Can You Legislate Morality? Dr. King Answers.

The assertion that “You can’t legislate morality” is often used as a reason that Christians (or anyone else for that matter) shouldn’t seek to create laws that are based on moral values. But is that true? If you think about it for just a moment, you realize that it’s a ridiculous statement. We legislate morality all the time. For example why do we have laws against stealing? Because taking another person’s property is immoral.

When people say, “You can’t legislate morality,” sometimes they mean that laws can’t change people’s hearts. I think that’s what President Eisenhower meant when he used the phrase in 1957 regarding race relations. With an uptick in violence including the bombing of houses of black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Eisenhower to come to the South to make a speech urging law and order. Eisenhower refused and in response King and his associates sent the White House a telegram that said in part…

“In the absence of some early and effective remedial action we will have no moral choice but to lead a Pilgrimage of Prayer to Washington. If you, our president, cannot come South to relieve our harassed people, we shall have to lead our people to you in the capital in order to call the nation’s attention to the violence and organized terror.”

According to Taylor Branch, Eisenhower was in Newport, Rhode Island prior to heading for a two week hunting vacation in southern Georgia. On his way out of a church service in which he heard a sermon on the need for new civil rights laws, Ike shook hands with a Navy chaplain and said, “You can’t legislate morality.”

When news of Eisenhower’s remark reached him, King was dismayed because it seemed as if the President had missed one of the main points of the law. While the law on its own cannot change hearts, it can establish justice in ordinary life. King: “A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.”

King circled back to this issue from time to time including a speech at Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963.

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”

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