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Book Review: Legislating Morality- Is It Wise, Is It Legal, Is It Possible

Book Review: "Legislating Morality- Is It Wise, Is It Legal, Is It Possible" by Christian philosophers Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Frank Turek


Legislating Morality: Is It Wise, Is It Legal, Is It Possible by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is often brought up by skeptics that Christians do not have a consistent view of morality, especially when it comes to government. This is often used as evidence of internal inconsistency within the Christian worldview and often leads to the conclusion that Christianity is false. And with the political season upon us yet again, I have been involved in many discussions about morality and politics. When defending the existence of God by using the moral argument, it is important to recognize the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology (does objective morality exist vs. which objective morality exists) to address the claim of an internal inconsistency; however, we cannot stop there. Often the challenge comes from a genuine concern about the consistency of the moral code that Christians say is objectively established by the God of the Bible. So, it is important that defenders of the Christian worldview educate themselves on views of morality, and in political seasons, the morality of legislating morality.

A few weeks ago I decided to put reading two other books on hold and go through this one to better prepare myself as these discussions become more and more common with the season. Was I disappointed with that decision? I will give this book my usual chapter-by-chapter summary treatment then provide my recommendations at the end.

Part 1: Can We Legislate Morality

Chapter 1: Is It Constitutional?

Geisler and Turek begin their investigation of legislating morality by looking at whether it is legal in America. To discover this they look to the Declaration of Independence. In that document, the Founders cited self-evidence and unalienable rights that they believe had been violated by the King of England. They appealed a moral law understood by all people of the world. They understood that all laws affirm something as right and its opposite as wrong. It is important that the reader recognizes that any time that someone wishes to create a law, they are affirming that legislating morality is valid. It must also be understood that while not everyone lives according to laws, they do expect everyone else to live according to them.

The Founders' concern was not that the King of England was legislating morality, but that his laws (regarding the governance of the Colonies) had violated the moral law- how they expected to be treated. The Founders understood that it is the role of the government to protect its citizens against violations of the moral law; therefore, it must legislate according to the moral law. After the Colonies won their independence, the Founders established laws that the citizens of the new country are expected to live by, enforced by the government. The entire Constitution is an exercise in legislating morality. If legislating morality is not Constitutional, then the Constitution is a self-defeating document, and so is every other law established by any government.

"The [First] Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion or denomination, but...it logically cannot prohibit Congress from establishing a national morality."

Chapter 2: Is It Enforceable?

It is often claimed that because a law cannot be enforced 100% that it should not be a law. The classic example given is Prohibition in the 1920's. Three different claims regarding enforcement are often presented in support of removing undersirable laws: people will do it anyway, laws cannot force people to be good, and laws cannot change people's hearts. While all these claims are, in fact, true, Geisler and Turek point out that these each have their own flaws in arguing for repeal (or not legislating in the first place), but they all fail because they miss the point: that laws are put in place based on what is right and wrong, not on what can be enforced or what is "successful."

Regarding each argument, though: all laws have their violators. It would not be wise to repeal laws against murder, child abuse, or rape because people do these acts. The reason behind the keeping of these laws despite the failure of 100% enforcement is that the purpose of laws is to mitigate evil not eliminate it. While laws do not force people to be good, most people do follow laws even when they may not be caught, so laws are successful in causing people to act good (recall that the purpose of laws is not to stop all evil, but to reduce it). The idea that laws do not change hearts is not supported by the history of several key law changes: slavery, prohibition, and abortion. When the laws were changed (either for or against these), over time the public's perception of these acts came to be aligned with the idea that what is legal is moral and what is illegal is immoral- the hearts, regarding these issues, have changed due to the laws associated with them.

Chapter 3: Is It Ethical?

One more possible challenge exists against legislating morality: whether it is ethical to do so or not. This challenge is often described as an imposition of one's morality onto another. Geisler and Turek begin my explaining that a person who is trying to not legislate morality is actually doing the very thing they are trying to avoid. By legislating allowance of whatever act or behavior they are, in fact, imposing their morality on others. So, anytime legislation is involved, the imposition of a view cannot be avoided. Laws are designed to protect the rights of those who live under them, so when a law does protect, it is ethical. It is ethical to impose values on a people when it protects those people.

