By lex, on May 18th, 2008
This being Sunday, something said in comments recently set me to thinking about the secular/religious divide in our public square:
I have particular and personal issues with some in the evangelical movement. I just think that religion has no place in politics. For example, there are plenty of priests who will tell me about sex and abortion and their invocations will have no effect on my vote. Does not mean they should stop trying to persuade me-they just need to do it during the homily not via campaign events.
Nearly everyone has some notion of personal and public morality. Most of these notions may be broadly shared within a culture, but by no means universally so. In our private character we distinguish between those who act within the letter of the law but contrary to the good of others by labeling them unkind or even unethical. They may not be breaking any actual law – but they are not “nice people” and polite society will shun them.
In the public realm our common view on morality, however – what is the best way to live together – is enshrined in law. A man might believe that there is no greater good than his own personal desires, and these we label “sociopaths” although their belief system is both tightly rational and internally consistent. But more of us – many more – believe in the benefits of an ordered society which provides for each individual’s security in both person and property. We are willing to cede portions of our personal freedom in favor of general restrictions applying to each of us. Thus, the claimed right of the few to point guns at people in order to make them deliver up property is circumscribed by the right of the rest of us not to have guns pointed at us nor see our property unjustly taken.
The sociopath would be permitted to deliver his argument if he should choose to and we might listen with varying degrees of politeness. But should he, having failed to persuade of us of the merits of his convictions, act upon them, we – having wisely set aside a portion of our wages in tithe to a general security fund – will appoint agents to seize him up, try him and stuff him out of the public way.
We make these moral choices in various ways. The sociopath defines morality as what is best for him. The secularist (and I define such as including both those who doubt or deny the existence of any supernatural power and those who admit to such, but deny that He has a defining role in our public commons) may define morality as “the greater good” – a term fraught with potential consequence for definable minorities. The person of faith uses the received wisdom of sacred texts combined with experience and – hopefully – reason to help him define what a good life is, personal and public, and how it ought to be lived.
Of course, as we move through these philosophies of existence from sociopath, to secularist, to faith based, we find that they are increasingly restrictive of our personal liberties. A sociopath might make choices in the name of his personal freedom of action that the secular multitudes might find offensive. Similarly, the secularist might believe in certain freedoms that the person of faith finds obnoxious. Follow these things all the way to the end and somewhere along the line we find ourselves throwing burkhas over our wives and strangling our wayward daughters. This process of defining the common morality is a constantly shifting river of thought and conscience with thousands of contributing streams.
Our Constitution tells us how we make laws – and importantly, how we may not. But it is largely silent on why we might choose to. One stream of thought might dictate that we decide these things scientifically, that our judgments on right and wrong should be founded upon only those things which can be observed or proven. But that’s a hole with practically no bottom. There’s no scientific reason why mentally disabled children should not be euthanized at birth, just as there is no scientific reason a grief-stricken parent should not be allowed to clone her dead child back to life. But these things – currently – run against our commonly shared values, we recoil from them. In the former case because we choose to believe that all people are equal under the law even though our daily observations of mankind in all of its variety proves that in reality (i.e., outside the legal aegis) this is manifestly untrue. In the latter case for reasons we have difficulty enunciating. We cannot prove either position to be objectively wrong. We just know that they are, and it has something to do with a general sense that each living person is somehow special. One might almost say, “sacred.”
This of course becomes the nub of all the culture wars. What does it mean to be a living person? What do we mean by sacred? And as we constantly weave the tapestry of our public life, the question becomes, where do we draw the line? How do we decide who gets to speak, and who must remain silent?
The answer of course, is that we do not. In a democracy, everyone gets a turn at the podium.
Say that a cult arises believing in the existence of an all-powerful deity called Cherry Blaster, and that Cherry Blaster demands of his adherents a thrice-daily regimen of asparagus tips. Blasterers believe that a general adherence to their dietary regimen would be a public good in its own right and may have the salutary side benefit of bringing more people to Cherry Blaster. Being clever beasts, and aware of the Constitutional proscription against the establishment of a state-sponsored religion, they decide to pitch their legislation based on the medical benefits of asparagus.
They have a perfect right to ask such legislation of us, even if we – having perhaps read the evidence of Cherry Blaster’s existence and found it unpersuasive (or perhaps we simply do not particularly care for asparagus tips, or resent being compelled to eat them) – have a perfect right to disagree with them. If sufficient numbers of us do so their bill does not become law. But we do not, would not ever, have a prior right to restrain them from enunciating their most cherished beliefs nor from asking that the general morality conform to them. That would be to substitute our own sense of morality for theirs even as we accuse them of attempting the same crime.