Church and state

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.

I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible.

At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy-making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. … It’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife [to kill Isaac], we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be.

So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

Presidential candidate Barak Obama wrestles with competing allegiances, to religion and to politics. In light of his hypothetical statements about abortion, I should note that Obama is pro-choice (see the last few paragraphs of the full speech).

A large part of Obama’s personal motivation (particularly his drive for social justice) comes from his Christian faith. But Obama practises a “big tent” approach to politics. He works very hard to build consensus — unlike Bush and Rove, who relied heavily on “wedge” issues. (Wedge issues are those which set one block of voters against another in a divide-and-conquer strategy.)

Here, he wants to reach out to fellow Christians:  but not at the cost of forcing non-Christians out of the tent.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Oct 13, 2007 @ 23:41:49

    It’s a nice ideal, but not necessarily a practical one.

    Ideally, I agree with the separation of church and state. But the truth is that, since our religion defines us as people, then it is assumed it will define us as politicians. Because politics requires relating to the common people, then they, who see religion as absolutely pivotal to life in all its forms, will likely not buy the argument that somehow a Christian is willing to overlook abortion as an issue. Either they will turn around and become pro-life, or they are not a Christian.

    There will always be a tension in politics between following the ideal and relating to the regular Joes. If they think you’re being wishy-washy or trying to pull a fast one on you, it doesn’t matter how sound you are in the eyes of the intellectuals, you’re not going to cut it with the masses. So, while it’s great to have the ideal of appealing to both groups, in truth you risk losing the favour of both. Bush’s divide and conquer strategy may be appalling to people who know better, but to the group he decides to side with it’s an infallible tactic!

    Reply

  2. Bridgett
    Oct 13, 2007 @ 23:49:48

    I’ve been reading you a while now. I don’t recall how I stumbled across you, but I’m glad I did. I have nothing to add. Just a fan.

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Oct 14, 2007 @ 07:33:46

    • Knotwurth:
    If Obama is on record defending his pro-choice position, I haven’t seen it. So I don’t know why he has come down on that side of that issue. But I think you misunderstand: I don’t think Obama is consciously making a choice contrary to his Christian faith.

    I am pro-life. In my view, both the Democrats and the Republicans are inconsistent on this issue. The Democrats are against torture but not against abortion. The Republicans are against abortion but not against torture (or war, or gun ownership, or the death penalty). So neither party takes a consistent, principled pro-life stand — that’s how it looks to me.

    I can only assume that Obama is pro-choice for reasons of morality; reasons he sees as consistent with Christianity, even though you and I disagree. But also, he’s in a tough spot. It is likely impossible to win the Democratic nomination if you’re pro-choice. It’s equivalent to a Republican saying they favour same sex marriage or gun control. It’s impossible to succeed in politics without making trade-offs, so politics is not a profession for idealists. Maybe Obama is making that sort of trade-off on abortion; or maybe he sincerely believes it’s the position most consistent with Christianity.

    I’d like to know whether you see a flaw in Obama’s reasoning, in the passage quoted. To me, the point is simply inarguable. Public policy must be based on common values and reasons. I posted the quote because I think every politician and every voter ought to agree with it.

    I think we can make an argument against abortion on the grounds of common values and reasons. Indeed, I’ve made the beginnings of an appeal to common values above: the same values that make me anti-torture also make me anti-abortion.

    • Bridgett:
    Thanks for de-lurking to let me know you’re a fan. Feel free to offer an opinion some time: I always welcome dialogue.

    Reply

  4. nebcanuck
    Oct 14, 2007 @ 14:25:25

    If Obama is on record defending his pro-choice position, I haven’t seen it.

    Sorry. I didn’t realize that Obama was actually not on record as having stated that he is pro-choice. In fact, much the opposite, I assumed that this section was him justifying his pro-choice stance by explaining to the public that he thinks that sometimes you have to compromise on these issues in order to run an efficient state.

    I don’t think Obama is consciously making a choice contrary to his Christian faith.

