Is Legislating Morality Biblical?


Frank Turek and Eric Schansberg

Article ID:



Mar 18, 2024


Aug 14, 2014

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 03 (2012). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.


Whether your politics are on the right, the left, or some where in between, there is a more fundamental question to answer before deciding how to vote: Are Christians called to use the political process to enshrine biblical morality into law? A feature-length Viewpoint debate, including rebuttals.


 Why Christians Must Legislate Morality

by Frank Turek

When I have just a minute to communicate the importance of Christians being involved in politics, I call up this satellite picture of the Korean peninsula on my iPhone.1 Here we see a homogenous population of mostly Koreans separated by a well-fortified border. South Korea is full of light, productivity, and the gospel. They are a free country and one of the most Christianized countries in the world. North Korea is a concentration camp. They have no freedom, very little food, and almost no Christianity.

I then ask, “What is the primary reason for the stark difference between these two countries?” The answer is politics. The South politically allows freedom, while the North does not.

Freedom is rare in countries around the world. America is the shining exception—hence the phrase “American exceptionalism.” It is not that Americans are somehow better than the rest of the world, but that our American system of individual freedom and limited government is better. Our Founding Fathers brilliantly grounded individual rights in God, without mandating a national religion, and put limits on government power, which created the conditions for a free and prosperous society.

Those conditions are eroding largely because Christians have ignored Jesus’ commands to be salt and light and to love our neighbors. Unless Christians begin to influence politics and the culture more significantly, we will lose the very freedoms that enable us to spread the gospel all over the world.

The question is, how much should Christians be involved in politics, and to what end? After all, we can’t legislate morality, can we?


News flash: all laws legislate morality. We go into great detail to support this point in our book Legislating Morality,2 but to be brief, morality is about right and wrong, and all laws declare one behavior right and the opposite behavior wrong.3 So the question is not whether or not we can legislate morality, but whose morality will we legislate?

Legislating morality is not only biblical, it is a necessary responsibility of government. When Paul writes in Romans 13:1–8 that the ruling authorities are put in place by God to punish evildoers, he is echoing Genesis 9:6, which established that the central responsibility of government is to protect the innocent from evil. That, of course, requires the legislation and enforcement of good laws.

Wayne Grudem makes an outstanding case for Christians influencing civil governments to legislate moral good in his comprehensive book Politics according to the Bible. Grudem cites many positive examples of biblical figures influencing civil governments—outside of the theocracy of Israel—to do good. They include Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mordecai, and Esther. “We also have as examples the written prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah,” writes Grudem. “In the New Testament we have the courageous examples of John the Baptist and the apostle Paul.…And we could add in several passages from Psalms and Proverbs that speak of good and evil rulers. Influencing government for good on the basis of wisdom found in God’s own words is a theme that runs through the entire Bible.”4 Even Jesus Himself got involved in politics when He chastised the Pharisees—the religious and political leaders of Israel—for their unjust leadership.5


If we are called to legislate morality, then whose morality should we legislate? The answer our Founding Fathers gave was the “self-evident” morality given to us by our Creator—the same moral law that the apostle Paul wrote was “written on their hearts” of all people (Rom. 2:14–15). In other words, not my morality or your morality, but the morality—the one we inherited, not the one we invented.6

Notice they did not have to establish a particular denomination or force religious practice in order to legislate a moral code. Our country justifies moral rights with theism, but does not require its citizens to acknowledge or practice theism. That is why charges that Christians are trying to impose a “theocracy” or violate the “separation of church and state” fail.

Such objections blur the distinction between religion and morality. Broadly defined, religion involves our duty to God while morality involves our duty to one another. Our lawmakers are not telling people that they need to be a member of a church—that would be legislating religion. But lawmakers cannot avoid telling people how they should treat one another —that is legislating morality, and that is what all laws do.