Now, because many people believe that morality is relative they also believe that imposing that relative morality is unethical. Geisler and Turek explain that this belief is often the result of confusing changing behavior, cultural practice, relative means, and different perceptions of the facts all with objective values. None of these are the same as objective values, so their truth has no bearing on whether or not objective values exist. Rather each of those actually demonstrate objective values that are recognized despite the relative behaviors, practices, means, and perceptions. Because morality is not relative, it cannot be claimed that in virtue of its being relative that it is unethical to legislate it.

Part 2: How Has Morality Been Legislated?

Chapter 4: "We The People..."

The Founding Fathers built into the Constitution of the United States the recognition of unalienable rights for humans. They recognized the ontological foundation for such rights: the Creator. However, events in the nineteenth century seems to have made the idea of God superfluous. With Charles Darwin's theories of common decent, natural selection, and mutation (collectively, evolution), the need for a Creator to explain the origin and diversity of what is observed in creation appeared to no longer exist. Thus, people began to believe that since God was not necessary, that He also did not exist. With this lack of belief in God also came the lack of belief in a foundation for unalienable human rights. Intrinsic human value was removed and with several key people, who adopted this naturalistc view, in the twentieth century rising to power, the 1900's became the bloodiest century on record.

But the views of a few leaders did not merely end there. With the media portrayal of the 1920s' Scopes Monkey Trial and the rulings of the "Scopes II" trial in the 80's, teaching only Darwin's theory in schools slowly became the cultural preference in America. Geisler and Turek address both trials and even discuss Geisler's part in the latter one. They observe that this set the stage for America to begin legislating against recognition of the Foundation for inalienable rights, which the Founding Fathers recognized was the grounding for their new government.

Chapter 5: Roots of the Power Shift

Along with the recognition of unalienable rights, the Founding Fathers built into the Constitution of the United States the right and ability of the people to legislate. The Tenth Amendment accomplishes this by removing most power from the federal government and places it in the hands of the states (more directly representative of its citizens in its geographical area). However, the power has slowly been moved into the hand of the federal government. With evolutionary theory becoming more prominent in society, a denial of intrinsic human value started to become more popular. No longer was there a moral framework to guide legislation. Further, the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution was being used in a whole new way.

While the First Amendment clearly states that the federal government can make no law that establishes a state religion or prohibits practice of religion, many have understood this to mean that government cannot even legislate morality (which finds its foundation in the Creator). Geisler and Turek address this misinterpretation by examining the lives and actions (while in office) of the Founding Fathers. They observe that many of them used federal funds to support the Church and many of them recognized God in their speeches and even the support of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Their actions are clearly in direct conflict with today's interpretation of the First Amendment (which they wrote). Thus it is not correct to interpret it in such a way. Geisler and Turek do not support establishing a state religion (the First Amendment prohibits it), but they do not see any Constitutional or logical reason for the "freedom from religion" that so many think the First Amendment guarantees them.

Chapter 6: "We The Supreme Court..." 

Despite what the Founding Fathers meant by the First Amendment, the "freedom from religion" interpretation has been accepted and cited by courts. Since this understanding is not a valid interpretation and a court's decision sets precedence for legal decisions in the future, the citing of it by courts is no different than the courts legislating the morality of the few in the court. This has not been limited to the state level but has reached the federal level in Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

Geisler and Turek describe the implications of several rulings of the Supreme Court based on the "freedom from religion" interpretation. These implications include: The Declaration of Independence is unconstitutional, secular humanism is, by default, the state-established religion (SCOTUS ruled that secular humanism is a religion in 1961), theories regarding the origins of the universe cannot include a Creator, and SCOTUS was wrong for the first two centuries of its existence. They also examine the idea that the Constitution is a "living" document (the meaning of it can be changed), and note that such an idea undermines the very purpose of the Constitution, itself. They conclude that this investigation into the history of SCOTUS establishes that, at least the Judicial branch of the United States, believes that morality CAN be legislated (by changing the meaning of the document that was legislated).

Part 3: Whose Morality Should We Legislate

Chapter 7: Yours or Mine?

The battle for legislating morality is often portrayed as being between two extremes: those who want to use the Bible as the country's governing document, and those who wish to force an absolute freedom from all religion. Geisler and Turek examine both of these positions. For those who wish to make America a "Christian" nation by legislating the Bible, the position is against the First Amendment and is not supported by the Bible, itself. Also, history has shown that establishing a state religion leads to persecution. Geisler and Turek do not support this view, and they make note that most politically active conservatives do not either.

