Morally sound law helps us to distinguish right from wrong, innocence from guilt, and justice from injustice. But if the law from which we learn is not rooted in true morality, what we learn is misshapen, misguided, and misleading, because law always teaches. In such cases it teaches error. Put differently, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad ones. The bad ideas encoded in supposedly morals-free law are corrosive of virtue, of duty, of civility, and of human fulfillment. One of the disastrous effects of allegedly morals-free legislation is that it tends to produce deep and widespread doubt in persons across the culture about what is right and what is wrong, which leaves only a resort to power as a way out of our moral dilemmas. In a moral vacuum, power and doubt rule all. Doubt makes us unsure of ourselves and of our beliefs; power makes those who have it despotic over those who do not. Without morality in law, we know less well and less surely what is right, and if we are ignorant about what is right and wrong, we can raise no compelling argument against evil, or even know it when we see it. Our ignorance makes it so.
Government and governing involve questions of value, questions about what is good, and what is good for us, as well as what is evil and what will do us harm. To instruct us regarding the good, to lead us toward it and to protect us from evil -- whether our own or someone else’s -- are all part of the function of law. But those who wish to exile virtue from the legal code, who wish to banish virtue from law and to render legislation a morality-free zone set these important and valuable functions of law at nought. Were those persons to succeed, both we and they would suffer incalculable harm, having had one of our most useful moral educators quite shut down, censored as it were. They would stop the moral voice of law, and in so doing would silence one of our most valuable instructors of civic virtue, thereby destroying one of our most effective guides to prudent social behavior and to the blessings that attend it.
All cultures are rooted in, and are expressions of, deeply held values. Cultures are the historical outworking of those values, the historical human consequences of those values, values that sometimes lead to compassion, beauty, war, deprivation, heroism, or degeneration. Law is a function of culture -- all cultures have law-- which means that law is a function of values, of morality. Law without values is cultural suicide, which is what those who wish to separate the one from the other are going to produce, whether they wish to do so or not.
In our age of increasingly complex moral problems, where technological advances outstrip our moral growth and understanding, we must do our level best to cultivate the wisest persons, the noblest motives, and the highest actions of which we are capable. To do so, we must make far better use of the law as tutor, as moral ennobler. We must remind ourselves repeatedly that the best habitat in which to raise ennobled citizens is a well-ordered society, one in which law is rooted in morality. We must not forget that law is an expression of, and a shaper of, the conscience of a nation. Consequently, the near-sighted and misguided movement to separate law from morality is as dangerous as it is impossible. Both for our nation and for us as individuals, our character is our future. Morality is destiny.
And what morality ought that to be? Simply put: God’s.
The laws of God, his commandments, are the righteous code of freedom, the rules that define and preserve both political freedom and its taproot, spiritual freedom. God’s laws are not merely the suppression of fallen human impulse. They are the honor code of liberation. They are the way authentically free persons conduct their business with Him and with one another: Now that you are free, here is how you ought to live.
God Himself declared as much to the ancient Israelites when, before He gave them His law, He reminded them that He was the very One who brought them out of slavery and bondage in Egypt (Exodus 20: 2). Now that they were a free people, here’s the way a free people ought to act; here’s the way they ought to conduct their affairs. If they were to be, and to remain, both morally and politically free, they must not lie (Exod. 20: 16); they must find ways of gaining rest for themselves and others (vv. 8-11); they must respect their elders, thereby acknowledging the debt they have to their ancestors and those who made the world they inherited (v. 12); they must respect and preserve private property (v. 15); they must respect human life and refrain from all murder (v. 13); they must not serve any false gods, for there is one God and one God only (vv. 2-7); and they must keep themselves free from envy, lust and inordinate desires, which themselves are bondage and indicate moral slavery (v. 17).
In other words, the freedom God gave them came with responsibilities, and these laws articulate the responsibilities. Freedom, to be preserved, comes with obligations. These laws are the preservatives and the obligations.
Freedom, furthermore, must be extended to others, and these laws are how to extend it to those who are foreigners and who live among you. As God never tired to remind the Israelites, they too were foreigners in other lands, and they knew first hand how bitter and crushing that experience could be (Exod. 22: 21, 23:9; Deut 5:5, 10: 19). Imposing that crushing bitterness on others is not the way freed and righteous persons ought to live.
And if the ancient Jews found this freedom and its obligations beyond their reach, as the unregenerate always do, then the law would do something else for them: It would lead them to The Great Liberator Himself (Gal. 3: 24), Who would set them free in soul, a liberation from which all other freedoms spring, and which helps to keep freed persons on the right side of the line that divides liberty from licentiousness.