Can We Legislate Morality?
By KrisAnne Hall, JD
“Can we legislate morality?” This is a very relevant question that deserves a serious answer. But what is really meant by this question? The idea of “legislating morality” often gives people the impression that we can create a moral society through the creation of laws. Fact is – we cannot. As a prosecutor I became acutely aware of the apparently widely held view that the criminal justice system will “reform” people. We could save ourselves a lot of heartache and a lot of money if we just accepted the reality that the criminal justice system, our jails, our prisons, are not designed to reform people, they are designed to punish people for doing bad things. The punishment is what is supposed to make people change their mind about committing future crimes. More laws and more prisons will not magically create a moral society.
We cannot deny, however, that all laws are based upon shared moral values. When a society loses that morality, we find ourselves in a situation where we are tempted to compensate by creating more laws. This is what causes people to put the cart before the horse and believe morality can be, or should be legislated. We have become a society that treats symptoms instead of diseases. This situation is no different. The symptom is an ever increasing lawless society; the disease is an ever decreasing moral society. If we want the government to stop “legislating morality”, we must become, once again a society of individuals that upholds our shared moral values. We may not be able to legislate morality, but as our founders warned, we cannot afford to lose it.
John Adams stated in an address to Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts in 1798: Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Adams believed that America’s unique moral character provided security for the future:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence.
He then issued this warning:
But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.
Adams was attempting to impress upon these military men that the power wielded by an immoral society could not be restrained by the best Constitution and could be lethal to Liberty itself.
Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.
Some of the shared moral values, such as respect for life and charity toward the helpless, are contained in the great faith systems of the world. For our founders it was the Judeo-Christian foundation that guided their value system, and it is interwoven into their writings and our founding documents. A shared morality is not the same thing as government-enforced religion, but historically a shared morality has been rooted in a shared sense of higher purpose and an acknowledgement of a higher power, or at least some awareness of a spiritual aspect to our daily lives. But according to Many Say ‘So what?’ to Religion, Atheism published in USA Today, a growing number of people simply do not care about matters of faith and morality. I believe this is not just a problem for the religious community, but this has grave implications for the future of our nation. If we eliminate or disregard the basis for our common values, we begin to slide further and further into lawlessness.
The article in USA Today implies that America is becoming a nation free of religion; people simply don’t think of God and don’t find religion necessary to maintain their “happiness”. Barry Komsin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society for Trinity College states in this article: But a lot of these people are concerned more with the tangible, the real stuff like mortgages or their favorite football team or the everyday world,” Kosmin says. The bottom line for these folks is “as long as I have my stuff, I am happy and do not need a religion or God.”
I believe this focus, solely on material things, is what is having a devastating effect on Liberty. The reality is that a vast majority of our citizens would have an easier time naming all the judges on American Idol than those on the Supreme Court of the United States. Meanwhile our Liberties are being eroded, degraded, and destroyed right under our noses and most don’t care because they got a flat screen TV for Christmas and more channels than they could possibly watch in a lifetime. While we should be trying to stop this whale of an administration from tearing the nets of Liberty in America, we are tweeting the latest escapades of the Kardashians or informing our Facebook friends of our location and menu choices. We are completely ignorant of our obligations as Americans to require our government to protect Liberty and of our responsibility to maintain that Liberty. Few have a sense of anything greater than “right here, right now.” Two testimonials from this article reflect this mentality:
When Ben Helton signed up for an online dating service, under “religion” he called himself “spiritually apathetic.” Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he’s just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane. Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren’t atheists, either. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.
Founders like Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, didn’t think shrugging off God was a good idea for our nation: Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?
Jefferson contemplated the consequences to this nation if we ever forgot that valuable lesson: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not (sic) sleep forever.”
Ben Franklin reminded his fellow countrymen when Liberty was in peril: In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor…and have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?
Franklin knew that without God, Liberty would be short lived.
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
The USA Today article continues with Rev. Ema Drouillard, who specializes in San Francisco-area non-denominational ceremonies. Ms. Drouillard “said in 2001 about 30 percent of her clients refused any reference to religion at their weddings. A decade later, 80 percent of her clients choose her carefully God-free ceremony. The only faith they pledge is in each other.” Maybe that is why we can look to a man for “hope and change” and find that our country crumbles when we place our faith in man. But the Ms. Drouillard continues, “A lot of people just aren’t on any spiritual path. They say, ‘We are just focusing on the party.’
That focus is the very thing that drives this disease. As this article seems to point out, we have become a nation void of any responsibility to God. Our founders would ask, “How then do we think that we can maintain the gift of Liberty that He has given?” “How can we give no consideration to the consequences for ignoring that gift?” I believe they would say that “we have been come self-sufficient, self-made men building an empire of stuff and never once giving thought to the principles of Liberty that makes these things possible. We have forgotten, to whom much is given, much is required. We have become pacified by our prosperity, lazy in our luxury and have forgotten the dear price that has been paid for this Liberty and the price required to maintain it.”
Our Constitution is dedicated to the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we want to maintain this Republic and its promises of Liberty, as Daniel Webster said, we must “hold onto to the Constitution”. In holding on to the Constitution, we must understand that Liberty is its end and morality is a vital bond that secures its survival. Our Liberty stands in peril because we have abandoned our moral foundation. Freedom AND morality are BOTH necessary to maintain Liberty. The sole pursuit of stuff and satisfaction of self creates a moral vacuum – we must reconnect with a higher purpose. We must be dedicated to fighting for ALL of the principles of Liberty that make this nation so great! Because some things remain true: sparrows still fall, whales break nets, and Liberty cannot last without morality.