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Martin Luther King Jr.:

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. [emphasis added]

Taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963, cited in The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture by Scott Klusendorf (forthcoming).


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22 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Response to "You Can’t Legislate Morality; You Have to Change Hearts First"”

  1. Teresita says:

    They used to have a procedure under the law by which a cuckolded husband could sue for “alienation of affection” but this has fallen by the wayside. Perhaps the adulterous St. Martin Luther King Jr. had this in mind when he said you should not legislate morality.

  2. John D. Chitty says:

    Interesting application of the first use of the law.

  3. donsands says:

    Excellent quote. He was the real deal for civil rights.
    Thanks for sharing that.

  4. Matt says:

    Anytime you use the word ‘should’ or ‘ought’ you step into the area of morality and ethics. To say ‘we should not legislate morality’ is to say ‘we should not legislate.’ Even the anarchist legislates morality, “we shouldn’t have laws.” The question is ‘what morality are we going to legislate?’

  5. spud tooley says:

    this looks good on paper, like most ideals. reality is never so clean. just ask all the republicans who comment here repeatedly and would likely swear by the invisible hand of free markets, when last week showed us the only invisible hand is that of the rich-and-getting-richer reaching into your pocket and mine…

    i realize that most readers here will use mlk’s quote on two issues specifically, abortion and homosexual marriage. defining what exactly in and around those actions is at the ‘moral’ core and legistlatable is not easy. which is why we post things like this nebulous ‘yes, we should legislate morality’ – everybody nods their heads, but no one is brave or wise enough to define specifics that either they or the hearers will reach agreement on. further, is the ‘morality’ a consensus view? a majority view? the morality of the bible? the morality of the east, where a failed businessman should kill himself on his own sword?

    ‘life is precious’ is something we could all agree on. there are very few crystal clear legislative acts, though, that could be based on that ideal. circumstances invariably force us to face making a decision that in some way could be easily seen to argue that, no, all life isn’t equally precious.

    life is precious, and yet ezekiel by the hand of God sent a bear to kill a few boys who called him names. i guess we could say well, at least they weren’t aborted.

    i would never, ever say we shouldn’t try to collectively encode our best morals and ideals into our laws where necessary. i will, however, accuse the few who are so vocal in pronouncing these dogmatic non-negotiables of rarely ever stepping out of the bubble of their one-sided minds to think about the pragmatic implications of legislated restrictions.

    but, hey, i salute all of you as fellow co-owners of about $2 trillion in ‘investments’ that no one else wanted. see you at the club, and in church on Sunday…

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  6. donsands says:

    “life is precious, and yet ezekiel by the hand of God sent a bear to kill a few boys who called him names. i guess we could say well, at least they weren’t aborted.”

    I think that was Elisha who cursed these young so-called prophets.

    It is difficult for us to understand, but even the Lord Himself killed uzzah for touching the ark.
    And the Lord told Saul to go into Cannan and kill all the men, women, and children, and pregnant women. A holy and merciful good God, wanted women and children slaughtered. this was a just and righteous judgment, and yet we think this is evil, as we only can with our finite minds.

    Martin Luther king was a good example for us all when it comes to civil rights. i don’t know if he was a Christian or not, but i admire how he lived his life as a human being. he was a better man than me.

  7. Teresita says:

    Don Sands: And the Lord told Saul to go into Cannan and kill all the men, women, and children, and pregnant women.

    Well, the Lord told Samuel, and Samuel told Saul, and maybe it was a little bit like the “telephone game”.

    Prisoner: Vermin is going to kill Johnny’s brother at the Savoy Theater tonight. Pass it on.

    Prisoner: Vermin is going to kill Johnny’s mother at the Savoy Theater tonight. Pass it on.

    Prisoner: Vermin’s mother is going to kill Johnny tonight at the Savoy Theater. Pass it on.

    Prisoner: Johnny and the Mothers are playin’ “Stompin’ At The Savoy” in Vermont tonight.

  8. Pseudo says:

    ezekiel sent bears on the ‘go on up you bald head’ boys?

    another glorious m.rucker biblical interpretation!

    which ‘side of your brain’ were you thinking with on that one?

  9. spud tooley says:

    which ‘side of your brain’ were you thinking with on that one?

    musta been the outside – thank God there’s still some hair there, or i’d be bearfood…

    thank you for the correction, donsands.

  10. Eric Nygren says:

    Thanks for posting the quote. The book looks like it could be a good one to get thought going.

  11. donsands says:

    teresita,
    “..heed the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, … Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” 1 Sam. 15:1-3

    And Saul failed to do the word of the Lord here. And the Lord held this sin against him.

    Later on Saul murdered the Lord’s priests. Also in the city of the priests, Saul “struck with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and nursing infants, oxen and donkeys and sheep”. 1 Sam. 22:18-19

    I don’t mean to take this down a rabbit trail, but the truth is quite clear here, and the telephone thing is way off.

  12. Teresita says:

    Don Sands: Thus says the Lord of hosts: “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, … Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” 1 Sam. 15:1-3

    And when did Amalek sin against Israel? Back in the Sinai days, probably 250 years before the days of King Saul. There are basic principles at play when you punish someone. One, it has to be timely in order to correct the behavior at hand. Two, you have to leave the punishee alive, or the correction is a waste of time. Three, the punishment should be proportional to the offense…you don’t cut off someone’s hand for flipping the bird. Since the Amalekites did not wipe out the Israelites but only discomfited them, it’s not logical to wipe them out down to the last man, woman, child, and head of cattle 250 years later. In fact, it smells like nothing more than vengeance.

