Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s

One of my Google Alerts fired off an article to me that's posted on Christianity.ca - it's a piece by Bruce Clemenger called "Of Church, State and the Political Engagement". The opening paragraph summarizes the intent of the piece.
Commentaries about whether Catholic Members of Parliament who voted in favour of redefining marriage should be refused communion, musings about whether a religious right is emerging in Canada, and accusations that churches are seeking to impose their morality on others, has reignited the debate about the relationship between Church and State. Our response should be two-fold: first we should respond to the misperceptions that are rooted in stereotypes, misunderstanding or bias, and second, in a time of continued secularization and differing views about the role of the Church in society, we can avail ourselves of the opportunity to engage in a discussion about the relationship between Church and State.
The article doesn't actually talk about this at all, but what it does try to argue is why evangelicals, or the "religious right" should be involved in politics - arguing that there are common causes and that the concern over the "religious right" is all based upon misconceptions. The problem is, Mr. Clemenger's argument is itself based upon a misconception. His example of same-sex marriage as why evangelicals should be more involved displays that misconception:
Take the redefinition of marriage. We were told we were trying to impose our morality on others by defending the man/woman definition of marriage. Yet the other side was making moral arguments about why the definition should be changed. And in the end, it is the government that imposes a public definition of marriage - —it makes a moral choice.
Emphasis is mine.

Governments are incapable of making moral choices. Governments do not legislate morality - the minute a government determines what is right versus what is wrong, we are in deep trouble. Governments are only capable of determining what is legal versus what is illegal - or to boil it down even further, governments can only determine what is just - just for all people, not for some and not for most.

Because something is deemed to be immoral, does not make it illegal. Similarly, something somebody deems as moral, isn't necessarily legal. For example, to some, eating beef on Fridays is immoral or eating pork at all is immoral - it isn't illegal.

The common assertion raised by those of the religious right is that morality equals justice. If you encode morality, you will naturally achieve justice.

The piece then goes on to say:
While the Church and the State are distinct and have separate callings, they do have some tasks—such as the pursuit of justice—in common. This commonality can contribute to both confusion and inappropriate expectations unless we are mindful of their respective roles in God's creation.
Well, getting past the God talk, we once again arrive at the assertion that morality is the same as justice. The Church has never sought justice, and never will. Religion pursues instruction in a particular stripe of morality - teaching what is believed to be right and wrong. That is not justice.

Morality is not universal and justice must be universal and apply equally to all. Lawmakers, using morality to guide their way, must remember that - justice must apply universally, not to just those of your particular moral stripe.

Updated: Blue Grit comments on the same piece.

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19 comments:

Brian Lemon said...

But morality IS universal. It's defined and understood. And, our morality in western society was formed within a biblical context - Moses and Jesus (divinely or not depending on your faith) presented rules of order for society.
Morality is also not complex. 10 commandments and the sermon on the mount. Simple and has worked for a long time.
It's philosophies that wiggle around according to the philosopher, And people mix up philosophy with morality all the time.

SUZANNE said...

You say justice must apply equally to all. Is that a universal moral precept? Or is that just something we made up, and can be arbitrarily changed, as morality is relative? The ideology of equality is a moral one.

Anonymous said...

Jehovah's Witnesses (to name one group) are considered moral and followers of the 10 commandments and the sermon on the mount; why do they abstain from politics?
Some other religions do more than just pay taxes to Caesar, but fight for him.
Most of these groups use the Bible as their cornerstone.
Biblical law would horrify most people of this day and age.
What is it that makes a moral society?

Jim said...

But morality IS universal. It's defined and understood.

No, it isn't, and no it is not defined and understood. Morality is personal and based upon perception (either what you are taught or what you are told to believe).

You may, as you seem to, truly believe that your version of morality is universal because, to you, it seems self-evident (Moses, Jesus and the Commandments).

But, I can guarantee you, I can find some issue of morality where we differ in our belief - you will claim I am wrong, I will claim you are wrong. Right there, morality is not universal.

It's philosophies that wiggle around according to the philosopher, And people mix up philosophy with morality all the time.

Religion is a philosophy. See, I bet we differ on that, as well.

Jim said...

You say justice must apply equally to all. Is that a universal moral precept? Or is that just something we made up, and can be arbitrarily changed, as morality is relative? The ideology of equality is a moral one.

