Ever since the birth of democracy, politicians and activists have been waging wars over laws. I’m not talking about literal war, although sometimes debates over laws have certainly resulted in literal wars (e.g., the American Revolution, the American Civil War). I’m talking about people exercising the freedom of speech through political debates, public demonstrations, print media and social media methods, etc., in order to get their opinions and agendas to become the law of the land. Sometimes these wars stay civil. But sometimes they can get pretty nasty, with people attacking one another, undermining one another, and exposing one another’s flaws–and employing all sorts of political manipulations and legislative loopholes.
More recently, there have been heated wars regarding the tax code, immigration, healthcare, net neutrality, national monuments, and gun control, just to name a few. In all of these cases, there has been a lot of time and energy invested by all sides, from debating to condemning to shaming to protesting to recruiting to mocking, all for the purpose of passing (or fighting the passage of) laws.
Obviously, in the arena of government law, there are many worthwhile battles to fight. The laws of our nation have drastic consequences.
But I want to suggest (to everybody, but to Christians in particular) that as we fight this war over laws, that we do not neglect a much more important war: the war over hearts.
Today is the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. And Dr. King was a man who dedicated his life to not only fighting the war over laws but also the war over hearts. In his sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor,” he said, “Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the final goal that we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”
Desegregation can only go so far. Civil rights laws can only go so far. Winning some wars over laws can only go so far. As Dr. King points out, laws cannot end things like fear, prejudice, pride, and irrationality. Laws cannot bring about “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living”, “personal and social transformation”, or “true integration.” Such things can only come about through winning the war over human hearts.
There has been a very long history of people trying to change the culture with new laws, but they never work out. In the 20s, Americans prohibited alcohol. But alcoholism remained. In the 60s, Americans passed the Civil Rights Act. But racism remained. In the 80s, Americans started fighting the War on Drugs. But substance abuse remained.
And the reason for all of this is because although people won the war over laws, they didn’t win the war over hearts. Laws are of course important because they limit the excesses of sin, but they cannot remove the sin itself. Even the book of Romans teaches this–that the Law can only make us aware of sin, but it cannot remove the sin. The sin is too embedded in people’s hearts.
But despite this reality, unfortunately, I’ve often seen that many people are too concerned about the war over laws and not concerned enough about the war over hearts. In fact, often the very methods that people use to fight the war over laws cause them to lose the war over hearts. In the war over laws, when people resort to manipulation or deception or bullying or social shaming, they only agitate their legislative opponents, and they lose the war over hearts. So while a short-term fight is won, the long-term fight may be lost, because ultimately, the war over hearts is more permanent and more fundamental than the war over laws.
At the end of the day, a nation’s culture is controlled not by the laws of the land but by the hearts of the people. It is the hearts that determine the laws, and not the other way around. There are of course times when a nation’s laws does not fully reflect the hearts. There are plenty of government laws in existence that the majority of the public disapprove of, and there are plenty of government laws that do not exist that the majority of the public approve of. But eventually, over time, the laws will catch up to the hearts. Slowly but surely, as the hearts shape the culture, the laws will eventually follow.
Nevertheless, sometimes I am afraid that modern-day Christians are trying too hard to make Christianity the law of the land, and as we wage this culture war, we are slowly losing the hearts of the people.
I must remind you that there were two notable time periods in history where we had essentially won the war over laws–ancient Israel and medieval Europe–and in both cases the war over hearts was lost. And God could have said of both of those cultures, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).
So what can we do? Obviously we as Christians should still seek to influence government policies. Just as William Wilberforce’s faith drove him to seek the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s, we ought to allow our faith to drive us to influence the laws of the land. But I would say that this should be secondary to an even more important task–the task of influencing the hearts of the people.
And thankfully, God is in the business of changing hearts.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
So let us fight the war over hearts. Let’s love our neighbors, speak to political enemies with gentleness, turn the other cheek, befriend the least of these, and humbly share our faith. Because if we stick to that agenda, we will change hearts, we will change the culture, and will will change the world.