On the other extreme side, is the option of complete removal from the public consciousness any reference to God. Geisler and Turek argue (using material already addressed) that this result (and already has resulted) in great bloodshed. This view is self-defeating, for it claims to shun absolutes except its own; its goal is relativism for all views contrary to it. Because of the moral implications and the illogic of such a view, Geisler and Turek reject it also.

"While the Bible does not call for its political imposition on civil governments, it does call for those who believe in the Bible to be politically active."

Chapter 8: Ours!

The danger with the dichotomy presented here is that it is a false dichotomy that attempts to force people to choose between two incorrect options. Geisler and Turek, though, advocate a third option: the same one that was put in place by America's Founding Fathers- the legislation of the Moral Law. Its not a religion and not a lack of religion but rather a common moral code that has been "written on our hearts" by its Source. They make the point that since this Moral Law is universal among all cultures, it is truly the only "multicultural" legislation that can mitigate evil practices yet preserve religious liberty. While some aspects of this Moral Law are quite obvious (murder is evil) some may not be so obvious, especially since modern culture often makes the mistakes in reasoning described in previous chapters regarding morality. However, Geisler and Turek believe that there are several guidelines that can be followed to help positively identify less obvious aspects. If the guidelines are agreed upon, then they provide a solid framework. They offer and defend nine guidelines that they believe provide such a framework. These guidelines are used in the rest of the book to help address three of the more challenging modern issues: homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.

Part 4: How Should We Legislate Morality On The Tough Issues?

Chapter 9: Homosexuality: Tolerating Ourselves to Death

Homosexual acts and gay marriage are one of the more hotly debated moral topics of our time. Emotions run high on both sides. Geisler's and Turek's goal is to approach the topic in a more objective and matter-of-fact manner than is common. One of the guidelines for discovering the Moral Law is to see how healthy a particular behavior or practice is for the individuals and society. If it is not healthy for either or both, then it is likely to be against the Moral Law. In the case of homosexual acts and lifestyle, Geisler and Turek put forth statistics that demonstrate a dramatic decrease in life expectancy (nearly half) compared to heterosexuals. They also cite stats that indicate that monogamous relationships are even worse because more risky behavior is often practiced. Without going into too graphic of detail, they look at the anatomy and what homosexual acts do that disrupt normal function of the organs involved. They conclude that everything they've cited points strongly (if not certainly) towards homosexual activity being against the Moral Law.

Many people do offer counter-arguments, such as mutual consent or being "born" that way. The fallacy of the first is found in assuming that a couple exists as an island- meaning that the implications of their behavior is limited to them only. However, in a society of families and public contact with numerous other people in society, this assumption is hardly accurate. Geisler and Turek show how it is not only theoretical but actual that homosexual activity between consenting adults negatively affects many more (who have not consented) than just the couple. If consent is necessary to make the immoral moral, then the couple must have the consent of nearly all family, all friends, all coworkers, all society. Regarding the argument of being "born" a particular way, Geisler and Turek point out that an inclination does not make the immoral moral either. We have laws against many acts, such as murder, rape, child abuse, etc. They observe that no society would allow these behaviors based on the idea that someone was "born" with the inclination (or strong desire) to do them. Whether or not a homosexual is born with that desire, either way, it still remains immoral based on the affects it has on life and society. Geisler and Turek also offer several other arguments and address several other challenges.

Chapter 10: Abortion: Choose Ourselves to Death

Because of the legality of abortion, our culture's acceptance of it has risen to all-time highs. So this is one of the more difficult topics on which to persuade a supporter to the other side. As with the topic of homosexuality, Geisler and Turek take a scientific and philosophical approach rather than a religious one. They begin with the identity of the unborn. They provide several facts discovered from the sciences that establish conclusively that the unborn are, in fact, human lives. They argue that since the common Moral Law ("Our morality") dictates that all human lives are equally valuable and should be protected that government should protect unborn human lives as much as they protect born human lives.

However, many objections exist for this conclusion. The objections can be broadly categorized into four different types: Rights, Solutions, Ignorance, and Relativism. Rights and Solutions attempt to provide values that are higher in the common Moral Law (again "Our morality") than are human lives. They believe that if a higher value can be established, then killing the unborn is justified. Ignorance and Relativism depend upon either having an incorrect understanding of the facts (or ignorance of them altogether) and fallacious reasoning. Among these four categories Geisler and Turek list seventeen unique challenges. They explain each one in detail and show how each of them fails logically to support the justification of killing the unborn. They show that ultimately abortion depends necessarily on a culture that is so focused on the individual in the current moment that it is willing to destroy others to accomplish the goals of the individual (radical individualism). Legalization of abortion goes against science, logic, the common Moral Law, and the founding documents of this country.

