T Nation

Religion and Politics

After the election, there were a lot of arguments about the extent to which people were trying to effect religious goals via their votes. There wasn’t much discussion, however, about whether this would be proper, save a little bit in a thread Lumpy (anyone seen him lately?) started on some society founded to keep Christians out of politics.

I’ve argued before that religious motivations are equally valid as any other moral motivations, and I wanted to post this recent observation, by Eugene Volokh, to provoke some discussion on the topic of propriety:

http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2004_11_14.shtml#1100653987

Eugene Volokh, November 16, 2004 at 8:13pm] Possible Trackbacks
Imposing One’s Religious Dogma on the Legal System:

I keep hearing evangelical Christian leaders criticized for “trying to impose their religious dogma on the legal system,” for instance by trying to change the law to ban abortion, or by trying to keep the law from allowing gay marriage. I’ve blogged about this before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.

I like to ask these critics: What do you think about the abolitionist movement of the 1800s? As I understand it, many – perhaps most or nearly all – of its members were deeply religious people, who were trying to impose their religious dogma of liberty on the legal system that at the time legally protected slavery.

Or what do you think about the civil rights movement? The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., after all, was one of its main leaders, and he supported and defended civil rights legislation as a matter of God’s will, often in overtly religious terms. He too tried to impose his religious dogma on the legal system, which at the time allowed private discrimination, and in practice allowed governmental discrimination as well.

Or how about religious opponents of the draft, opponents of the death penalty, supporters of labor unions, supporters of welfare programs, who were motivated by their religious beliefs – because deeply religious people’s moral beliefs are generally motivated by their religious beliefs – in trying to repeal the draft, abolish the death penalty, protect labor, or better the lot of the poor? Perhaps their actions were wrong on the merits; for instance, maybe some anti-poverty problems caused more problems than they solved, or wrongly took money from some to give to others. But would you condemn these people on the grounds that it was simply wrong for them to try to impose their religious beliefs on the legal system?

My sense is that the critics of the Religious Right would very rarely levy the same charges at the Religious Left. Rather, they’d acknowledge that religious people are entitled to try to enact their moral views (which stem from their religious views) into law, just as secular people are entitled to try to enact their moral views (which stem from their secular, but generally equally unprovable, moral axioms) into law.

Now some particular legal proposals may well be wrong. Perhaps banning abortion, or setting up welfare programs, or abolishing the death penalty violates people’s rights, or is bad social policy, or what have you. But if that’s so, then these proposals would then be equally wrong whether they’re suggested by religious people for religious reasons, or by secular people for secular reasons. And conversely, if particular legal proposals are morally and pragmatically right, then religious people are just as entitled as secular people to advocate them.

So people should certainly criticize the proposals of the Religious Right (or Religious Left or Secular Right or Secular Left) that they think are wrong on the merits. But they would be wrong to conclude that the proposals are illegitimate simply on the grounds that the proposals rest on religious dogma. Religious people are no less and no more entitled than secular people to enact laws based on their belief systems.

And they would be quite inconsistent to (1) say that religious people ought not enact law based on their religious views, and nonetheless (2) have no objection when religious people do precisely that as to abolition of slavery, enactment of antidiscrimination laws, abolition of the death penalty, repeal of the draft, and so on.

BB

This backlash against the chrisitian right is more a struggle to explain what happened to the left then anything else. They simply will not give up the politically correct positions they hold so dearly and will struggle ad nauseum to explain that they shoulds, coulda, woulda won if it had not been for those pesky middle americans with values.

More and more political correctness, as promulgated by the left really means embracing the radical positions they feel we should all admire. Dissent will not be tolerated and resistance is to be mocked and villified. It has all come to a head and the left is utterly and completely stumped about what to do about it.

BB I see your point, as religion can have many postivies. But as with any dogma, there’s a downside. We have to look at the whole picture, and see that there are many negative opinions based on religion. For example Christianity is still used today to support beliefs of racial segregation and the inferiority of women (which no one wanted to touch with a ten foot pole in the “Gay Marriage” thread). It has also been used to justify wars and killing via capital punishment. Its restriction on scientific thinking should not go without being noted.

Millions believe that the destruction of the Western world is justified by Islam. And talk about women being second class citizens (though this suddenly seems minor compared to the first point)!

