Why Trying to Legislate Morality Is a Mistake

Note: Thank you to Dr. Ryan Denison for writing today’s Daily Article. He is the Denison Forum Senior Editor for Theology and has written more than four hundred articles for Denison Forum.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) defeated Republican candidate Herschel Walker in Tuesday’s Georgia runoff, giving the Democrats a 51–49 seat advantage in the Senate. Warnock outpaced Walker in the November election as well, but Georgia law requires a candidate to exceed 50 percent of the votes to win, and neither candidate was able to clear that initial threshold.

Warnock’s victory at a time when Republicans dominated most of the ballot in Georgia speaks to his appeal as a candidate—he is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach, and did little in his previous, albeit short, tenure as a senator to cause people to question his efficacy. For many, however, Walker’s flaws were the deciding factor.

The Republican made several gaffes on the election trail, such as attributing the climate crisis to China’s “bad air” pushing out America’s “good air,” but his personal history likely played a bigger role in his defeat. His ex-wife’s previous accounts of domestic abuse, as well as revelations that he paid for multiple abortions, cut into his credibility with voters.

Whatever the case may be, the 2022 election has now concluded and Congress can proceed to its most important task: preparing for the 2024 election. Or at least that’s how it often seems. In truth, there are many important decisions on the horizon, and Tuesday’s vote will likely play a substantial role in determining the course our government takes.

However, ours is not the only government making headlines today.

Indonesia criminalizes sex outside of marriage

On Tuesday, Indonesian lawmakers unanimously passed legislation that criminalizes sex outside of marriage as part of a larger attempt to bring people in line with Islamic morality. The country already had laws against adultery and homosexuality, but they did not pertain to premarital sex.

Other new regulations forbid cohabitation before marriage, apostasy, blasphemy, insulting the president or expressing views that go against the national ideology, and protests without notification.

The country’s previous criminal code was a vestige of the colonial era and was instituted by the Dutch. As such, lawmakers deemed it “no longer relevant” to modern Indonesia and sought to create something that more closely aligned with their beliefs.

Still, what many find most troubling is that the new laws will theoretically apply to everyone in the country, including foreign residents and tourists. Tourism is a big part of the Indonesian economy, and as much as 10 percent of the nation’s citizens are typically employed in that field.

With the new law set to go into effect three years from now, they have some time to figure it out, but it’s telling that the greatest areas of concern for many Indonesians relate to the economic impact rather than the moral aspects of the new laws.

Why Christians can’t legislate morality

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, with roughly 87 percent of the country’s 270 million people adhering to that faith, so it should come as less of a surprise that their government would have both the desire and the ability to pass such a law. In the Muslim faith, morality is primarily concerned with one’s actions. Consequently, if the government can keep people from committing sinful acts, they are helping their people live more in line with Allah’s will.

And really, that’s how most of the world religions—to the extent that they have a concept of sin—view morality. In Christianity, however, it’s a bit different.

Jesus spends a large portion of the Sermon on the Mount describing how it’s not enough to simply avoid sinful acts if we fail to address the sin in our hearts (Matthew 5:21-48). It is not a coincidence that he starts his sermon by describing the character he expects from his disciples before ever really addressing their actions (vv. 1–12). Moreover, he makes clear that God has always been concerned with our motivations and the sins we never act upon (vv. 17–20). His people just lost sight of that fact over the centuries.

Far too often, we make the same mistake in our culture today.

You see, the problem with trying to legislate morality is that it puts all the focus on our actions.

It lulls people into thinking that as long as they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they must be alright. The truth is that we are seldom more at risk of acting in a sinful manner than when we allow sinful desires to grow undisturbed in our hearts and minds.

After all, every law against sinful activity would be unnecessary if we dealt with the sin before it ever rose to that level.

Laws against sexual activity of any sort outside of marriage would be pointless if people dealt with the lust that tempts people toward it. Legislation against theft and insider trading would be unnecessary if people addressed their greed first. And rules outlawing assault would be needless if people handled their anger before it ever became an action.

Prioritize righteousness over sinning less

Now, I’m not sufficiently naïve to believe that—this side of heaven—we will ever live in a world where laws are unnecessary. But does that mean the solution is attempting to legislate sin out of our culture?

I have my doubts.

Would people commit fewer sins if more sinful activity was made illegal? Probably so.

But would they become more righteous and draw closer to God if that were the case? History says the answer is most likely no, and that’s what our Lord cares about the most.

So while it may be tempting to look at laws like those passed in Indonesia and wish that we had a government more capable of legislating people into accepting Christian morality, know that even if we did, sin would still be a problem and God would still be the only real solution.

And that’s good news.

After all, it’s a lot easier to help your neighbor know about God than it is to convince hundreds of millions of Americans to vote in accordance with his will. So let’s start there and see what our God can do.

Whom can you help know God better today?

Publication date: December 7, 2022

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/I Wayan Suarnaya

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Denison Forum ad

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

The Daily Article Podcast is Here!

Click to Listen

Devotionals

View All