love with God and His will. Only when hearts are transformed will morality improve.