As soon as you take rational objective thought and replace it with dogma (particularly that which can be interpreted hundreds of different ways), you’re just asking for trouble.

Again, it’s all about the whole picture…

Traceur,

I see your point, but I don’t think the religion is the problem. When one argues whether something such as racism is bad, it is necessarily premised on a moral viewpoint – w/r/t racism, that moral viewpoint is that human beings should not be treated disparately based upon their race. What’s the basis of that? Another moral belief, one of equality of men. These are widely accepted morals, but they are still moral beliefs, not rational deductions.

I will refer back to another post by Professor Volokh:

http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2004_11_14.shtml#1100662941

EXCERPT:

… But the trouble with the correspondent’s broader notion – “that it’s illegitimate . . . to justify one’s decisions about how society should be run based on assumptions one cannot defend reasonably” – is that ultimately most of the moral principles that each of us has can’t be defended purely reasonably. Should people be barred from abusing animals? There’s no purely reasonable answer to that; at some point, it comes to down to a moral axiom, such as “people shouldn’t be allowed to pointlessly inflict pain, even on animals” or “people should be free to do whatever they please with their property.” And if you think this claim isn’t an axiom, but can be defended reasonably through some other principle, that just means there’s some other moral axiom lurking in the background.

Likewise, should abortion be legal? Pro-life people say personhood, and entitlement to moral rights, begins at conception. Pro-choice people select some other line. There’s no way of proving it using pure reason; even if one makes an argument such as “a woman should be free to do what she likes with her own body” (which would, incidentally, allow abortions even at 8 1/2 months), then that becomes the axiom that you may believe but can’t prove.

Or what about protecting endangered species? Many people want to protect them purely on moral principles – humans shouldn’t exterminate other species. That too is a moral axiom, or at least rests on moral axioms. Others argue that there’s a pragmatic reason for it, for instance that protecting endangered species is needed in case the species may yield some useful biotech products some time in the future, or in case they fill an important ecological niche. But even such pragmatic reasons rest on unprovable moral judgments, such as that a small and incalculable chance that the species might prove useful in the future justifies the real costs to real people that saving the species would involve. Now these judgments may well be right – but they aren’t reasonably provable. And ultimately, the same is true, I think, for moral judgments even about matters such as the wrongfulness of murder, rape, robbery, and so on, and certainly for more contested matters such as race discrimination, breach of contract, defamation, invasion of privacy, moral rights in published works, and so on. All these moral and legal claims rest on unprovable moral assertions.

Of course, these assertions may be supportable, though not provable – one can come up with plausible arguments that might influence people to accept one or another (for instance, “dogs can feel pain and emotions just like humans do, it’s bad to needlessly inflict pain on humans, and it’s therefore bad to needlessly inflict pain on dogs”). But these are appeals to intuition, aesthetics, and emotion. They aren’t reasoned proof.

In this respect they’re similar to religious people’s arguments that, for instance, homosexuality is wrong because it’s unnatural, and because the normal uses of our various organs reveal that God intended us to use them one way and not another way. Now the former arguments may be more persuasive to you or me than the latter. (I find the unnaturalness argument quite unpersuasive, for reasons I mention here: http://volokh.com/2003_03_23_volokh_archive.html#200055515 ) But it’s not because the former involved reason proof and the latter don’t. Neither involve pure logic; both involve attempts to appeal to intuitive senses of right and wrong, though intuitive senses that vary among people.

So we are certainly free to say that certain arguments, whether arguments from the text of the Bible, arguments from the perceived will of God as expressed in the way the world works, arguments from church teachings, or what have you, are unpersuasive. And then if someone uses those arguments to support a law that we think is immoral, we can criticize him on the grounds that the arguments are unpersuasive and yield immoral results.

But I don’t think that we can argue that the only legitimate laws are ones that can be defended using pure reason – most important judgments about what the law ought to be ultimately rest on some unprovable moral assumptions.