To illustrate the point, let us consider two prominent moral issues in our society: abortion and same-sex marriage. First, let me be clear that I do not want the state running the church or the church running the state. But even if one were to accept the court-invented claim that the Constitution requires a strict separation of church and state,7 opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage does not entail the establishment of a “theocracy.” Churches and the Bible also teach that murder, theft, and child abuse are wrong, but no one says laws prohibiting such acts establish a theocracy or are a violation of the separation of church and state. In fact, if the government could not pass laws consistent with biblical teachings, then all criminal laws would have to be overturned because they are all in some way consistent with at least one of the Ten Commandments. The truth is, Christians do not legislate the Bible as such, but we do legislate the moral law consistent with the Bible. We do not need to legislate religion, but we cannot avoid legislating morality.

Second, there are churches on both sides of these issues. In other words, some liberal churches actually support abortion and same-sex marriage. So if church-supported positions could not be put into law, then we could not have laws either way on abortion or same-sex marriage. Absurd.

Finally, most proponents of same-sex marriage argue as if they have some kind of moral right to having their relationships endorsed by the state. They claim that they don’t have “equal rights” or that they are being “discriminated” against. Likewise, abortion advocates claim they have a moral “right” to choose an abortion. None of these claims are true, as I have explained elsewhere.8 Nevertheless, their arguments, while flawed, expose the fact that independent of religion they seek to legislate their morality rather than the morality.

If you have a problem with the morality, do not blame me. I didn’t make it up. I didn’t make up the fact that abortion is wrong; that men are not made for other men; or that sex outside of natural marriage leads to destruction. Those truths are part of the “Laws of Nature,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it, and we only hurt others and ourselves by suppressing those truths and legislating immoral laws.


We often hear that Christian involvement in politics always fails. The people who say such things do not know much about history. Other than banning slavery, kidnapped brides, child labor, gladiatorial combat, death games, infanticide, child marriage, temple prostitution, child sexual abuse, child prostitution, wives as property, and promoting religious and political freedom and the equality of all mankind, Christians have accomplished nothing politically in Western civilization. Even recently in the United States, Christians and others have made progress in protecting life by passing hundreds of laws that restrict abortion at the state and local levels.

Yet even if Christian efforts to bring about good all failed politically, we are called to be salt and light, to love our neighbor, and to leave the results to God. Those commands require us to work for laws that will protect our neighbors whether they are Christians or not. In fact, if Christians don’t stand up for the weak, poor, and unborn, who will? Are you truly “loving your neighbors” if you do nothing to prevent them from being enslaved, abused, or aborted?

Having Christians involved in government is advantageous for all people, even non-Christians. How so? Only the Christian worldview secures the unalienable rights of the individual in God—rights that include the right to life, liberty, equal treatment under the law, and religious freedom. Islam does not. Islam means submission to Allah and Sharia law. It does not protect individual rights; neither does Hinduism (the caste system) or outright secularism, which offers no means to ground rights in anything other than the whims of a dictator. Only the Christian worldview secures the rights of all in God, not government, people, or a sectarian religion.


I often hear Christians claiming that we ought to just “preach the gospel” and not get involved in politics. This is not only a false dilemma (we are commanded to do both); ironically, such an attitude serves to stop the gospel. How so? Because politics and law affects your ability to preach the gospel! If you think otherwise, just visit some of the countries I have visited—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China. You cannot legally “preach the gospel” in those countries—or practice other aspects of your religion freely—because politically they have ruled it out. You cannot publish the Christian Research Journal in North Korea; nor can you open a church; nor can you evangelize.

In fact, politics affects virtually every area of your life including your church, marriage, family, business, school, children, money, property, home, security, health, safety, and freedom. As Christians, should we let the atheists impose their morality on us in these areas? If we do, we will continue to lose the very freedoms that have empowered us to prosper and spread the gospel.

When we fail to legislate and protect liberty, others impose tyranny. Totalitarian political correctness is already the norm in states such as Massachusetts, where the implications of same-sex marriage are legally imposed on Christian businesses, Christian parents, and even on Christian charities. There you are not permitted to run your business, educate your children, or practice your religion in accord with your conscience.9 And soon, as is the case in Canada, you may not be able to speak biblically about homosexuality. That is because the people who say they are fighting for tolerance are often the most intolerant.