    You are right in assuming that this was a major reason for my above thoughts. I thought that he was deliberately stating that he was going against his initial whims.

    I am pro-life. In my view, both the Democrats and the Republicans are inconsistent on this issue.

    I feel similarly, and would extend that to the statement that no party in North America or Canada — with the possible exception of the very quiet “Christian Heritage Party” — is openly pro-life. Since abortion rights were reconsidered, there has been basically no public debate on whether or not it is right; the majority of the populations of both countries seem to take it for granted that women should have the choice. Taking a pro-life stance is political suicide, in general.

    I’d like to know whether you see a flaw in Obama’s reasoning, in the passage quoted. To me, the point is simply inarguable. Public policy must be based on common values and reasons.

    I agree, in theory, the same that I disagree with Machiavelli in theory. Machiavelli proclaims that there is no room for morality in politics; I would love to believe that morality is absolutely necessary to be an effective leader. Similarly, I would love it if there was some sort of “neutral ground” upon which politicians could stand, balancing their own morality with that of every other person. However, in Machiavelli’s case, I can’t debate that anarchy is the worst-case scenario, and thus morality has to come second to practical considerations. The same goes for Obama’s statement: It’s great to pretend to have some sort of capacity for meeting the morality of all people, but I believe that it will only result in neither faction supporting you, because they will figure you are either lying or wishy-washy.

    As such, while I would love for every politician to adopt the stance that certain issues must be compromised on in order to properly serve the majority, to get elected the opposite seems to hold true, historically. Perhaps if Obama wins the Presidential race, I will reconsider and be more accepting of theoretical statements like this. But for now, the practical ramifications have to come first, and Obama will likely lose if he too often chooses to give ground to the public opinion. Each side will see him as too friendly with the opposition, and he will be caught in the crossfire.

    I think we can make an argument against abortion on the grounds of common values and reasons. Indeed, I’ve made the beginnings of an appeal to common values above: the same values that make me anti-torture also make me anti-abortion.

    Yes, and if you’re pro-torture, why not be pro-abortion? You are taking a specific side to these two issues. When Obama says that he seeks some sort of compromise between the two, he becomes inconsistent. He states that he is pro-choice and yet he is anti-torture. Instead of having one stance, he seems to pander to two different factions: The people who want universal human rights, and the ones who want control (since I would define both pro-choice and pro-torture stances as ones that are pining for control over adverse circumstances.) The people who stand behind their pro-life stance will look at Obama and say “I don’t like you, you’re pro-choice,” while the latter faction will say “I don’t like you, you want to restrict my freedom.” Instead of the sides seeing compromise, they see a man who is against them in at least one capacity, and thus are more likely to vote for someone who doesn’t give even that little bit to the other faction.

    Reply

  5. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Oct 14, 2007 @ 16:31:33

    ‘Nother long-time fan here. Good post. 🙂

    Presidential candidate Barak Obama wrestles with competing allegiances, to religion and to politics … He works very hard to build consensus — unlike Bush and Rove, who relied heavily on “wedge” issues.

    I think you hit the mark exactly. Yes, Obama wrestles with these issues – but I think he wrestles less than first appearances seem to indicate. I believe he is more about consensus-building, as you said. In this case, he is actually teaching his audience, confronting their prejudices, and challenging them to think … outside the box.

    At this point, he’s got my vote.

    Reply

  6. Bill
    Oct 15, 2007 @ 11:12:51

    I’m not so sure I agree with the phrase

    “It’s impossible to succeed in politics without making trade-offs, so politics is not a profession for idealists.”

    Trade offs in defense of core idealogies are the stock in trade of revolutionaries.

    Also

    I must admit I read these comments quickly so I need some clarification…

    Nebcanuck when you say “Either they will turn around and become pro-life, or they are not a Christian.” are you talking about the opinion of “they, who see religion as absolutely pivotal to life in all its forms” or are you making the assertation that you cannot be a Christian if you are pro-choice, because it breeches the core beliefs of Christianity?