The big hole in Volokh’s argument (and ultimately in every pro-Christian activist argument) is that moral codes can arise out of purely secular modes of thinking. Law givers do not have to rely on “unsupportable moral axioms” to make murder illegal. Murder fosters hatred and disorder within society, which undermines the productivity that is supposed to result from the unification of people into a society. It is also easy to scientifically support the idea that callous violence towards animals fosters callous violence towards human beings. The list can go on. The bottom line is that laws should be passed that best serve our secular society, not some exclusive Christian idea of how God will regard our society.
As for Civil Rights and slavery-- if the ethos that brought about those reforms was purely a religious one, THEN IT WAS EQUALLY INAPPROPRIATE. Of course this means reform in those aspects would have taken longer, but there are plenty of reasons entirely exclusive of Christian ideals for condemning those two practices. It is nonsensical to imply that we would never have those reforms if it weren’t for Christians. The “axiom” all of this Christian argument seems to boil down to is that atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians can’t possibly create moral codes-- and that is of course ridiculous. The notion that societies can create moral codes outside of the influence of religious ideas is what this country was founded on.

[quote]The Red Monk wrote:
The big hole in Volokh’s argument (and ultimately in every pro-Christian activist argument) is that moral codes can arise out of purely secular modes of thinking. Law givers do not have to rely on “unsupportable moral axioms” to make murder illegal. Murder fosters hatred and disorder within society, which undermines the productivity that is supposed to result from the unification of people into a society. It is also easy to scientifically support the idea that callous violence towards animals fosters callous violence towards human beings. The list can go on. The bottom line is that laws should be passed that best serve our secular society, not some exclusive Christian idea of how God will regard our society.
As for Civil Rights and slavery-- if the ethos that brought about those reforms was purely a religious one, THEN IT WAS EQUALLY INAPPROPRIATE. Of course this means reform in those aspects would have taken longer, but there are plenty of reasons entirely exclusive of Christian ideals for condemning those two practices. It is nonsensical to imply that we would never have those reforms if it weren’t for Christians. The “axiom” all of this Christian argument seems to boil down to is that atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians can’t possibly create moral codes-- and that is of course ridiculous. The notion that societies can create moral codes outside of the influence of religious ideas is what this country was founded on.[/quote]

Firstly, I wouldn’t really call Volokh a “pro-Christian activist,” given he’s a Jew who is either an immigrant from Russia or a first-generation American.

Secondly, I think you are mischaracterizing the argument – it’s not that we could never have had those reforms without religious reasoning, it’s that we did get those reforms because people at the time agitated for change because of their religious beliefs. There is a large difference between those two ideas.

Aside from that, you’re not acknowledging that you’re making a moral-laden value-based judgment on what to support. In your case, you’re supporting “efficiency” in one of your arguments above. Now, while I do agree with that goal, it’s a value judgment - we are choosing to value what we perceive as societal efficiency above some concept of normative fairness. This doesn’t even unpack all that is contained in just choosing the definition of “murder.”

Morals and values undergird our laws and policies – religious morals and values are equally valid, or invalid, according to your theory. Unfortunately, if you really were to invalidate all morals from being taken into account in laws, you would no longer have laws (which would be a value judgment in and of itself, actually…) Laws can arise from purely secular systems of thinking, but they cannot arise without moral and value judgments that are not independently supported by logic.

In actuality, your whole argument is based on a logically unsupportable value judgment: that secular reasons are preferable to religious ones as reasons for people to support laws.

[quote]The Red Monk wrote:
The notion that societies can create moral codes outside of the influence of religious ideas is what this country was founded on.[/quote]

BTW, this is an aside, but I think you need to re-read your history, and think about the “natural rights” theorists a little bit more. Especially the source of those natural rights, according to the ideas prevalent at the time of the founding of our country.

Oh boy, religion and politics in the same thread. All we need is someone to mention butt-sex and we’ll have a trifecta of taboo discussion.

Anyway, I’m an avowed atheist, always have been, always will be, but I don’t see why there is such a friggin’ stink in this country about religious ideas having made their way into government. I think there’s a lot of folks on this board who say they’re “unreligious” or atheist, but they’re really “anti-religious”. The Theocracy Watch thread was nothing more than a huge whine-fest, in my opinion. What is so darned scary about saying “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? I’m glad that we’ve had religion and the moral code which arose from it, even if it was based largely on fear and control. I don’t personally buy into the truth of all the mythology of any religion, but I can appreciate that others do, and I appreciate the historical place that religion has in our culture.