Justice must adapt, yes, and must change as society adapts and changes.

Morality changes and is arbitrary as well. "Thou shall not murder" is arbitrarily applied differently - ask a death row inmate.

PithLord said...
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PithLord said...

Jim,

You are a bit confused.

You say "morality is personal and based on perception." That could be two different claims. First, that what we believe about morality is based on our own personal experiences. Second, that what is true about morality depends on our personal experiences.

The first claim is true, but isn't any different from our beliefs about astronomy, or math or law. I believe that Mars has two moons because someone told me it did.

The second claim is inconsistent with your original post. You said it was wrong for the Church to intervene in politics. You clearly weren't just saying that the Church does or does not intervene in politics. You were making a moral claim about that.

Now, I disagree with this. I have no problem with the political career of Tommy Douglas, for instance. So I say, "There is nothing wrong with the Church intervening in politics."

So we disagree. But what do we disagree about? I don't dispute that your personal experiences have led you to oppose Church activity in politics. I don't doubt that you disapprove of such things. And you don't dispute that my experiences -- having a Christian Socialist grandfather who helped found the NDP for instance -- led me to approve of such activity.

What we disagree about is whether, as a matter of fact it is wrong for the Church to get involved in politics. But it is implicit from our very disagreement that we both think that morality is not subjective.

Jim said...

Pithlord said, You said it was wrong for the Church to intervene in politics.

Not quite. I said that it was wrong for governments to make moral decisions - to decide what is right or wrong.

Morality is taught by churches, parents and families, not legislated by government.

Laws must apply evenly and fairly to all, and morality as taught by a church, a parent, or a family is not universal enough to be the foundation of legislation. As self-evident as it may seem when you hear it ...

I can prove it again - I guarantee you, that there is an aspect of morality that I disagree with you about. We may agree on many, but I bet there is one moral that we differ on.

So, we can pass legislation based on one of our visions of morality (I pick mine over yours, and I'm sure you'd pick yours over mine). We will argue that our moral viewpoint is the right one, the self-evident one, the way it's always just been ... but, is that a just position?

To extend this further, should you accept my moral viewpoint as secular law because I happen to belong to a larger constituency than you?

PithLord said...

Your argument appears to be:

1. People disagree about morality.

2. Laws must be universal in application.

3. Therefore laws can't be based on morality.

But that doesn't follow. People disagree about tax policy too. I think it would be better to have reduced income tax on the working poor, as the Liberals did, then reuce the GST, as the Conservatives did. But we have a method for deciding these issues, and the result is tax legislation that is universal in application, although not universally supported.

Morality is universal in application in the same way law is. If it's wrong to steal (absent some compelling story of necessity), then it is wrong for everyone. Sure, you and I might disagree about what is right or wrong, but we might disagree about what should be legal or illegal too.

What you are right about is that there should be a zone in which legal compulsion does not operate, but morality still does. It is wrong to make cutting remarks to vulnerable elderly relatives, but I doubt that there should be a law on the subject.

But you are wrong to think that religion has ever been "unconcerned with justice." If you look at the Old Testament, there is almost nothing about an afterlife and relatively little about personal morality as opposed to law. But there is a whole lot about politics and social justice, particularly about social oppression and abuse of power.

It is controversial how social the message of the New Testament is. The controversy goes through the text: did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor" or "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? There's no doubt that part of the message is that justice and law are not enough. But, equally, it is a part of the message that we are judged by how we treat the least among us.

PithLord said...

A shorter point -- if you say it is "wrong" for governments to make moral decisions, then you are making a universal claim. You're not just saying you don't like governments making moral decisions.

Jim said...

Pithlord says, Your argument appears to be:

1. People disagree about morality.

2. Laws must be universal in application.

3. Therefore laws can't be based on morality.


2, 3 ... yes. 1, not exactly. My argument is morality is relative. My wording may have been poor - "disagreement" implies a minor difference. There are huge chasms between what people believe to be right and wrong (beyond simple things like taxation policy). I'm talking chasms in beliefs around life, death, behaviour, thought, etc.

It is too simple to say, that beliefs around these things are "universal" - that the way you view behaviour, for example, is the same way I do. To then legislate based on one of those belief systems seems categorically wrong.

A shorter point -- if you say it is "wrong" for governments to make moral decisions, then you are making a universal claim. You're not just saying you don't like governments making moral decisions.

