Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Can We Legislate Morality?"

How does a person become a good person? How can we make or encourage other people to be good people?

One solution that society seems to choose as a first response to bad behavior is to ask our legislators to create a new law that will require people to follow prescribed behavior. For example, injuries from vehicle and cycling accidents have motivated laws such as requiring passengers to wear seat belts, requiring children to be placed in car seats, and requiring helmets for young children on bicycles. Yet a person may ride a motorcycle without a helmet and an adult does not have to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.

When business scandal affects many people’s investments or retirement, the calls for more regulatory laws intensify. When people discover that politicians have allowed themselves to be influenced by large financial donations or that political campaigns have found ways to accept unregulated money, the calls for more regulatory laws intensify. When a tragic or horrible event occurs, people want to know if some law can be created to prevent such behavior in the future.

American society at one time tried to improve the consumption of alcohol by making the sale of alcohol illegal through a Constitutional amendment. The amendment was eventually repealed because the law was generally ignored. Once a society has become used to a certain activity, even a bad one, trying to eliminate that activity is almost impossible. This is why certain drug use should remain illegal and never become accepted and legal behavior.

Some use the example of Prohibition as an illustration of how society cannot "legislate morality". What people usually mean by the term "legislate morality" is that you cannot force people to be moral & good people by the use of laws. However, this is only partially true.

Admittedly, passing a law will not make a man a good father or good husband. Passing a law will not make a teenager listen to his parents nor will passing a law make a person an honest worker or be kind to others. Properly understood, society cannot "legislate" people into morality.

However, that should not stop society from passing laws to regulate morality. Does not society have laws against murder, stealing, perjury, and polygamy? Does not society have laws to require fathers to pay child support, to prevent sexual assault, and to prevent parents from leaving infants in hot cars? Are not these "moral" issues? So society does make some attempt to regulate morality if that regulation appears to be for the good of society. In fact, all law is to some extent an attempt to regulate behavior, even moral behavior.

Can we create laws that will force people to be kind to each other, to help each other, and to smile at least five times every day? Of course we can. But have we really changed anyone, and do we really want laws like this? Human law can never change the human heart. Outwardly most people will conform to the law because they do not want to pay a fine or go to jail. But inwardly people will still be the same. I’ve noticed that many people are quite capable of conforming to what is expected of them regardless of what they may actually think or be.

How do we make someone a good person? Only by complete transformation of the human heart, the "new creation" that 2 Corinthians 5:17 refers to. Unfortunately, many who claim to be "Christian" are a poor reflection of the "new creation" they are supposed to be. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly pictures the person who has trusted Jesus Christ and His work on the cross for salvation as different, renewed, transformed, and new.

Outward morality can indeed be legislated. But inward morality based on a transformed life can never be manufactured by human law. Only the Spirit of God Himself can produce such a change.