One final note: if you are a pastor who is worried about your tax-exempt status, please consider these three points: (1) you have more freedom than you think to speak on political and moral issues from the pulpit;10 (2) if you do not speak for liberty now, you may soon lose your freedom to speak for anything; and (3) most importantly, you are called to be salt and light, not tax-exempt.

Frank Turek is an author, speaker, and founder of He hosts “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” on the NRB Network, Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., Eastern Time (DirecTV Ch. 378, Sky Angel ch. 126).


  2. Frank Turek and Norman Geisler, Legislating Morality (Eugene, OR,Wipf and Stock, 2003). For the common objection regarding prohibition, see chapter 2.
  3. Some laws do not address moral issues but conventional issues, such as how many representatives will be in Congress, or on which side of the street we should drive. Nevertheless, we all have a moral obligation to obey those laws, especially ones where disobedience could result in great harm (such as driving on the “wrong” side of the street). Moreover, I am not saying that all laws are good or moral; I am saying that all laws legislate someone’s moral position, which may actually be an immoral position. For example, legislating that a woman has a moral “right” to choose an abortion is actually an immoral position because a child is killed in the process. There is no moral right to kill an innocent human being. The right to life is the right to all other rights.
  4. Wayne Grudem, Politics according to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 61.
  5. See Matthew 22–23, and the fine book by Neil Mammen, Jesus Is Involved in Politics: Why Aren’t You? Why Isn’t Your Church? (San Jose, CA: Rational Free Press, 2009).
  6. This is not to suggest that every moral or political issue has clear right and wrong answers. It only means that violations of basic moral principles—such as murder, theft, and rape for example—are clearly wrong. Legislators often need to debate the level of government involvement in less obvious cases.
  7. To see where the “separation of church and state” language (which is not in the Constitution) originated, see Legislating Morality, chapter 5.
  8. For a moral law and social case against same-sex marriage, see my Correct, Not Politically Correct: How Same-Sex Marriage Hurts Everyone (Charlotte: CrossExamined Press, 2008). For a Moral Law case against abortion, see my Legislating Morality, with Norman Geisler.
  9. See Brian Camenker, “What Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Has D one to Massachusetts,” Mass Resistance,
  10. While no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status, the Alliance Defense Fund is challenging the law. Go to for details about the law and their Pulpit Initiative.

 Legislating Justice: A Wiser Course than Legislating Morality

by Eric Schansberg

People often think that an argument against “legislating morality” (LM) is a ploy to excuse sinful behavior. Not true. Rejecting or downplaying the sinfulness of immoral behavior is sinful; but dealing inappropriately with sinners is also sinful. This is not a rationalization of immoral behavior or its sinfulness, but a question of identifying godly responses to sin—in particular, the contexts in which Christians should pursue government policy as a godly means to godly ends.

When considering LM, we need to ask whether it is biblical and beneficial. When are Christians given biblical license to advocate the use of government against others? And if we have license, when should we expect such efforts to bear much fruit? For example, should Christians pursue laws to require church attendance, to redistribute wealth, to restrict gambling, and/or to prohibit the ingestion of harmful substances?


I define LM as an effort to restrict consensual but sinful acts between two adults in which no significant, direct costs are imposed on others. Although both parties enter the agree ment willingly and expect to benefit, as sin, the activity is harmful on net. Sex outside of marriage would be an example of a “morality” issue. (LM also includes the use of government to force good behaviors such as prayer in schools.)

In contrast, “justice” issues are those in which someone’s rights are directly and significantly violated—such as theft. Thus, “legislating justice” (LJ) is the use of government to improve justice. From there, LJ can be divided into “social justice” (e.g., abortion; prison sentencing reform) and “economic justice” (e.g., regressive and burdensome federal payroll taxes; monopoly power within the government’s provision of K–12 education). It’s far easier to make a case for Christian activism in the realm of LJ, but that’s a different topic than the one at hand.1

Bottom line: the key distinctions in “morality” and “justice” are the extent of the earthly consequences of the sin and whether those costs are imposed directly on others or not.

