You Can Legislate Morality But You Cannot Fully Change The Heart Through Legislation

By Brannon S. Howse

“You can’t legislate morality!” is a favorite charge by those who oppose legislation but have a weak argument against its passage. Unfortunately, many Christians have bought this silly line without thinking it through. The reality is that liberals and humanists love to legislate their morality. 


All laws support someone’s morality. This means it is meaningless to pose the question in terms of “separation of church and state” because the morals of some group, organization, church, fellowship, association, or other assemblage will be involved. Those of us who desire to see partial birth abortion outlawed, for instance, are attempting to bring Biblical morality to bear on the issue. On the other hand, those who support legislation that allows the procedure want to maintain a morality based on a relativistic, humanist worldview. The question is not if morality can be legislated but whose morality will be legislated. Laws always reflect someone’s view of right and wrong. Laws against murder, rape, stealing, child pornography, and kidnapping all reinforce the belief that murder, rape, stealing, child pornography, and kidnapping are immoral and shouldn’t be allowed.

Sometimes people counter with arguments such as “Just because you legislate morality does not mean people will obey the law.” That is true, of course, but just because not everyone obeys the laws against murder does not mean we should legalize homocide.

Nevertheless, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of Americans follow our laws even when they are not being watched. For example, most Americans voluntarily pay their taxes, obey traffic rules, and register for the Selective Service at age eighteen.

Another objection you’ll hear is “You can’t change the heart with legislation.” Although that is not completely true (I’ll explain why below), changing of the heart is not the foremost goal of legislation, so the argument is largely irrelevant. The primary goal of laws are to create a stable, secure society. That means setting up a system to help keep people’s baser instincts—lust, greed, hatred—in check. If nothing else, laws need to discourage people from engaging in criminal acts simply because they’re afraid of punishment.

There is evidence, however, that over time, laws can change the heart to a degree. However, the only way to change someone's heart is through the gospel and not legislation or laws. Yet, it is true that the values or actions of people can be changed for good or bad through the enforcement of just and unjust laws. Consider the issue of slavery, for instance. For more than half of the nineteenth century, many Americans thought they should be allowed to enslave some people based on the color of their skin. In twenty-first-century America, though, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks slavery is morally acceptable. Over time, the law against slavery has caused people to change the way they think and feel about the issue. 

This changing of the heart, though, can go against us as well. In 1960, few Americans would have agreed that abortion is morally acceptable. But because the highest court in the land ruled in 1973 that the killing of an unborn child is legal, many Americans have come to believe abortion is morally acceptable. The Supreme Court’s position has had a powerful—and negative!—impact on the morals of countless Americans. That’s because most people really do equate the law with what is right. They assume legislation is moral.

So legislating morality is not a violation of any standard, principle, or proper philosophy of government. Moral purpose is behind every law. Despite the beliefs of many misguided individuals, Christians should be involved to some degree in supporting measures and the legislative process that make for a stable and just society. 

Copyright 2006 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.