As we contemplate the various reasons morality has declined in American culture, it is sometimes helpful to review past, and all-but-forgotten, battles over morality in the public square. In such cases, we can see just how poorly the poor arguments did the last time, and feel ashamed at why some of our guys keep using them today.
In the case of public morals, the perennial fallacies of American Christians are lessons drilled in their heads by their leftist public school masters and then repeated by rote: “You can’t legislate morality,” and, “You can’t impose God’s law on unbelievers.”
While we could certainly go back to when they first started tampering with marriage laws, divorce laws, custody laws, sodomy laws, etc., the following comments deal with pornography battles in the 1970s. These are nothing more than excerpts from Gary North’s article, “Pornography, Community, and the Function of the Law,” from The Journal of Christian Reconstruction 2/2 (Winter 1975), pages 55–63.
A couple notes: First, while he rightly targets “libertarians” in this article, the criticism applies just as strongly to liberals, neocons, conservatives, and especially the vast number of evangelical Christians who repeat the argument against legislating morality—each in their own way.
Second, these excerpts are a great antidote to those same misguided Christians who think that honoring God’s law in society, or Theonomy, constitutes “legalism” or “Judaizing.” Nonsense. We are not talking about justification here; we are talking about standards of social life for man, family, and the state itself.
And again, Christians, this was published in 1975.
by Gary North
Given the limits imposed on society by the existence of imperfect human beings, social utopias of total perfection or total permissiveness (sometimes asserted to be one in the same) are an invitation to disaster. . . .
Opponents of the censorship of obscene literature generally rely heavily on the censor’s problem of defining deviant literature in a way consistent with the requirements of legislation. This is certainly a legitimate criticism if the goal is to rewrite the statute books in terms of greater legal precision. But when the critic concludes that because of changing standards no censorship at all can be legitimate, then he has gone far beyond the point of no return. . . .
The libertarian cop-out is simply to avoid the inescapable difficulties involved in the framing of applicable, yet imperfect law to the shifting affairs of life; it is a cop-out because it denies the validity of the idea of legal sanctions altogether, a utopian prospect at best, and a highly dangerous one in a period of social unrest. Yet it is not uncommon to see those opposed to all forms of censorship citing the First Amendment as proof of their position, as if the restrictions on Congress were ever intended to apply, a priori, to state and local governments, and as if the framers of the Constitution were not exclusively concerned with political speech and publication. Congress passed at least twenty separate laws against pornography between 1842 and 1956. A fifty-nation treaty also was signed to outlaw the sale of certain forms of literature. It seems ridiculous to argue that a conservative Protestant electorate and its representatives would have voted for so libertarian a document in 1789, but that is what we are asked to believe. Congress left many religious and censorship issues to local governments, to be decided in terms of local standards and needs; therefore, it is inappropriate to announce the end of local responsibility in censoring salacious, offensive literature.
What is the social function of law? Obviously, it is not to save mankind. The libertarian shibboleth, “laws cannot make men moral; you cannot legislate morality,” is a silly half-truth. . . .
Are we to conclude that laws are to be totally neutral, abstracted from any system of morality? That dream died in the Terror of the French Revolution. All law is legislated morality; each law will infringe on somebody. Law cannot regenerate men; it can, however, restrain them. Furthermore, law can help restrain the state itself. Law is one of the most important instruments in establishing the limits of conformity on a community, and therefore it is necessary in any system of social order. It should be clear that no piece of legislation can long survive in the face of overwhelming public opinion. To one degree or another, law always rests on public opinion. But in those often wide zones of public confusion or indifference, law can be used as a means of upgrading community standards. Is this not what the legal reforms of the last five centuries have been aimed at? Is this not the function of political leadership within a free society? Yet opinion in both right-wing and left-wing camps cannot seem to grasp the implications of this. “You can’t legislate morality” is the battle cry both of Southern Senators when civil rights legislation comes up for a vote and of Northern Senators when a Southern colleague gives his annual speech against smut. The fact remains that it is quite possible to legislate external conformity to laws that are, by definition, based on distinct value systems. If this were not possible, then civil society would be impossible. . . .
Those members of western civilization who have an interest in preserving their freedoms and their external wealth—without which nine out of ten would perish today—also have an interest in protecting the family from erosion. The voluminous studies by J. D. Unwin, now unfortunately forgotten by most scholars, followed through on Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents that social energy might be connected with personal self-restraint sexually. Not wanting to believe his own results, Unwin informs us, he came, step by step, to his forthright conclusion: “The whole of human history does not contain a single instance of a group becoming civilized unless it has been absolutely monogamous, nor is there any example of a group retaining its culture after it has adopted less rigorous customs.” Anthropologists no doubt would quibble with the all-encompassing nature of his statement, but the data in comparative anthropology that he produced are impressive enough to act as a warning against allowing the monogamous family to be undercut by anything as dumb as pornography. The risk is simply too great. . . .
The final factor to consider is the judgment of God. Lewdness and sexual rebellion not only contain built-in punishments like cultural stagnation, but they also risk the direct intervention of a holy God. Since God does not appear in the secular versions of natural law, and since He does not visibly restrain the automatic processes of the free market, many (most) analysts of the pornography problem have been lured into a false sense of security. Since God is silent, He must be unconcerned. And when God is no longer silent, men will do their best to clog their ears, or at least blame something else for the noise. Yet the biblical fact remains that God does bring external judgments on rebellious societies (Deut. 8; 28). Therefore, part of the defense function of society’s civil government is to reduce the flourishing of sexual practices that invite the judgment of God. God does not require perfection from men in order that their societies might prosper (since Christ has met His standards of perfect righteousness), but men should see to it that some legislation and law enforcement resources are expended in reducing the level of publicly advertised, profit-oriented immorality. Christians may not have the votes to get national legislation on the books, but local pressures may be feasible. In some regions, other issues may be more pressing, but in a Christian commonwealth, anti-pornographic legislation would unquestionably be on the books and enforced.