Of course, this is a simplification. First, “morality” and “justice” are intertwined. To act justly is a matter of morality and the morality of one’s actions affects the justice of the subsequent outcome. That said, the distinctions between mechanisms (voluntary or coercive) and anticipated outcomes (mutually beneficial or not) still serve as a useful model.

Second, both justice and morality issues involve costs imposed on others. Proponents of LM often argue that other parties are indirectly harmed by certain sins—and thus, that government activism is warranted. Or they note that “all laws legislate morality by definition,” defining LM as all-encompassing. But if we insist on treating all sins the same politically, we’re stuck in the untenable position that all sin should be punished by government. Such a broad definition of LM doesn’t get us anywhere.

At the least, this framework is helpful in distinguishing between more/less significant and direct costs—from rape to second-hand cigarette smoke. Clearly, there are important distinctions between the size of the costs imposed on others from a variety of sins—for example, being uncharitable to the needy, committing murder, believing in a false religion, and eating an extra piece of pie. Should the government legislate against all of these sins? When do the costs become significant enough to allow Christians to pursue government solutions righteously? Both biblically and practically, as the costs of sin become larger and more direct, there is a greater potential role for government activism.

The Bible does not make an explicit case for Christians to pursue legislation of any type.2 Indirectly, what does Scripture indicate about LM?


We worship a God who highly values freedom. Why? Voluntary praise is far better than coerced praise. And freedom allows us to develop character and other attributes that God wants His children to have.

Notably, the Bible opens with this theme as Adam and Eve choose to disobey God. There was one restriction. They were tempted by it and fell. It was not God’s will that they should sin, but it was God’s will that they should have the choice—the opportunity to glorify God or to separate themselves from God. As Dallas Willard notes, we are given “a life in which we alone among living beings can stand in opposition to God—in order that we may also choose to stand with God.”3

Freedom is also a prominent theme throughout the New Testament—freedom from sin, death, and bondage; freedom to enjoy the abundant life, to better love God and others. As Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, 13 (NIV), “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” In what contexts should we impinge on God-given freedom using the tool of government policy to reduce the incidence of sin?


Imagine Christ in the middle of a busy day of teaching, healing, working with His disciples, and rebuking the Pharisees. He takes a break to call a few legislators who are pivotal to the passage of a state sodomy law. Then, He appears on a local radio talk show to argue against a referendum to allow legalized gambling. Finally, from the pulpit, He devotes half of His sermon to harping on the pagans for their immorality and exhorting His followers to make their voice known on the important social morality issues of the day. If it is difficult to imagine these activities in Christ’s agenda, we should reconsider whether such methods are appropriate for us.

As one studies the ministry of Jesus, it’s noteworthy how differently He dealt with unbelievers individually, unbelievers in groups, believers, and the Pharisees. In contrast, LM is much less flexible in dealing with widely different situations. It focuses on externals instead of “the heart.” In contrast to Christ’s creative approaches, LM is wooden and as a popular instrument of force, unoriginal. As a blunt, brute-force, universal approach, LM is unlikely to yield optimal solutions.


Beyond God’s character and the ministry of Jesus, there are often practical reasons for participating in, or abstaining from, certain activities. If God does not want us to use human government to enforce morality, can we determine practical reasons for why this is not within His will?

Judgmentalism: LM increases the world’s perception that Christians are judgmental—and probably encourages judgmentalism in the Christian community.

Legalism: With “gray” issues—where biblical morality is debatable or dependent on context (e.g., alcohol consumption)—attempts to prohibit certain behaviors are merely legalisms. If an activity is not forbidden by the Bible, then we should not judge others (especially non-Christians) for doing it—and should certainly not pursue laws to prohibit it.

Works-Based Salvation: When Christians focus on morality issues, an unfortunate consequence is that we perpetuate the deadly myth that Christianity is just another salvation-by-works religion. We paint a picture of a God who requires that we “clean up our act” before He establishes relationship with a prospective believer.