There is nothing wrong with making a universal claim, provided it's universal (sounds flippant, but I don't mean it to be).

I can make a law that says, "Everybody gets health care." That's universal, and just.

If I then say, "unless you have premarital sex because then your health bill goes up because you're at risk for disease A through X and unwanted pregnancy, etc., and I believe premarital sex is wrong" - I'm making a moral judgment. My law is no longer universal.

PithLord said...

I'm not saying that belief in moral rules is universal. I'm saying application of moral rules is universal. If an action is immoral if I do it, then it is immoral if you do it, and vice versa (assuming that there are no morally significant distinctions between the situations we find ourselves in. Obviously, cutting someone with a knife has a different moral significance if you are a surgeon and I'm in a bar fight.)

In both respects, moral rules are just like legal ones. Legal rules need to apply to everyone similarly situated to be valid-- but they don't need to be supported by everyone to be valid. And all legal rules are based on some moral belief or other, although not every moral rule should be inscribed in law.

A law criminalizing premarital sex would be just as universal in its application as the Canada Health Act. Both the Canada Health Act and the law criminalizing premarital sex would be based on moral beliefs, and those moral beliefs could be controversial. People could disagree about them profoundly. In fact, people do disagree about the Canada Health Act profoundly in this country.

Jim said...

You know what, Pithlord, I think we're saying the same things in a respect.

A law based on a moral can be just, so it has that universal moral appeal about it.

Murder, is the best example.

Murder in almost all teachings is immoral, and it certainly is unjust. But, that question of "morality" becomes arbitrary depending on who you are, who you are killing, and in what circumstances.

If I take someone's life in self-defense, that is murder. Regardless. However, the government says I am justified in taking that life to protect my own. To some, that self-defense is immoral (some religious orders, specifically pacifist ones, see it that way). Regardless of that, it is just to allow self-defense.

To take that further, capital punishment, for me, is immoral because it is murder - state sanctioned murder - however, others would consider it "moral" because they believe in "eye-for-an-eye" or whatever.

There can be no justification for capital punishment because it is, in fact, pre-meditated murder (the state has motive, the state has opportunity, and the state has means). We know that pre-meditated murder is unjust, so Canada does not allow capital punishment anymore - capital punishment is a law based on a moral viewpoint, not a just viewpoint.

PithLord said...

jim,

I am pleased you seem to be coming around to my way of thinking.

If the state kills someone, or starts a war, then we are obviously dealing with a moral issue. Everyone is going to agree that "murder" is wrong, but almost all of us accept that some killings aren't murder. You might say that means that we didn't agree on very much. But we did at least agree that there needs to be a particular reason to justify any killing -- self-defence, yes; delight in seeing someone die, no.

Once we go from these examplest to the Iraq war or the death penalty, or third trimester abortion, we get into controversy. I agree with the Catholic Church on the Iraq war; you and I both agree with it on the death penalty. Do I want Catholics to mobilize politically on these issues? Sure.

So what do I say if they mobilize on same-sex marriage or abortion? I pretty much have to respond to their moral arguments with my own equally moral arguments. I say it's wrong to discriminate against same-sex couples, and it's wrong to force an unwilling woman to be pregnant and give birth.

What I can't do is say, "Your morality is OK for you, but not for me." That doesn't make sense.

Jim said...

but almost all of us accept that some killings aren't murder.

We accept some killings as not murder because they're lawful. Your moral viewpoint on what is lawful murder and mine, differ.

We elect a state to determine what is lawful.

What I can't do is say, "Your morality is OK for you, but not for me." That doesn't make sense.

Sure it does. It happens everyday.

For illustrative purposes, a "trivial" example. It is immoral for Mormons to drink alcohol - it's not a question of choice, it's a question of morality.

Me, I love beer.

Now, would the government be justified passing a law prohibiting the consumption of alcohol - because, well, the Mormon moral of not consuming alcohol is universal?

That doesn't make the Mormon's moral viewpoint wrong, or make mine right - they're different. The Mormon is still able to abstain, and I can still obtain.

Jim said...

Sorry, I cut off.

Where we get mixed up, in a lot of cases, is the mistaken belief that Christian morality = universal morality. Adultery is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, carving graven images is wrong, etc.

