When we talk about “legislating morality” in America, we’re really talking about a Judeo-Christian understanding of morality, not morality itself if we define it as distinguishing between good and bad, or, right and wrong. The most enthusiastic atheist will agree that murder should be illegal because murder is “bad” and we should have laws against this “bad.”
What makes murder bad? The atheist will tell you it’s a violation of the victim’s fundamental right to life. The Christian will agree, but take it further and say that God tells us it’s wrong. The atheist will say you don’t need that second part, but to call something bad implies that there is an authority that judges it to be so and that that authority can punish the bad and reward the good. If there is no such authority or judgement above mankind, then the statement “murder is wrong” is just one opinion among many. Thus, everyone agrees that we can and should legislate morality. In fact, we can’t do anything but legislate morality.
The charge of “you can’t legislate morality” usually comes from the Left when a solution to a legal question sounds too close to some Judeo-Christian Bible-based belief. Honest people can debate the merits of such solutions. But to say that, for example, Planned Parenthood should be funded by the federal government because if you take that funding away you are legislating morality is a total non-argument. The whole question is moral – is it right to force taxpayers to fund this organization? Supporters frame the question in moral terms as well – it’s a health issue, which means it is right and good to provide the services Planned Parenthood provides. “You can’t legislate morality” in effect means your decisions can’t be informed by your Christianity.
I’ve been watching and listening to Bernie Sanders a lot lately, and after the Democratic debate the other night, it struck me just how moralistic his platform is. He and his base are on nothing less than a moral crusade. The wealthy must be taxed more to pay for free college and health care not because the math works out or we have the money for it, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s going to plunge us even further into debt? It’s going to smother economic growth and activity? It’s going to incentivize more offshoring of jobs and wealth? It doesn’t matter, it’s so right it just has to work by the force of its own rightness.
Ironically, though the Right is always charged with doing it, it’s the Right that is trying to lessen the burden of legislated morality by shrinking the government’s influence in society. Legislating morality is inescapable, but we can minimize its application to those who disagree by limiting the scope of the government’s coercive power. Sanders and his base are advocating for the massive expansion of the state to legislate the socialist view of morality. When you want government to provide healthcare, college and a whole smorgasbord of other goodies, and to defund the military, you are forcing others to pay for your moral vision. Make your case, but don’t then turn around and talk about how Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee want to impose a theocracy on America. Last I checked, they’re trying to get the state off your back.