Self-Satisfied Sanctification: A focus on others’ morality reinforces works-righteousness among believers. We feel guilt if we’re not doing well and pride if we’re meeting the “standard.” Consequently, we often fail to look any deeper—to spiritual sins and our motives, becoming complacent in our walk with God.

Consistency? Many Christians are active in opposing civil unions, but quieter on extramarital sex and divorce, which are far more damaging. Some push for prayer at a high school graduation, but say nothing about the government monopoly power that underlies the problem—and causes much damage besides. Some want to keep certain drugs illegal, but say nothing about alcohol and tobacco, which cause far more harm. Some evangelicals campaign against gambling without rooting out all of its manifestations within the church body. These are incoherent combinations.

Opportunity Costs: Given the tradeoffs we must make with our time and other resources, LM takes our energies from other things. Should we lobby for LM at the expense of building relationships and doing ministry?

Will It Work? Even if LM is an appropriate tool, such efforts are bound to be largely ineffective in curbing behavior. This is because the parties directly involved in the sin perceive that they benefit. By definition, consensual behaviors are more difficult to stop, because nobody has an incentive to report the activity.


Consider the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees used force to bring the accused woman to Jesus and humiliate her. They incorrectly paraphrased the Law’s punishment for her sexual immorality and then asked what should be done. Their motive was to trap Jesus into contradicting Old Testament Law or the Roman law that Jews could not carry out executions. But as with the cross, Christ grasped victory out of the jaws of defeat—this time with a brilliant answer: “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Once the accusers left, Christ sent her away, saying, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

In giving the perfect answer to a difficult question, Christ provided us with the framework for dealing with acts of immorality. He neither condemned the woman nor condoned the woman’s sin. He neither validated her lifestyle nor allowed the Pharisees to use her for their own gain. Instead, He convicted the prideful Pharisees, restored the dignity of the woman, and challenged her to do what was in her best interests—to leave her life of sin. In sum, He perfectly balanced conviction with compassion, truth with love. How does LM fit here?

The argument against LM is no excuse to condone sin. But LM is rarely if ever a godly and practical means to the desired ends. At the end of the day, LM is typically ineffective, too costly in practical terms, and generally runs contrary to the character of God and the ministry of Jesus. Is LM legal or possible? Yes. Is it wise or biblical? Rarely, if ever. Those who take the Bible seriously can find ample basis for LJ—both social and economic—but should eschew the temptation to LM.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast—and the author of Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy (Alertness Books, 2003), from which this essay is excerpted.



  1. LJ applications are developed in more detail in my article, “Common Ground between the Philosophies of Christianity and Libertarianism,” Journal of Markets and Morality 5, 2 (Fall 2002): 439–57.
  2. The Law in Israel seems like the most direct case, but is a useful comparison to Christians and church discipline—much more so than political activism.
  3. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 52–53. See also Joshua 24:15 and Judges 5:2.


Response to Eric Schansberg

Dr. Schansberg draws a distinction between legislating morality (LM) and legislating justice (LJ). This distinction is not as helpful as it may seem. For example, Dr. Schansberg says we ought not legislate alcohol consumption because that would be LM. But while Prohibition was a case of overlegislating morality, that doesn’t mean morality cannot be legislated on alcohol consumption. In fact, we currently do legislate it: we legally limit the alcohol content of beverages, regulate their sale, and put age restrictions on consumption even into adulthood (21 vs. 18), not to mention the laws against drunk driving. Those restrictions save thousands of lives each year. Why shouldn’t Christians be involved in creating such laws? Are only atheists qualified to do so?

Dr. Schansberg writes, “If we insist on treating all sins the same politically, we’re stuck in the untenable position that all sin should be punished by government.” I agree that we should not treat all sins the same politically. But the very question of which sins should be treated politically and to what degree is a question that Christians, like all citizens, should have a say in deciding.

“When are Christians given biblical license to advocate the use of government against others?” asks Dr. Schansberg. The question presupposes that Christian positions are “against others.” True, some Christians have advocated the nanny state, but that’s more prevalent among secular liberals who ludicrously want to put restrictions on which light bulbs you use but put no restrictions on abortion. Moreover, the proper Christian worldview legislates for others by protecting the life, liberty, and other unalienable rights of all people—believers and unbelievers.

