Can You Legislate Morality? MLK Jr. Responds.

The assertion that “You can’t legislate morality” is often used as a reason that Christians (or anyone else for that matter) shouldn’t seek to create laws that are based on moral values. But is that true? If you think about it for just a moment, you realize that it’s a ridiculous statement. We legislate morality all the time. For example why do we have laws agains stealing? Because taking another person’s property is immoral.

When people say, “You can’t legislate morality,” sometimes they mean that laws can’t change people’s hearts. I think that’s what President Eisenhower meant when he used the phrase in 1957 regarding race relations. With an uptick in violence including the bombing of houses of black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Eisenhower to come to the South to make a speech urging law and order. Eisenhower refused and in response King and his associates sent the White House a telegram that said in part…

“In the absence of some early and effective remedial action we will have no moral choice but to lead a Pilgrimage of Prayer to Washington. If you, our president, cannot come South to relieve our harassed people, we shall have to lead our people to you in the capital in order to call the nation’s attention to the violence and organized terror.”

According to Taylor Branch, Eisenhower was in Newport, Rhode Island prior to heading for a two week hunting vacation in southern Georgia. On his way out of a church service in which he heard a sermon on the need for new civil rights laws, Ike shook hands with a Navy chaplain and said, “You can’t legislate morality.”

When news of Eisenhower’s remark reached him, King was dismayed because it seemed as if the President had missed one of the main points of the law. While the law on its own cannot change hearts, it can establish justice in ordinary life. King: “A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.”

King circled back to this issue from time to time including a speech at Western Michigan University given on December 18, 1963…exactly 51 years ago today.

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”

2 Comments

  1. Jerry Easterly said:

    The Ten Commandments, written by God, regulating every thought and action of His redeemed people, could not change the hearts of men. That could only be done by the one who fulfilled perfectly the requirements of God’s written law and then offered himself as a sacrifice for every transgression by every one who would believe in him, Jesus Christ, as the only Savior and Lord of the world. The Holy Spirit, indwelling (making the believer the temple of God) changing the heart of stone into a heart of flesh (being born again) with the Law of the New Covenant written on it, legislates both inward and outward morality that can be seen. Civil government has the power and the obligation to demonstrate what the righteousness of God looks like in the face of evil among men. Legislation by itself without due care to enforce it is powerless in the face of evil precisely because you can’t legislate morality. Thank you Keith for your excellent thoughts. Thank you God for your indescribable gift of Jesus. Merry Christmas to all.

  2. steeve said:

    You can legislate morality, but not the Bible. We either believe in religious freedom or we don’t.

    Christians need to either stop kidding themselves and call for a theocracy or acknowledge the existence of a secular moral code and restrict their politicking to that.

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