Legislating Morality

We hear it all the time: “You can’t legislate morality!”

Such platitudes seem to make sense at first. We’re told that morality and legislation shouldn’t mix.

But consider the laws enacted by the founding generation of Americans. They didn’t think morality – and especially biblical morality – was off limits!

Take, for example, the laws passed by the Connecticut legislature within the first couple years after the War for Independence. Among other things, these laws included:

  • prohibiting adultery, drunkenness, fornication, and gambling—all on biblical grounds
  • instructing town leaders to supply Bibles, catechisms, and other religious books to needy families
  • expecting families who adopted a Native American child to educate him or her in “the principles of the Christian religion”
  • punishing sabbath breaking, fortune telling, and swearing

Laws that openly reflected Christian morality were ubiquitous in every state of the nation. Even the famous Thomas Jefferson drafted several Virginia statutes that legislated morality, including laws that provided for:

  • “Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers”
  • “Annulling Marriages Prohibited by Levitical Law”

This must come as a shock the secular humanists who appeal to Jefferson and other founders to defend their misguided vision of a strict separation of church and state!

Should we legislate morality? Most certainly. All laws reflect one system of morality or another. Why does the law allow for this but not for that? Why does the law punish this one behavior but not this other behavior?

Murder, theft, arson, fraud, assault, rape, kidnapping, slavery, prostitution, and perjury are all illegal. Why? Because we all agree these behaviors are immoral and can’t be tolerated in any society that seeks to promote the common good and human flourishing. It would be nothing short of absurd if someone argued that we shouldn’t prohibit kidnapping because it amounted to legislating morality!

The Apostle Paul teaches us that government should “commend those who do good” while “punishing the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3, 4). But where do we turn to learn which actions should be commended and which should be punished?

The Word of God, revealed in the Holy Bible, is the only infallible and unchanging source of morality. It is the ultimate authority. Anyone who builds a legal system or passes laws upon any foundation other than biblical principles is like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand (Matthew 7:24-27).

James Wilson, an original US Supreme Court justice and signatory to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, taught his law students this important maxim:

Human law must rest its authority upon the authority of that law which is divine.

For hundreds of years the American legal structure has rested on the cornerstone of biblical truth. Everyone agreed that the Bible should undergird our system of laws. That firm foundation has provided generations of Americans with justice and liberty—and it has enabled our government to stand the test of time.