C’mon, without the pagans dancing around trees, and the christian movement adapting their stories and whatnot into the holiday, we wouldn’t have Christmas, man! The examples are too numerous to mention… religion has played a great part of the development of many things, especially government. There is nothing wrong with this. So I ask my fellow atheists: Why the big fuss? You’re open-minded enough to see that there’s not some cosmic all-powerful superhero watching over you, why be so bigoted against those who are still lagging a bit on the philosophical bell-curve? Relax!!!

[quote]lothario1132 wrote:
Oh boy, religion and politics in the same thread. All we need is someone to mention butt-sex and we’ll have a trifecta of taboo discussion.
[/quote]

In through the out door? Playing in the mud? Riding the Hershey Highway? Heading in through the back door? Well, anal sex (and other forms/positions) has been considered “wrong” by Christianity for a while. This led to the enactment of anti-sodomy laws. While sodomy encompassed several “bad” sexual practices, I beleive the main ones were anal and oral sex.
See, a combination of religion, anal sex and politics. Hey, does this mean that when religious people try to screw us up the butt, it’s called politics? Hehehehe, j/k!

Thanks for the reply, barrister. I appreciate the time you took.
I did not mean to imply Volokh was a Christian activist-- I’ve never heard of him and meant to extend my criticism of his argument to a general criticism of Christian activist arguments. Perhaps this was poor grammar on my part, but this is semantic hair-splitting either way, just like choosing the definition of murder and analyzing the viewpoints of our individual founding fathers. Frankly, it’s a way of retreating from the big picture issue to bog everything down in minutiae. (See Bill Clinton bandying about the definition of “is”) It’s a classic political way of admitting by omission that you don’t stand on solid ground.
It is not a moral-laden value judgment to say that allowing people to murder one another is detrimental to a society’s efficiency-- it is a fact. Can you honestly name a single person who “perceives” a society working better with allowable murder?
The more you whittle things down to finer and finer specifics on issues like this, the more it becomes clear that there are no fine lines. I have yet to hear a clear argument from anti-abortion activists on how abortion undermines the present and future way this country is conducting its business. It’s never “I say so”-- it always boils down to “God says so.” Society is going to have to generalize a little bit on what a human being is, and i don’t see a sane alternative to ‘people who have already been born.’
Ok, so now I’m getting into a little “value-judging” myself, so I’ll concede that! But I hope you can see where I’m coming from on this. because church and state are separated in OUR society, “God says so” should never be the sole reason to rewrite this country’s legal code. That’s generalizing-- but I don’t see any way around generalizing whe we’re talking about national policy.
Thanks again, barrister. Sorry if i seem a little “bare-knuckle”, so to speak, but I feel tha sometimes you have to come out guns blazing to really get to the bottom of an issue. I think it can help the exchange of ideas.

I voted for Bush. No one asked me my religious affliation.

Bush won a majority any way you look at it.

I’m part of the majority.

JeffR

[quote]The Red Monk wrote:
The “axiom” all of this Christian argument seems to boil down to is that atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians can’t possibly create moral codes-- and that is of course ridiculous. The notion that societies can create moral codes outside of the influence of religious ideas is what this country was founded on.[/quote]

No, actually, it’s not, but I want to touch on something bigger than this here.

I’ve seen a lot of writing, be it on blogs or in op-eds, or hearing conversations in which people are claiming that voting for Bush or for a ban on same-sex marriage is somehow a violation of Church and State. This really sticks in my craw. When did our view of the Establishment Clause become so twisted and warped that beliefs based on morals derrived from religious beliefs are somehow invalid?

And it’s rampant. A couple of weeks ago I was in an argument with a fellow law student who was trying to claim that voting for Bush was a violation of the Establishment Clause (or as she referred to it, the Separation of Church and State). And this is a LAW STUDENT. This is someone who is supposed to know this stuff.

The Establishment Clause was never designed to create this hole between religion and politics. Your views are not discounted simply because they are based in religious codes. You don’t have to leave your faith at the door when walking to the bargaining table.

