Sometimes, when a phrase gets used a lot, it's easy to assume people actually know what it means.
But like a lot of things, popularity in use doesn't always denote comprehension. Consider, if you will, this relatively common phrase: "You can't legislate morality."
I use the phrase frequently, because it's true. In fact, I used it in my most recent article for Crosswalk, "Keeping Matrimony Holy Starts with Singles." Although, I didn't use the phrase "you can't legislate morality." I said, "virtue cannot be encoded into law."
Still, the point of the phrase is this: just taking a moral principle and turning it into a civil law is not, in and of itself, going to actually change the ways people perceive, appreciate, honor, respect, and uphold that moral principle.
"You can't legislate morality" does NOT mean that you cannot simply take a moral principle and turn it into a law by which people need to abide.
Can you see the difference? Sure, most laws are based on a moral principle, but they don't necessarily change a person's intrinsic attitude towards that principle. And while forcing a change in behavior may be necessary, only an attitude change can validate the moral being imposed.
After all, buy-in for a moral principle only takes place when people embrace its value as a worthwhile behavioral mechanism. Simply making people do something doesn't intrinsically validate the action you're wanting them to do. And it's the value of that moral code that can benefit society, not the law itself.
Speed limits, for example, include a moral component, since we know that the faster we drive, the less control we have over our vehicle in an emergency situation, and that lessened control could compromise life and health.
But when you drive, how often are you caring about the health and welfare of drivers around you as your speedometer creeps - or surges - past the speed limit? Sure, you might be a sweet angel of a driver and putter along consistently one MPH below the posted speed limit (incurring the wrath of every other driver unfortunate enough to get stuck behind you). Quite frankly, however, the only reason I abide by the speed limit as much as I do is because I'm afraid of getting a speeding ticket if I don't.
For pragmatists, the end result is the same: I abide by the law (usually). Just so long as I'm not posing a danger to myself and others by exceeding what is considered to be the maximum speed for a particular stretch of roadway, then the law is being effective.
But the law isn't making me care any more for my fellow road warriors, is it? So although its basic objective has been met - road safety - any moral pretense has been thrown out the window. Like all those bits of litter blowing alongside our freeways.
Not that codifing morality is essentially a bad idea. Speed limits are a necessary evil, just like laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, and even wearing seatbelts. All of these laws have a moral component to them.
But when it comes to more esoteric practices, maybe like wearing seatbelts, but more certainly like preserving the sanctity of marriage, the phrase "you can't legislate morality" really begins to speak volumes. Because when it comes to things like the sanctity of marriage, outlawing divorce won't make husbands and wives love each other more.
That's what is meant by "you can't legislate morality."
Outlawing abortion, although I think that is something that should be done to protect innocent - albeit unborn - life, won't make biological parents love their pre-birth offspring more.
Outlawing guns won't make angry people less anxious to kill somebody.
Outlawing murder won't make people stop killing each other.
The reason this distinction is significant lies not only in how it impacts our socialization patterns as a civilization. Indeed, what we think and how we feel about rules and expectations play crucial roles in how we behave and interact with others.
But also, this distinction is significant because God looks at our hearts. Why we do what we do betrays our true selves more than our actions do. Remember the purpose of the Old Testament laws? They were to prove our sin, but they couldn't save us. When we trust Christ in faith for His substitutionary sacrifice, the Holy Spirit helps us develop a moral perspective for why good things are good and bad things are bad. Truths with which we may have complied before, but only because of the law's compunction. Now, however, we see the ethical dimension, which isn't always discernible outside of the Holy Spirit's power.
Laws trick us into thinking we're good people, because laws tell us how to look good.
But morality doesn't lie.