“You can’t legislate morality!” This was a familiar line in the chorus of objection to the civil rights and voting laws of the early 1960s.
The idea was that passing laws won’t make people love each other and create community where there are problems born of generations of custom and practice.
The point is right, of course – relationship and community cannot be commanded, but one can’t help wondering if resistance, then and now, to legal responses to social and moral problems has less to do with the limitations of the response and more to do with its challenge to established ways of thinking and acting.
At all levels of human relationship, objection to one thing can mask a deeper concern.
A teenager’s objection to a curfew directive might well be covering some of the deeper uncertainties of adolescence and peer pressure.
An adult student’s resistance to a course requirement to visit a religious tradition different from her own might be an expression of a fear of compromising her own commitments.
A church member’s concern about a change in some feature of a worship service could grow out of a deeper fear that things comfortable and secure are slipping away.
When things we have come to depend on are challenged by new rules that would change them, it is an understandable response to challenge the new rules rather than to examine the problem – or even to accept that there is one.
Such was the case in much of the opposition to civil rights legislation, and we see evidence of that in more recent debates relating to gun control, immigration and health care.
The imperfection or limitation of a legal response is often used as a basis of objection to doing anything at all.
Two voices have spoken helpfully to me as I have listened to and thought about this objection for the past 50 years.
One among many was Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke frequently and in many contexts to the charge that changing laws would not change hearts.
He agreed, in part, with the challenge that morality can’t be legislated. But he added that legislation can put helpful restrictions on the expressions of immorality.
A law cannot make a Klansman love his neighbor of another race, but it can make it illegal to terrorize him.
A law cannot make me welcome the stranger, but it can keep me from having him arrested and taken from his family for knocking on the door.
Laws can provide a structure that places restrictions and sanctions on immoral behavior, and that’s at least a start in the direction of a better society.
The other voice that has been helpful is that of the apostle Paul, who makes a slightly different but equally relevant case.
In his discussion of the place of the Torah in the life of faith, he was mostly addressing the legalism that tended to reduce faith to keeping specific tenets of the law. Salvation by faith and not by works of the law was a prevalent theme in his theology.
But it is interesting to note that he did not dismiss the law’s value, but instead spoke of it as a “pedagogue” or tutor – providing the parameters of faithfulness until the person could embrace the life of grace-full faith.
Legislated morality? Legislated faith? No. But certainly not a dismissal of guidelines toward morality and faithfulness.
We might wish that those who want to create and nurture wholesome community on small and large scales would welcome the role of legal guidelines to protect from misguided human choices, even though those guidelines are not perfect guarantees of protection.
As we have seen in the long-range benefit of civil rights legislation, whose half-century legacy we now celebrate, laws themselves may not change people’s hearts, but they can help create a climate where moral progress can happen and hearts can change.
Who knows what people will see 50 years from now when they look back on the current legislative agenda of immigration reform, gun control and marriage equality?
Will morality have been legislated? Probably not. But maybe there will have been steps toward the creation of a climate where the slow growth of our culture’s morality could take place.
Culture’s morality, it seems, is always a work in progress; and legislation seems to have a role in that.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).