What strikes me is how blatantly discriminatory this is of relgious views in favor of an atheist view - something that the Establishment Clause WAS intended to protect against. We are looking at the vast majority of Americans and basically telling them “hey, I’m sorry, religious views don’t count.” What if two people hold the same view - one for religious reasons and another simply because of the teachings of a great philosopher. Why are the religious views any less valid?

Additionally, discriminating against those with deeply held religious beliefs is no different than discriminating against the very members of those religious sects. Could you imagine an Op-Ed writer coming out and saying, “Voting for a Jew like Lieberman is a violation of the Constitution”? Or calling all of the Gore States “Jew-world” or “The Promised Land”? Or what if we simply told Lieberman that he could be a Senator/VP/President so long as he didn’t bring his Jewish beliefs to the office with him?

Yet that’s what we are seeing day in and day out. And the trend is going to continue. As we force religion to go further into the shadows, that which does appear in public will garner more attention simply because there is less of it. It’s in contrast to the rest of the world around us.

The left hasn’t suffered from some sort of religous backlash. The electorate wasn’t somehow tainted with religion this year. Everyone did what they have done in years past - brought their internal beliefs/standards/morals to them with the booth. Voting for Bush because your religion/beliefs tell you abortion is wrong was no more invalid than voting for Kerry because you religion/beliefs tell you the war in Iraq is wrong. Anything less would be discriminatory of both religion and the varying messages in those religions, and indeed would be a violation of the Establishment Clause.

What people don’t seem to realize is that religion used to be a form of government. The religions have spent millennia figuring out this stuff, and some people want to throw out everything just because they don?t believe in some deity.

If you understand what is in the Bible and why, you can begin to understand it better. Like the kosher thing. Why kosher? Food was safer if it was kosher back then. But now we know how to make food safer. (Though not better if you eat at McDonalds.)

Anyone look at the ideas about money in the Bible? It is bad to borrow money, but not lo lend it out. Anyone who has had a little too much debt understands how important this rule can be.

The rule about not cooking an animal in it’s own mothers milk, or not wearing two types of thread in the same cloth, logically makes no sense to me.

Just look at the 7 deadly sins. Understanding that any of those, while fun, can be real bad when taken to extreme. This whole site is dedicated to eliminating sloth. Although massive eating could be called gluttony, maybe eating Twinkies too often might actually be.

Think about it.

Cory – good stuff.

Red Monk: I’m trying to figure where people got the idea that our laws demand an absence of religion from the public arena?

The part of the Consitution dealing with freedom of religion is the First Amendment – specifically, two clauses of the First Amendment: The Establishment Clause, and following immediately thereafter, the Free Exercise Clause. Here’s the text of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Establishment Clause is the one cited by courts to disallow endorsement of religion by governments. This basically means the government can’t give money to religious organizations to use for religious purposes, and can’t put nativity scenes in the town square while disallowing menoras and Santa.

However, the government can’t discriminate against religion either. If they fund programs such as student publications, or allow utilization of government property for citizen meetings, they can’t discriminate against people who want to use those facilities for their own religious purposes.

No where in the complicated morass that is First Amendment doctrine is there any indication that religious reasons are illegitimate reasons for people to favor this or that government policy or law. In fact, actions to prevent people from voting their religious convictions would almost certainly fall afoul of the Free Exercise clause.

We’re not a secular society – we’re a free society, with a representative government. Citizens are free to vote their morals, or lack thereof, whether the motivation is religious or otherwise.

Two things:

  1. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/deutschland/artikel/382/43339/
    For everyone who can’t speak German, it is an article about a 25.000 people (mostly Turkish muslims living in Germany) demonstration against terrorism in Cologne, Germany. I am not sure where most people get their info from, but whereever I turn to UK or German newssources, I find a muslim leader talking how much terrorism is against the fundamental values of Islam.

  2. In 1988 christian fundamentalists protested massively and violently against the Martin Scorcese movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” going as far bomb threats and actually burning down a Paris cinema.

My point? You will pretty easily find a religious zealot who is willing to throw the “first stone” as soon someone comes up with an idea they don’t like. This doesn’t mean that most people who follow one of the world’s big faiths are normal and decent, and that killing and maiming others is not their standard policy.

Sorry Everyone,

just saw that I misposted a comment in this thread that should have belonged into the van Gogh murder thread. My sincere apologies - just ignore it, please.

Makkun