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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.

—From an address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963.

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17 thoughts on “You Can’t Legislate Morality”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    I wonder if Westminster Seminary West 2K proponents consider Rev. Martin Luther King’s actions as a matter of Christian liberty and within the acceptable parameters of WSW 2K practice.

  2. Paul M. says:

    MLK sounds rather like a Christian libertarian! He doesn’t frame it that way, but the highlighted portion shows the difference between the state’s ability to protect liberties and its inability to promote true righteousness.

  3. Richard Hutto says:

    Very good point.

    Of course we still have a constitution to obey (Romans13) which means that many of these legislated morals should be done at the state level since constitutionally the Federal level is not granted that power. Unless of course we choose to add an amendment to the document which is also acceptable.

    Gay marriage for example. Right now the federal government (all 3 branches) has no constitutional authority to legislate this issue. Which is why overturning Prop 8 was illegal. It needs to be handled by the states (read: the people). Or we seek an amendment.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      “Which is why overturning Prop 8 was illegal.”

      Not according to liberal judges, and not according to the liberals who believe that overturning Prop. 8 is legal.

      1. Richard Hutto says:

        Which is why we Christians should be more concerned with constitutional integrity than anyone. And why we need to vote in a candidates in every elected office who know the constitution. And… Spread the word

  4. Josiah says:

    Everyone wants morality legislated. Can you think of any other reason to ban cockfighting?

  5. Daniel says:

    All laws to some extent are attempts to legislate morality. Murder is against the Law. Driving laws are about looking out others on the road.

    Laws can’t make people moral; however, they do reveal what a society believes to be moral.

  6. Tom says:

    “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.”


    Says the unborn:

    “It may be true that the law cannot make my mother/father love me, but it can keep them from aborting me and I think that is pretty important, also.”

    1. Jason says:

      Well stated

  7. Allie says:

    I went to Western and still live in the town, so this quote especially struck me :-) thanks for sharing it. Your blog is my home page, I read it every day. It’s a great resource. Thank you!!

  8. CG says:

    All laws ever written are merely codifications of somebody’s moral standard, whether it’s a prohibition on murder or a regulation about lettuce imports. No law has ever been written that does not assume some sort of moral standard.

  9. John Thomson says:

    And mere morality is not God’s mission in the world. His mission is a Kingdom where he is gladly owned as King and all his people serve him out of love and delight in him.

    Law restrains – to an extent. Even God’s wise and holy Law could not restrain wickedness in Israel. In fact, the further hearts stray from God the less effectual laws become, the more laws need to be trundled out to try and restrain evil, and the more the laws themselves begin to reflect the low moral state and values of the culture.

    It is a moot point IMO whether evangelicals are wise to get involved politically.

  10. donsands says:

    God says to this world that they had better love Him. And also love one another. It won’t get you into heaven to try, unless you can keep them perfectly. There was a Man who did this, and so He was worthy. And His Father took Him to the Mount and sacrificed Him there for Himself, as a debt offering for all those whom the Father had purposed to forgive and deliver.

    I would love to have prosperity and peace all over this earth, with people getting along. But it ain’t gonna happen.

    America is a fairly decent place to live and yet we all have our big time problems, don’t we.

    Thanks for the excellent quote. MLK was an extraordinary man, even with his flaws.

    All for the Cross. Gal. 6:14

    have a great Lord’s Day, with the Lord’s people, in the Lord’s house.

  11. Jordan S. says:

    The law never stopped a man from lynching anybody. This is trivially true, since a lynching is by definition illegal. That being the case, every lynching that ever occurred took place in spite of the law(s) against it.

  12. donsands says:

    Jordan, you point is that “the law” says you can not murder another human; and yet there are lots of humans murdered, and so the law is “in spite of”?

    And have a terrific Lord’s Day.

  13. CR says:

    Of course you can legislate morality! Every single law in our legal code is a legislation of morality! Laws can’t change the heart but their function is to legislate morality!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

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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