On Legislating Morality

I’ve often heard from people criticizing social legislation — from laws on gay marriage and abortion to drugs and alcohol — that you “can’t legislate morality.” Laws such as this, the argument goes, are beyond the proper sphere of government. We are to let individuals do as they please so long as they are not hurting someone else. To interfere with someone’s private activity is unfair and unjust.

Recently, I’ve been watching The West Wing on Netflix, and the members of the Bartlett administration believe much the same thing. In one scene, Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, berates a Republican for his apparent belief that government should not be involved in private activity of any kind, unless it is in the bedroom. This way of thinking is more and more of the norm nowadays, particularly with regards to gay marriage, but the argument extends to socially conservative legislation generally. You can’t legislate morality.

I disagree with this line of thinking. Here is one prominent American thinker explaining why:

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. [Emphasis mine]

Many of the great reforms throughout American history were animated by religious people, often because of their religion. The injection of faith into public debate has, the vast majority of the time, been a very good thing. And regardless, our law is ipso facto the legislation of morality. The entire legal system under which we live — the Constitution, the amendments, Supreme Court decisions, federal, state, and local laws — is the codification of some form of morality, be it Christian, Jewish, Utilitarian, Humanist, Liberal or Conservative. That is what law is.

The author of that paragraph?

President Barack Obama.


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