Dr. Schansberg rightfully points out that Christians might be perceived as judgmental, legalistic, and the like. But while some Christians may be off-putting and some non-Christians are too easily offended (the gospel will always offend someone), that doesn’t mean that Christians should abandon the culture. The solution to being a bad ambassador is becoming a good ambassador, not abandoning your duty completely. Besides, I would rather have some people judge me for judging than sit idly by while our culture disintegrates and our children suffer.

Dr. Schansberg asks, “Should we lobby for LM at the expense of building relationships and doing ministry?” The question presents a false dilemma. Depending on the issue, why not do both? After all, one also could ask, should we write articles in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL instead of building relationships and doing ministry? Or should we go to work instead of building relationships and doing ministry? We should do both because everything Christians do is supposed to be ministry (Col. 3:17, 23.). The attitude that bifurcates the Christian life into secular and sacred has put our country into a moral, spiritual, political, and financial mess. Whether you call it LM or LJ, our problems result not from Christian activism but from Christian apathy. And unless we turn apathy into action, our very freedom to preach the gospel is in jeopardy. Just ask anyone in North Korea.

—Frank Turek

Response to Frank Turek

Thanks to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL for providing this forum—and to Frank for his contribution to the discussion.

Frank and I agree on many things here. There is no biblical call for Christians to pursue a theocracy. “Separation of church and state” is often misunderstood and misapplied against Christians. And it is vital for Christians to love our neighbors—to be salt and light in a dark world. Our greatest spheres of influence are the everyday realms of family, workplace, and neighborhood.

We also agree on certain suppositions but disagree on answers to the subsequent questions. Yes, Christians can be “effective” in politics and should be involved. But in what contexts should they seek government as a biblical and practical means to godly ends? Yes, the American experience is built on freedom and limited government. So when should Christians work to limit freedom and expand government?

As I noted in my opening article, “all laws legislate morality (LM)” is too broad to be useful. Frank asks, “Whose morality should we legislate?” and concludes that it’s “the morality.” I don’t think he really means that, however, since there are no calls for legislation on misusing God’s name, being kind to neighbors, premarital sex, and so on. Interestingly, Frank repeatedly points to what I’ve called “justice” issues—how we treat and protect our neighbors—and most of his policy examples are legislating justice (LJ).

Frank discusses “same-sex marriage” (SSM) and abortion at length. But with an “all laws LM” framework, how can we distinguish between the two? In my framework, the impact of abortion is direct and staggering—and thus, the case for Christian political and social activism is quite clear. The impact of SSM is smaller, less direct, and more complicated.

What should we do with SSM? First, it’s a violation of Webster’s Dictionary, so we ought to be talking about “civil unions” (CU) instead of an oxymoron like SSM. Second, how problematic are CU’s in a world where the church defines and regulates the covenant of marriage, leaving contractual arrangements to government? Third, are CU’s more troubling than divorce and extramarital sex—areas in the same realm that receive little if any (legislative) attention from most Christians?1

As a crucial social justice issue, abortion should be at the forefront of political and social efforts. But aside from abortion, in “conservative circles,” LM issues tend to trump LJ issues for at least two reasons.2 First, few people share God’s apparent concern about injustice. Second, LJ issues often involve a modest knowledge of economics. If people understood the impact of the government’s monopoly power in the provision of K–12 education, particularly on the inner-city poor—or that the working poor lose thousands of dollars through federal payroll (FICA) taxes on income—LJ efforts would presumably grow.

Is there a place for Christians in politics and public policy? Absolutely; but it should be focused on LJ, defending the rights of others, and following in the footsteps and ministry of Jesus.

—Eric Schansberg



  1. The imposition of one state’s SSM or CU’s on other states is an LJ issue.
  2. In “liberal circles,” there is notable concern about LJ. But their proposals for government as a means to the ends are rarely godly or practical—and they miss many important LJ issues. This is discussed at great length in Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left.


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