  13. carissa says:

    yes, i think dr. king was right here. when it comes to civil rights there’s very little he wrote about the topic that i can find fault with. sometimes i admit i’m tempted to give up the fight on certain issues for expediency or respectability’s sake, but several times dr. king’s thoughts on the topics have shown me why it’s necessary to have the guts to keep going.

  14. Frank Turk says:

    Teresita –

    I’m not really sure what value you think comes from demeaning the justice of God, or whether you have actually read 1 Samuel — or any of the OT for more than 3 verses in a row.

    What I do know is this: you have so selectively quoted from the final incident of Saul’s disobedience against God that you have completely missed the point of Scripture telling us about Saul at all. You see: Samuel condemns Saul, who with the nation of Israel destroyed all that was second-rate but kept all that was first-rate among the Amalekites, with being disobedient to God — the same curse which Saul brought upon himself when he offered the sacrifice before Samuel appered himself to do it.

    Samuel’s exact words to Saul go like this:

    “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
    Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
    For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
    Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
    he has also rejected you from being king.”

    In your view, Samuel lied to Saul in order that some (completely unaccounted-for) personal vendetta would be settled with the Amalekites; but Scripture says that what Saul did was rank -disobedience- to God.

    And here’s the crucial thing: in the very next passage of Scripture, David is annointed king to replace Saul. What we call Chpt 16 of 1 Sam makes absolutely no sense if your version of the events (Samuel is angry as Saul for funbling an oder which Samuel corrupted) is the “historical” version of events.

    Please: for your own sake, at least read the Bible once before you continue to choose to mishandle it, misrepresent it, and continue to disobey it.

  15. Frank Turk says:

    As to the MLK quote, there’s a vast difference between outlawing murder and outlawing work on the sabbath. My suggestion is that his statement doesn’t quite cover that difference.

  16. Teresita says:

    Frank Turk: In your view, Samuel lied to Saul in order that some (completely unaccounted-for) personal vendetta would be settled with the Amalekites;

    Not personal vendetta, but an alleged divine vendetta. It seems that the God of the Old Testament nurses grudges for centuries, and visits punishment on the eighth or ninth generation after the sin, on people who don’t have a clue what their forebears did to anger a God they don’t even know.

    but Scripture says that what Saul did was rank -disobedience- to God.

    Scripture also says (1 John 4:1) “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Prots like to say Exodus 20:13 means “do not murder” rather than “do not kill”. Well, it’s just killing to slay a soldier on the battlefield, and it’s just killing to slay all the women and children, but to kill an unarmed man after the battle (the King) is murder, and to kill their best livestock is cruelty to animals. On judgment day, Saul could point to the Law and say, “I slew the babies and women in the heat of the battle, but not the King because I didn’t want people to think I was a cold-blooded murderer.”

    And here’s the crucial thing: in the very next passage of Scripture, David is annointed king to replace Saul.

    That proves nothing. If McCain wins in November, the Democrats could also annoint Obama President to replace him.

  17. Daryl says:

    On judgement day Saul can point anywhere he likes, as can you Teresita. But the judgement on Saul will be stand. He pointed at God and said “Your command is unreasonable so I refuse do it.” and stood condemned because of it.

    Don’t let Saul’s fate become your fate. No one can remain unrepentant and live, not finally.

  18. Teresita says:

    He pointed at God and said “Your command is unreasonable so I refuse do it.” and stood condemned because of it.

    So we have two conflicting demands, we have to magically know when to test the spirits, and when not to. And we can’t rely on the Law, because God might command us to break the Law, such as when he told Saul to murder the Amalekite babies. And if we don’t correctly guess that some guy is really speaking for God, we’ll lose our salvation.

    But that’s just as well. Salvation itself has become an object of worship to many. It has become the end-all and be-all of existence, to the point where the “Good News” that is often encountered doesn’t talk about being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, living simply so that others may simply live, but only “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” In other words, the gospel is now all about “Me me me” and my celestial fate, and not about people who have immediate needs right here on Earth.

  19. Frank Turk says:

    teresita –

    what might happen on judgment day in your opinion has to be weighed against what actually happened as recorded in Scripture. In Scripture, Saul is plainly condemned by God and Samuel.

    Plainly. Without any room for doubt or nuance. Re-read the passage I have provided to you. It also turns out that what I have explained to you is plainly explained by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

    Does the simple and clear statement of Scripture at all budge what I will euphemistically call your interpretation?

  20. Frank Turk says:

    The real shame in your final statement to me, Teresita, is that you deny that God commanded Samuel to anoint David there. Let me suggest something to you again: read the whole book of 1 Samuel using any translation you like. It will take you about an hour — maybe 90 minutes if you take a lot of notes. After you have read that book — which is really half the book of Samuel in Hebrew — ask yourself this question: why does the book of Samuel open with the song of Hannah? That is, the first story in that book is told in order to deliver the song of Hannah: why deliver that song as the opening of the book?

  21. Teresita says:

    Frank Turk: Let me suggest something to you again: read the whole book of 1 Samuel using any translation you like.

    This I have done, and I find it is such a perfect picture of Christianity as it is practiced today it should be moved into the New Testament. For when Samuel rebuked Saul in the name of the LORD for sparing King Agag, Saul repented, acknowledged his sin, and begged for forgiveness. And it was not forthcoming! Then Samuel himself finished the job on Agag, went away, and never saw Saul again.

    1 Samuel 15:

    [24] And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.

    [25] Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.

    [26] And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.

  22. donsands says:

    “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from this this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, better than you.
    And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that He should repent. ….
    And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.
    And the LORD said to Samuel, How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel?”” Ver.28-29,35;16:1

    Saul worshiped the Lord with his lips, and his heart was full of himself, which was far from God.

    ” ..the Lord said, …and with their lips do honour Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the precept of men”. Isa. 29:13

    We need to tear our hearts, and humble ourselves before the Word of the Lord.

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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