Does the Bible Compel Government to Legislate Morality?

Constantly I have heard Christians state something to effect that “government is supposed to enforce morality.” In other words, they assume that God expects political powers to force people to obey at least some parts of his law. That’s how I understand the argument anyway.

At face value, this idea certainly has some appeal to those of us who value the concept of integrity, responsibility, etc. But I still have a problem with it: it’s not really scriptural. I imagine that any critic reading this will reflexively parrot an array of passages from the Old Testament. The catch is that I am not under the Old Testament. Neither is any other faithful Christian (Hebrews 5:8-13). What about the New Testament? Romans 13:1-7, you say? Ok. Tell me specifically which “evildoers” in that passage are supposed to fall by the sword. You can’t and that’s the problem.

Over and over again, many Christians show themselves to be arbitrary in their understanding of how civil government relates to Christianity. Consider the problem of defining morality. Society at large usually has no problem with punishing thieves, murderers, rapists, and vandals. In a crude sense this represents the extent of most people’s moral sensibilities. The Religious Right, on the other hand, would add to the list of offenders the following: homosexuals, gamblers (unless your Bill Bennett), adulterers, prostitutes, porn users, drug users, and those who drink alcohol. That is the extent of morality for many fundamentalists. Beyond this, the Religious Right would not look to the government to impose particular tenets of a religious faith (and somehow, matters such as social justice and charity often get left off the list of “moral issues”). The problem is that the Scriptures do not look at “right” and “wrong” in this way.

With the Bible, there is no artificial delineation between “moral” laws to be imposed by the government and “religious” decrees to be imposed by the Church. That kind of differentiation is actually quite modern. On the other hand, for much of the history of Christendom, the Church and state were united in the minds of those who professed to be Christians. In a similar fashion, God’s law is also unified in its understanding of what “right” and “wrong” is. The cultist who teaches error on salvation is just as guilty before God as the thief (James 2:10). The “covetous” man is just as deserving of death as the murderer (Romans 1:29-32). But I have yet to see a social conservative ask for a covetous man to be hanged.

Obviously, I take issue with the way so many Christians pick and choose like a buffet which moral issues they expect to be codified into law. So does this mean that we should go back to a theocratic understanding of civil jurisprudence? There are some extremists (e.g., the Christian Reconstructionists) who want to do just that, using the Old Testament as a pattern for government (since the New Testament obviously doesn’t suit their purposes). Of course, Galatians 5:4 serves as a foil against those so inclined towards resurrecting the Old Covenant in any shape or form. So theocracy, whether it is full-blown or half-inflated, will not work.

Beyond this, I must ask which group would we consult when it comes time to defining morality for civil government? Many will say Christians. Of course, there is a lot of confusion in our society about who is a Christian. Do we follow the Catholics and outlaw contraceptives? No? Just the Protestants? Some Protestants like to drink. Okay, what about the Baptists, or maybe just the Churches of Christ? But divorce and remarriage is a moral issue. So which gospel preachers get to write the state laws on divorce?  Ones who allow remarriage for various reasons or ones who forbid remarriage altogether? If you think I’m being ridiculous, remember that many Christians think “morality” is the government’s business as mandated by God. So, I just want to know what is the logical end of such thinking.

The fact of the matter is that I have difficulty understanding how some institution maintained by secular people can bring about the righteousness of God. If the people have no faith, no amount of government sanctioned force will do any good. In fact, if conservatives concede that moral laxity leads to the expansion of government, and thus tyranny, why do so many of them do an about face and expect our government to peep in everybody’s bedroom? If a person is not conformed to the image of Christ, sodomy laws are not going to matter much, except as a profession of somebody’s creed (which may not represent everybody’s thinking). Likewise, if people do not have a true, Biblical understanding of the sanctity of life, police protection from violence is at best a precarious matter; just ask those who lived under Saddam Hussein.

Even if we concede that government serves some useful purpose in protecting society from actual threats (such as to person or property), how can we justify an expanded role of government in enforcing other moral matters such as sexual purity? Some may counter that sexual immorality is a “threat to our families.” But quite frankly, that threat is more metaphysical than material. Consumerism is a threat to our families, too, but I don’t hear calls for legislation on that. Indeed, on some issues of morality, we must concede it is merely our religious sensibilities that are being threatened. Asking government to protect me from having my religious sensibilities assaulted is not sound jurisprudence, it’s political correctness.

The bottom line is that Christians need to start looking again to Jesus to save the souls of people, not to politicians. I have often found many people who run for office and claim to stand for “family values” or issues “that matter to people of faith” are often hypocritical and ignorant of what the Bible really teaches. I’m not voting for them anymore than I would vote for a “secular” person. Why? Because they present a distorted picture of spirituality. They profane what is sacred.

Readers, morality is equal to religion. Why? Because in the eyes of God, you are “moral” only to the extent that you obey the dictates of the religion he established. Therefore, I do not think I do violence to James when I say: Pure and undefiled morality is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (see James 1:27 NKJV). Let’s start keeping ourselves unspotted instead of expecting the government to keep people partially unspotted.

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