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What Britain’s impending porn ban won’t do

Branson Parler

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party recently revealed plans to restrict access to online pornography and to ban violent pornography. If this measure is enacted, those who still want access to non-criminal pornography will have to contact their Internet provider to choose to opt in.

There are purely practical obstacles to this plan, but for Christians, the talk of restricted access to porn raises questions about how to address the sin of pornography production and consumption in a pluralistic society.

I sometimes hear Christians say that “you can’t legislate morality.” There’s some truth in that, but also some deception. The 10th commandment, which forbids coveting, is a great example, because the command addresses an internal attitude and disorder. It is inherently beyond the reach of civil legislation (unlike other commands, which have to do with external action, like murder, bearing false witness or stealing). Legislation can’t touch the disorder of the heart toward God and neighbor that we call sin.

On the other hand, the statement “you can’t legislate morality” is deceiving because every law assumes some kind of ethical grounding. This was recently illustrated in the case of George Zimmerman. Critics of the Zimmerman verdict often point not to a misguided jury but to a problematic definition of murder or to the “stand your ground” law. The outcry over the verdict depends on the recognition that legislating morality is precisely what our laws are supposed to do: if someone commits the moral evil of murder, the law should be written in such a way that the offender can be convicted.

Legislation can’t touch the disorder of the heart toward God and neighbor that we call sin.

So how does this relate to pornography? On the one hand, it’s right to see pornography as something that is rooted in internal lust. As such, the root problem is beyond the scope of civil legislation. But there is still room for legislation here, even if not in the form that Cameron has suggested.

Think about an analogy: racism. People often distinguish between racism as personal prejudice versus racism as structural, institutional and economic reality. You can’t make laws against the former, but you certainly can make laws relating to the latter. Likewise, no law will prevent lust, but laws should prevent structures and institutions that promote exploitation of other humans. For example, Christians can and should focus on laws and enforcement that relate to the connections between pornography and human trafficking.

But perhaps the debate about pornography (and sexuality more broadly) can clue us in to deficiencies in our political and social discourse, which vacillates between the individual and the state. As Wendell Berry points out, we’re missing an intermediate dimension: that of community and culture. A communal lens helps us recognize that sexual matters are never merely a private affair. But the solutions are not to be found in greater state intervention; indeed, the need for intervention arises only when culture and community have broken down. So while Christians may applaud making restricted access to porn the default setting, we should also be cultivating churches and communities that recognize that, even if all things are lawful, all things are not beneficial - for the individual and for the community.

While faulty individualism and state interventionism (two sides of the same coin) think about pornography in terms of “rights,” Christians will think in terms of love of neighbor and God (two sides of the same coin). This love will express itself in individual lives, in laws and most of all in a culture of life and love that sees every person as made in God’s image. And while laws may change what you can or can’t see on your computer screen, only God can transform our vision so that we see others as He does.

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