"Laws favoring abortion impose values on the life of the unborn; pro-life laws impose values on the liberty of the mother. In other words, the pro-life side wants to impose continued pregnancy on the mother, while the pro-abortion side wants to impose death on the baby."

Chapter 11: Euthanasia: Exterminating Ourselves to Death

While the Supreme Court has legalized ending human life at it beginning due to inconvenience via abortion-on-demand, proponents of actively ending human life at the other end for the same reason are hard at work. The supporters of active euthanasia make many of the same arguments as have been accepted as supporting abortion. Geisler and Turek explain that there is little difference between abortion and active euthanasia thus the responses to the arguments are also similar. However, they present the seven common arguments and the details of how they specifically apply to active euthanasia. They address each nuance and show how each argument fails logically to support the conclusion or completely undermines itself. Support for active euthanasia can only be sustained if one holds that existential personal autonomy (only in the moment at hand, not forward-thinking) is valued over that of human life.

Geisler and Turek conclude the chapter by demonstrating how, like abortion, active euthanasia is against the common Moral Law and against the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Active euthanasia, like abortion, simply cannot stand outside a culture of radical individualism. And, like abortion, active euthanasia contradicts reason, the common Moral Law, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, unlike abortion, it adds one more violation: it violates a patient's trust that their physicians, family, and friends are there to see the sick recover rather than just eliminate the wounded because of inconvenience.

Epilogue: Where Do We Go From Here? 

In their conclusion, Geisler and Turek emphasize the importance of recognition of the common Moral Law to the unity and survival of a society. They do not exclude any person from being subject to the Moral Law, whether they be the Founding Fathers, current politicians, or an ordinary citizen. Since the legislation of morality cannot be logically avoided if legislation happens at all, and since character in private and public life are good indicators of how a leader will execute, legislate, or interpret laws, it is imperative that we elect officials who's character most accurately represents the Moral Law. However, election does not take place by a single person; others are involved, and many must be persuaded of the proper positions, which will guide their choice of who to elect to different offices.

Discussions of politics abound on the internet today, and social media certainly seems extremely volatile. In Chapter 8, Geisler and Turek provided nine guidelines to help identify the content of the Moral Law; in this conclusion they provide nine principles to help guide your discussions and your actions. Each one is shown how it contributes to a productive discussion, by focusing on unity, reason, confidence, character, humility, love, and respect. They have provided the resources, its time to get started taking action.
"A Moral Law government avoids the intolerance of a purely religious government and the moral relativism of a purely secular government."

Reviewers Thoughts

As I mentioned in the introduction, I placed on hold reading two other books in the hopes that this book would better equip me for the rising number of ethical and political discussions I've been having with skeptics and even fellow Christians. If this review hasn't already given you a clue, the book certainly did not disappoint. The organized and reasoned way that Geisler and Turek presented their arguments was quite easy to follow yet went deep into issues of history and morality. As a defender of the Christian worldview, I really appreciated how they defended the existence of objective morality (a key premise in the moral argument for God's existence) and how they offer a set of guidelines to help identify a consistent set of moral values (which addresses claims regarding not being able to identify who's values are correct). The book has certainly prepared me to better articulate the case for objective morality and the content of that objective morality. Their focus on history, human experience, and reason eliminates any concern that their arguments are based upon a particular holy book, which is very good when dealing with people who do not recognize the accuracy and/or authority of the Bible (in whole or in part; this includes skeptics and some Christians).

Having said all that, I have to make two specific recommendations for this book. The first is quite obvious: if you are involved in, want to get involved in, or just want a solid foundation by which to judge political discussions, you would be doing yourself a great disservice to not get Legislating Morality. My second recommendation is for apologists who prefer to stay away from discussions of moral epistemology: While distinguishing between moral ontology and epistemology is important in logically addressing skeptics' concerns about the existence of objective morality, these same skeptics will often see that response as a clever philosophical dodge of their true concern: hypocrisy, especially regarding politics. If we are to alleviate that concern, we must delve into moral epistemology and demonstrate a lack of inconsistency. Legislating Morality addresses this concern, specifically in the context of politics, which will equip you to address this emotionally charged and difficult subject. This book needs to be in your apologetics toolbox.

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