Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Smallholder on Kerry's morals

Over at Naked Villainy, the Smallholder writes a post in response to my previous post on John Kerry (see below). His basic argument is this:

I strongly suspect that Kerry's stand is anything but principled. I would even posit that it cannot be principled. As I have argued previously, if one believes that life begins at conception, one is morally mandated to oppose abortion. Genuflecting before America's public secularity isn't principled: it is calculated.

I'll grant the possibility that Kerry is pandering; it wouldn't surprise me to discover that he's testing the political winds. But the question of a "moral mandate" becomes complex in politics: if you're a Christian, then you have a "moral mandate" to spread the gospel. What prevents George Bush from coming right out and doing this? I'd say it's the culture of secularism.

I think the whole notion of "separation of church and state" is by no means a settled issue in American culture. This is one of the reasons I asked question #2 yesterday: if the religious life is coextensive with all aspects of my life, then in my personal Venn diagram, politics must be a smaller circle inside the bigger circle. To that extent, Smallholder's argument makes perfect sense.

But in the practical realm, I think secularism calls for precisely the sort of compromise John Kerry is making. I'm not talking about Kerry's particular position here; I'm talking about compromises in general, be they political or moral (I can already hear the outcry from people who despise the phrase "moral compromise"). Such compromises are necessary to foster secularism and pluralism, which I would argue are the deeper values underlying public discussions of major issues like abortion or war or racism. It's possible for a Christian, as a Christian, to conclude that attention to those deeper values is more moral than black-and-white adherence to other values.

The Smallholder points out:

In 1855, many Northern Protestants had reached the conclusion that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. Even though their agitation to end the peculiar institution was religiously based, it would have been immoral of them to say: "Well, my reading of the Bible leads me to believe that slavery is wrong, but since America is publicly secular, I won't try to impose my religious beliefs on other people."

I agree with the rightness of the motivation of those Northern Protestants, but I disagree that an across-the-board argument can be made in favor of such agitation. I think the Smallholder recognizes this because in the following paragraph he writes:

It would be wrong for Christians to try to force Muslims to say a Christian prayer in schools. It would be wrong for Christians to mandate public schools teach the doctrine of Creation (Anything but) Science. Those are issues of faith. But if one believes that murder is occurring, one is morally bound to oppose it, with NO exceptions (er - only one exception - the Maximum Leader has made a good case for situations in which the life of the mother is endangered).

Since the abortion debate centers on the very question of whether abortion even qualifies as murder, the accompanying question of whether to impose one's morality on the larger populace is absolutely relevant. It isn't at all clear that one can act so cavalierly on one's personal convictions in a secular pluralist environment. What's more, it isn't clear that issues can be so neatly divided between "issues of faith" and "issues not of faith." Here again, my question #2 is relevant: what, for the believer, isn't an issue of faith?

I believe American neo-Nazis espouse one of the vilest ideologies known to man. By rights, I should be out there in the streets agitating against them, because I'm morally obliged to do so. I have similar issues with extremist Islam and a goodly number of other beliefs and practices I find abhorrent. But in my practical life, I have to make compromises and deal with these issues as someone who has both a public and private self. This goes doubly for politicians, where compromises are the norm. It can't be easy.

On a personal note, I never thought I'd be so sympathetic to a politician's lot, particularly Kerry's.


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