Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?

Q. This is a sort of church and state question that is more theoretical than anything. What I’m wondering is if Christianity is true, and God made the universe according to his nature such that there are objective moral absolutes and so on, should Christians try in any way to impose a Christian moral code on people who don’t believe? In other words, if the best thing for human flourishing is to live in alignment with our God-ordained natures, to what degree should Christians try to make laws that outwardly compel people to live according to more or less Christian values (for their own good)?

For starters, let me say that I believe there’s a practical problem with the  approach you’re asking about. Passing a law forbidding something doesn’t effectively prevent it, and passing a law requiring something doesn’t effectively make it happen. That’s because people typically don’t obey a law if they really don’t want to do what it says, or if they want to do what it says not to do. Fear of punishment is only a partial deterrent.

The classic example of this in the American experience is Prohibition. It did not compel Americans to become teetotalers. No one knows the actual effect it had on alcohol production and consumption, because it made those things very difficult to measure. But the general understanding is that consumption went down at first because supplies were limited, but as soon as illegal supplies came on line, consumption increased steadily. On the other hand, there was a significant and measurable decrease in alcohol consumption in the years before Prohibition, through social influences rather than legal force. I think that’s instructive. The most effective measures were persuasive, not compulsory. In our own day, organizations such as M.A.D.D. are having a renewed effectiveness through such persuasion. So this is something of a parable that Christians everywhere, and particularly in America, should bear in mind, as a reminder of the limits of legal force and the power of social forces.

In fact, I think your question leads directly to another one: For any given behavior we want to discourage, are we really better off passing a law against it? Or are we risking driving people who want to continue that behavior into the hands of criminals, strengthening their enterprises? Some things we simply must forbid, and enforce those sanctions as fully as possible, for the sake of social order and the protection of life and safety. I’m not advocating anarchy here. But we do have to consider that it may be better to allow certain things to remain legal and work to address their causes, rather than try to pass laws against them. In fact, even for things that unquestionably should be illegal, the laws against them are only a preliminary step. Those activities won’t go away, either, until their causes are addressed.

The Bible itself teaches us the capabilities and limits of the law. In arguing that Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to follow the Law of Moses, Paul writes in his letters that it did serve the functions of teaching and restraint. It illustrated for people how they should live, and it restrained, with strict penalties, the worst cases of personal injury and social disorder. But Paul also says pointedly that the Law was not capable of giving people the ability or desire to live in the way it specified. That depended instead on the transforming effects of life in a community that was living in covenant relationship with God, and ultimately on the gift of the Holy Spirit to that community and its members.

In our own day, societies can use all aspects of their “law,” from criminal penalties to features of their tax codes, to discourage some behaviors and incentivize others. In the process, they will teach, because this provides a picture of how they believe people should live. Allowing a tax deduction for charitable donations shows that the society encourages generosity to those in need. Creating and enforcing speed limits and other traffic regulations shows that the society does not want its members to endanger themselves or others by driving heedlessly. Societies also use laws to restrain. Having much more serious penalties for things like murder and robbery shows that such activities are dangerous and antisocial above all.

But this isn’t actually compelling people to live in a certain way. People will continue to do whatever they believe they can get away with until the causes of behavior are addressed, and that takes a lot more than passing a law. So the bottom line is that I don’t think we can “outwardly compel” people to live in a certain way through laws, though they can be an important first step.

But here’s the other side of the coin. In a democracy, people get the laws they work for. Otherwise, they get laws they haven’t worked for. So if Christians really do believe that, by God’s very design, certain activities are harmful and destructive, while others are beneficial and life-giving, then they need to be out there in the public-policy mix, at the very least trying to get positive things incentivized and negative things discouraged.

But I need to state some further qualifiers:

• I’m not talking about creating a theocracy, in which Christians take power and enforce the law of God (as they understand it) as the law of the land. For one thing, every time this has been attempted in church history, it has been a disaster. But in more theological terms, I believe that as redemptive history unfolded, the days of theocracy ended when Jesus introduced the new covenant and the people of God became a multinational community. Followers of Jesus now have a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God that is breaking into our world, but an important and continuing secondary loyalty to their own nations, to help them live up to their own highest ideals, consistently with the values of the kingdom of God. As an American, for example, I believe that I should support the ideals of democracy and civil liberties, while at the same time critiquing American culture’s extreme individualism, which (as social observers have been documenting) has caused narcissism to flourish and undermined our social fabric.