    Reply

  7. nebcanuck
    Oct 15, 2007 @ 12:12:29

    Guess I should clarify my statements. I agree that this is ideal, and he would have my vote, too! 🙂

    What I’m trying to say is that an unfortunately high percentage of the population tends to be in favour of “wedge” tactics, because they refuse to think outside the box. The vast majority are, as you call them, Bill, “they who see [insert word here] as absolutely pivotal to life in all its forms.” In this case, the example is abortion. One side would see life as absolutely pivotal to everything, one side would see choice as the same. While there are certainly the “middle ground” people, a vast number hold on to one stance without compromise, and see anyone who compromises as a failure, a traitor.

    I personally think that it would be awesome to see politicians pay more heed to their opinion, and to inform people as to why their stances on issues are logical. I also would love to see them compromising in order to respect the general will. But I think that neither would go over well with the public, and the person (in this case Obama) would (will) end up losing the election because of their “weakness.”

    Reply

  8. Stephen
    Oct 15, 2007 @ 19:07:55

    nebcanuck
    It’s great to pretend to have some sort of capacity for meeting the morality of all people, but I believe that it will only result in neither faction supporting you.

    That’s a very wise insight that a lot of people don’t understand. They think popularity is dependent on pleasing everybody, but you’re absolutely right: people who set out to please everybody are more likely to alienate everybody.

    In this case, however, I’m not sure it plays out like that. Obama is within Democrat norms on both issues, abortion and torture. I think he’s hoping to pick up some of the evangelical vote as well, but his pro-choice stance will hurt him there.

    What evangelicals need to understand is that Obama is probably more pro-life on balance (i.e., if we include war and torture in that equation) than any of the Republican candidates. I guess you understand that, since you said you would be inclined to vote for him.

    Snaars:
    In this case, he is actually teaching his audience, confronting their prejudices, and challenging them to think … outside the box.

    An excellent point. As I said, I think Obama wants the evangelical Christian vote (certainly from black churchgoers, he does!) but he won’t get it unless he’s able to move them beyond a single-issue mindset, that casts a vote solely on the pro-life / pro-choice basis. So he’s trying to open their minds a bit here. And I think he will succeed in winning a healthy portion of the evangelical vote, if he can get past Hillary. That remains to be seen.

    Bil:
    Trade offs in defense of core idealogies are the stock in trade of revolutionaries.

    Yes, but abortion is a core ideology, whether one is Republican and pro-life or Democrat and pro-choice. It’s one of the issues on which compromise is verboten, for the reasons nebcanuck has outlined.

    Reply

  9. nebcanuck
    Oct 15, 2007 @ 21:17:09

    In this case, however, I’m not sure it plays out like that. Obama is within Democrat norms on both issues, abortion and torture. I think he’s hoping to pick up some of the evangelical vote as well, but his pro-choice stance will hurt him there.

    Makes sense. I guess I saw his statement that you need to find universal values as something that could alienate him from a Democratic stance. but if it’s pretty clear that he is pro-choice then I suppose most of “the people” won’t be paying close enough attention to really get in a kerfluffle that he stated that compromise must be made, anyways.

    What evangelicals need to understand is that Obama is probably more pro-life on balance (i.e., if we include war and torture in that equation) than any of the Republican candidates. I guess you understand that, since you said you would be inclined to vote for him

    Well, as I said, even though the Republicans come the closest to being a pro-life party, even they will be hard-pressed to win public favour if they do anything more than take a moral stance against it. Should they actually go out of their way to “crack down” on it the way they do drugs, then they would lose their support, even amongst their fanbase, I think.

    But that’s not the only factor, of course. I actually appreciate greatly the fact that he thinks about these things. I don’t know if Bush or other one-stance has every really taken a second to consider his ideologies. Obama has a mature view of politics, he’s proven to be inventive in his fund raising (ingenuity is a good thing in a leader!), and he offers some reliability — he was, after all, solid on his stance against the war in Iraq the entire time, as you have pointed out.

    Also, he’s not Clinton and not a Bush wannabe, both of which are key criteria — sad as that may be.

    Reply

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