Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Diminished Role of Christians in the Public Sphere

One of the challenges we face as a culture is that we do not know well how to live with the tension created by the fact that we disagree on fundamental moral questions. We want to resolve that tension. Some attempt to do so through persuasion. Others use force; in our culture, typically the force of law. I disagree with much of libertarianism's ideological tendencies when it comes to the role of the state, but I must admit there's wisdom in some if it, especially in this area: a recognition that relieving that tension though force of law in some situations will backfire. Who cannot look at the abortion debate and not see the weakness of both sides efforts to use courts and judicial decisions to change the debate on this? Or the drug war and not at least recognize that having the law reinforce morality hasn't always resulted in the change of behavior that many hoped for and has often created new problems? ("More Questions, No Answers")
Jack, I'm going to dodge your great questions about immigration, or at least defer them for now to follow another train of thought. The part of your message quoted above starts to articulate something bothering me about the Republican monopoly on "Christian values", in previous elections as well as specifically with Mike Huckabee's campaign. I have thought the problem is due also to the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant conception of social life.

Thomas Aquinas did not expect that the political body should resolve questions of personal morality, except insofar as they would have an impact on others.
Aquinas plainly rejects the idea that the state is a surrogate for paternal authority, or has God's authority over morally significant conduct. Though he frequently states that the political rulers have a proper concern to lead people to virtue, these statements turn out to refer to the appropriate aspirations of rulers, not to their coercive jurisdiction or authority. In the context of the surrounding argument, the statements do not commit him to any wider governmental or legal authority than to require and foster the public good and the virtue of justice, that is, the willingness to perform one's duties to others: 6.1(iii) above. The other virtues can be legally required of citizens only so far as they impact on justice: ST I-II q. 96 a. 3. Moreover, he holds the classic position that doing justice does not require that one's motivations and character be just. And when it comes to coercive measures, he holds that they can bear only upon conduct that is external and immediately or mediately affects other people unjustly or disturbs the peace of the political community: ST I-II q. 98 a. 1. Really private vices are outside the coercive jurisdiction of the state's government and law. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Let me be clear. The state's interest in preventing abortion involves the protection of the innocent child. Same-sex marriages impact the nature of the family, particularly for children adopted or artificially conceived. (The issue of drugs, that you bring up, is mixed, I think. The main question there to me would be exposure to children which we hardly have a handle on.) Still it is not the law's job to turn us into "good" people.

Still, the reduction of "Christian values" in the political sphere to an exclusive emphasis on prolife/profamily issues, which are primarily private-sphere issues with a public impact, seems to me a result of a strange capitulation to religion's relegation to merely private morality. Since the secular society has mostly usurped politics, education, science, social services, you name it, setting religion in the corner to deal with private scruples and personal crises, then we in turn ourselves reduce the Christian social role to dealing with such domestic issues. So our Christian advocates of good private moral practices have no trouble with breaking up families to expel illegal immigrants, or continuing to deny Palestinians their rightful sovereignty, or going to war to impose our "democratic" way of life on another country.

In fact, our Christian outlook does have something to say about many important social issues, war for starters. We have an entire body of Catholic social teaching which is practically unknown to most evangelicals who rely on a personal interpretation of Scripture and a mostly individual response to charitable needs. Those many Catholics who are voting for Hillary Clinton may or may not be pro-abortion, but not a few do remember that Catholics were involved in labor unions so that exploited workers could have a just wage.

No answers here, just an observation. After this, IMHO, disastrous administration, we need to do some soul-searching as Catholics, with our rich tradition of social thought and practice, at accepting our banishment to such a reduced role in the political arena.

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