• What I am advocating is being in the mix. Pick your battles. Work for what matters most. To reach particular goals, form strategic alliances with people and organizations who might not agree with you about everything. In fact, they might agree with you about only one thing. But if that’s the thing you’re working for, you’ve got the potential to create a limited partnership with them.

• If what you’re really after is what you believe is best for people—human flourishing—then take care that your campaign, through its tone and tactics, doesn’t have destructive side effects. That would be tragically counterproductive.

I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect to be able to pass a comprehensive set of laws that will compel everyone, at least outwardly, to live as Christians believe people should. But if you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God. Probably the best place to start is with practical contemporary expressions of, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Plenty to work for there.

Thanks for your thoughtful question! I hope these reflections give you further food for thought.

This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.
This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

8 thoughts on “Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?”

  1. Yes, thank you Chris…I guess really there’s no conclusion but to walk the moderate path as the cybernetic mind prevails. By God’s will hopefully all shall be saved.

    John chapter 10 : “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate but climbs in by some other way is a thief and a robber”. 11 : “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he’s a hired man and cares nothing for his sheep”.

    The rudimentary root cause as mentioned must be addressed and the “prohibition” though “teetotaler” or not has to go through the mill of rewards and punishment…and the understanding of “McGregor’s theory X theory Y”. The perception of “sins” are really different in nature. Is there a “New God” or a transformed God in this modern era?…”reform theory” for the appeasement of people or God’s people which would make the Bible corrupt as a measure to have a place in Heaven?

    1. I’m assuming you mean those last few sentences from the perspective of those who are not yet following the teachings and example of Jesus. He said that he was bringing out the deepest meaning of the Scriptures and that in that sense they would always remain valid. But we do need to apply them appropriately to each new cultural situation.

      1. Hey Chris, not arguing with that…the basic factor for “people” is the well being and safety for its people as percepted and yes, the infamy of democracy where two people of different minds really may not agree with each other. The British has the saying of “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”.
        I can’t help but feel that this topic is pointing fingers at Mr. Donald Trump who is now being seen as racist for his belief that ‘Muslims”is the problem at the moment in the US and in the world…rightfully so after 911..an incident that will not be forgotten or forgiven by the majority of its people…”losing the baggage or not” by most forgiving Christians. And yes, I don’t believe Mr. Trump is a real Christian but he is addressing the problem and really, which country could stand up to the expanding Islam who basically acknowledged Christianity but does or seen to have done the opposite from atrocities. Yes, “Until we find the problem” en-quote. In the interim, the “Muslims” will have to suffer and it cannot be equated with “slavery”sad but true…the Chinese has this saying “If the problem can be resolved by money than it isn’t a problem”.
        Sorry, starting to be a wee bit off topic, so yes, to your question of “Christians imposing moral legal codes on people who doesn’t believe (in Christianity)” goes to the fact that no human moral, more so of different religions “legal or not” should impose its will on non believers…as what David Letterman always mentioned “Safety first” before further lives are snuffed. Fortunately or unfortunately, the US is founded on the very core of Christianity which have come out from the dark ages via democracy and human rights…perhaps “reform/s”are in order. We shouldn’t go back to rudiments of “you did it first”we bore with it, now we are retaliating…before it brings us back to the dark ages.

      2. One quick comment on what you say: As I write in this post, “The Protestant tradition emphasizes how no one but God really knows another person’s heart, so I don’t feel I’m able to say definitively that a particular person who claims to be a Christian is only pretending to be one.” So I would prefer for us not to offer our opinions about whether someone is a “real Christian.”

      3. Yes, “Judge not and ye shall not be judged”. But for a public figure he would have to bear the consequences of his actions and if it is seen as “un-Christian” like, he shall be viewed and assumed as such; not just by me and you but also by the multitude. The power invested by a democratic majority which elected him.

  2. It all started from the “good book”and the pilgrims of other faiths and yes, as in a democracy,the US has all the rights to base it on biblical principles, theocracy or not. I don’t know if I have mentioned this…only if you are touched by the Holy Spirit can you tell the difference…1 Corinthians 12 -3…Therefore I tell you
    that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says “Jesus be cursed” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

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