So let’s take an example or two. We start with murder. Is it okay for Christians to advocate for laws making murder criminal? Well, it seems obvious. After all, everyone but a few psychopaths believe murder to be immoral, and no one wishes to be murdered. Banning murder is an act of power coercing a certain behavior from others, but it’s power exercised in love for our neighbors. In fact, it’s even loving for potential murderers who might be prevented from committing murder by fear of governmental reprisal. Murder is worse for the victim, of course, but it’s also bad for the murderer — not just because it’s illegal.
Well, then, what about abortion? For nearly all of Christian history, abortion has been considered sinful. It’s not always been thought of as being as sinful as murder, but it’s never been approved or morally neutral. And for centuries, abortion was criminalized. That is, you could be arrested for performing the abortion or, as a mother, requesting an abortion. But the US Supreme Court has severely limited the power of the states and Congress to criminalize or even regulate abortions. Should the church seek to reverse Roe v. Wade and then seek to pass laws making abortion criminal?
Well, this is not quite as easy as murder because there is no societal consensus on the issue. Many Americans consider abortion a right and symbolic of sexual freedom of women. If the church insists on abortion legislation, many women will seek abortions from illegal sources and so suffer sub-standard medical care, and abortions will not be covered by insurance and so unaffordable to the poor. All true.
But, in my view, the point of banning abortions is not to indirectly regulate women’s sex lives (they may use any number of forms of birth control) but to protect the unborn from a truly untimely death. It’s an act of love for the sake of the most vulnerable humans there are — the unborn. The mothers suffer consequences of such legislation, of course, but they are adults, and except in the case of rape, voluntarily engaged in sexual activity fully aware of the risks — with free birth control readily available in this country.
Now, there is an “on the other hand.” On the other hand, I suspect that about half of the states would not pass anti-abortion legislation, meaning that abortions wouldn’t be ended; they’d be relocated across state lines. Women would have to drive to a nearby state to get an abortion. In short, where society is severely divided on a moral question, changing the law doesn’t greatly change behavior or culture.
That doesn’t mean necessarily that we don’t pass the law. A life saved is still a life saved. But it does mean that we don’t naively expect culture or behavior to change just because we passed a law.
Laws that don’t work
Imagine that half the states were to legalize marijuana. Now tell me that wouldn’t increase marijuana usage in the other states. Obviously, people would cross state lines to buy pot just as they now cross state lines to buy lottery tickets or liquor. Just so, banning pornography is largely pointless when almost all pornography is obtained over the Internet. We have to recognize that law just doesn’t work to change behavior in the absence of a societal consensus that the act criminalized is in fact wrong.
Hence, one factor to weigh in deciding whether to criminalize certain behavior is whether the law will change that behavior. Until 1975, premarital sex was criminal in Alabama. I doubt that there had been a fornication prosecution in the preceding 100 years. Prosecutors had no interest in prosecuting, not because they disagreed with the law — they disagreed with the penalty. Teenagers shouldn’t go to jail for having sex — even though (at the time) most of Alabama society disapproved of premarital sex.
In part, the penalty was considered too severe. More to the point, people felt that it wasn’t the place of government to regulate the sex lives of young adults — even though premarital sex was considered wrong. After all, except in the case of rape (which is a separate, much more severely punished crime), there’s no victim. The “crime” is between consenting adults or near adults (in Alabama, minors 16 and under are protected by the statutory rape laws), and so doesn’t meet the usual definition of a crime.
Now, it’s popularly argued that some things ought to be criminalized even when they aren’t true crimes and even when society hasn’t agreed on the wrongness of the act, in order to push culture in the direction of condemning an act that God considers wrong but society does not (or largely does not). But this just doesn’t work. Premarital sex became largely tolerated, even accepted, in Alabama long before the law was repealed. Society’s attitudes changed while fornication was illegal! There’s no reason to imagine that re-enacting that law will magically change people’s attitudes toward sex outside of marriage. And as Christians, do we really want people taking their moral cues from the legislature rather than God’s own word?
In fact, passing these sorts of laws lead to disrespect for the law in general (like speed traps where the speed limit is kept low just to create violations and tickets and revenue) and to resentment against those who pushed for the laws. I mean, if you were not a Christian and you found your sex life criminalized in an effort to change your views on sexuality, you’d not be persuaded. You’d be angry.
These are practicalities that the Bible doesn’t directly address. But we can still look at the same question from a biblical perspective. Do I love my neighbor by making their sexual activities between consenting adults criminal? Well, maybe. If God prohibits sex outside of marriage for the good of society (which I believe he does), then my motives for passing such a law may be entirely loving.
However, will I be perceived as loving? No. I’ll be perceived as judgmental and overbearing, using the power of the church’s superior numbers and political skills to impose God’s standards on people who’ve not submitted to God. Make no mistake, the prohibition will be deeply resented — and unlike in the case of abortion, there are no victims to protect. Well, there are no direct, obvious victims. I think society itself — the family especially — is the victim of sex outside of marriage, and I think we’re seeing the dire consequences of our sexual “freedom” in broken families and other failed institutions. But I view the world from a Christian worldview. Those who have a secular worldview wouldn’t agree with me, nor should I expect them to.
Now, the practical problem is that I’ve pushed for a law that won’t accomplish much of anything other than resentment against Christians — hardly a good thing unless there were some offsetting good (such as saving millions of unborn lives). And some may delight in the symbolism of it all, but criminalizing premarital sex would utterly fail to change behavior, and we’d probably see zero prosecutions — and should someone attempt one, the jury would surely refuse to convict.
So does that mean that Christians would be wrong to push for such a law? Or merely that passing such a law would be a waste of time and resources and a distraction from whatever else might be more effective? Is the problem pragmatic only or is there are doctrinal issue here?