It's easy to dismiss the Mormon morality dilemma over alcohol, it's harder for some to accept that not all people think everything that is frowned upon in the Bible, is necessarily needed to be made illegal in the real world.

That's where guys like Tommy Douglas and Bill Blaikie get it right, and guys like Rondo Thomas miss the boat completely.

PithLord said...

Murder is both a legal concept and a moral one. If somebody in Somalia kills somebody else, we can talk about whether it was a murder, or self-defence, even though there is no effective legal system.

Even in Canada, the legal system itself relies on juries who have pre-legal conceptions of what is justification.

Your example about Muslims and beer is an interesting one: I think you confuse the question of moral obligation with the question of religious observance. A moral obligation is binding on everyone; a religious observance is binding on the believer.

Unfortunately, I don't know much about the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, so I don't know whether Muslims think alcohol consumption is wrong, or is simply contrary to their religious practices. I know a little about the Jewish dietary law, so I will use it as an example.

Jewish doctrine teaches that it is wrong for a Jew to eat pork, but not wrong for a Gentile. Is that because moral obligations for Jews and Gentiles differ? No. It is because Jewish tradition holds that Israel entered into a covenant with God according to which Israel promised only to eat kosher food. Since non-Jews never made this promise, they are not bound by it.

But the underlying moral norm -- that we should fulfill our promises, especially to God -- still applies to everyone. Any rabbi would tell you that a Gentile who broke a promise would be culpable.

If we consider the Catholic church, it obviously has certain religious practices. It doesn't say that those practices are binding on non-Catholics. But it also holds that there is a "natural law" that is accessible to all reasonable people, whether they are Catholics or not. It is on the basis of this natural law that the Church comes to the views it has about the death penalty, the Iraq war, or abortion.

Those opinions are either right or wrong. They can't be true for Catholics, but not for other people.

Jim said...

If we consider the Catholic church, it obviously has certain religious practices. It doesn't say that those practices are binding on non-Catholics.

That's true.

But it also holds that there is a "natural law" that is accessible to all reasonable people, whether they are Catholics or not. It is on the basis of this natural law that the Church comes to the views it has about the death penalty, the Iraq war, or abortion.

Those opinions are either right or wrong. They can't be true for Catholics, but not for other people.


Bingo! I think you're about to have an epiphany.

The Catholic Church comes to an opinion about an issue - an opinion that is right or wrong. For example, same-sex marriage is wrong. The Catholic Church is free to not sanctify same-sex marriage.

The United Church, for example, can come to the opposite opinion about an issue and in this example, it did - an opinion that is right or wrong. For example, same-sex marriage is right. The United Church is free to sanctify same-sex marriage.

Now, to my original argument that governments cannot legislate morality. These are opposing visions based on morality where "reasonable" people have accessed natural law to come to these viewpoints.

The government, being just, must say to both the Catholic Church and the United Church one of two things - we are not going to recognize either of your marriages, or we are going to recognize both of your marriages.

It cannot favour one over the other, and still be considered just.

PithLord said...

The Catholic Church says two different kinds of things about marriages.

First, it has certain rules about the performance of Catholic marriages. These have to be performed by an ordained priest. At least one of the spouses has to be a confirmed Catholic. Etc.

Second, and very different, the Catholic Church claims that there are certain moral rules about marriages, which should apply to all marriages, Catholic or not. The Church thinks marriages should be for the purpose of procreation, if naturally possible; that they should be indissoluble and that they should be between a man and a woman. It thinks this regardless of whether the marriage was Catholic -- the Church doesn't think that divorce is OK if the wedding took place in a United Church.

The United Church similarly has its own rules for how its own ministers are going to perform weddings.

But it also has the second kind of belief -- about marriage in general. It believes that justice requires equal treatment of people regardless of sexual orientation, and that all loving committed relationships should be treated the same.

The first type of question is about ritual and cult. Only the second is about morality. Current Canadian law embodies the United Church's view on the moral question, not the Catholic view.

That doesn't bother me. I side with the United Church. But it is inescapably a matter of moral conflict. Politically, I don't want the Catholic Church to shut up about what it thinks morality requires. Partly because I respect democracy, and partly because I think the Church has a point about how adult-centred secular post-Protestant conceptions of marriage are. We have engaged in an experiment here -- one no other culture in Earth's history has attempted -- and I hardly want the most sophisticated critics of that experiment to shut up.