“I won’t curse in your church if you won’t pray in the polling place.” This saying, freshly coined by yours truly, never will be as well-known as a similarly phrased pithy epigram. But I wish it would. For the problem of people peeing in pools pales in comparison to the problem of religious believers polluting politics by voting on the basis of faith-based values.
U.S. News & World Report conservative columnist John Leo argues just the opposite in his November 29 piece, “Don’t discount moral views.” Per usual, much of his column makes little sense. But the last part of his final paragraph is the most nonsensical:
As [UCLA law] Professor Volokh argues, “All of our opinions are ultimately based on unproven and unprovable moral premises.” No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” [your values] argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.
No, Mr. Leo, the best way to improve our nation’s political climate is to eliminate religious values in political discourse. Politics deals with observable physical reality where people bodily live, breathe, and die. Religion deals with an unobservable immaterial realm where, maybe, the souls of people go after they die. It is inexcusable, immoral, and unacceptable to make political decisions on the basis on unsupportable guesses about God.
Prof. Volokh obviously is wrong when he says that “All of our opinions are based on unproven and unprovable moral premises.” I believe that gravity exists, the earth orbits the sun, and water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. These opinions, better termed “facts,” aren’t based on moral premises.
Of course, Volokh might be speaking of other sorts of non-scientific opinions. But I can’t think of any examples of opinions about political issues that are incapable of being founded on either proven or provable factual premises. Consider abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage—three issues that are commonly considered to comprise the core of “values-based” voting in the last election.
Opinions about each of these issues can, and should, be founded on objective facts derived from social science and medical science research. There are costs and benefits to various individuals and society as a whole from the presence or absence of abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. These costs and benefits can be determined. They can be communicated. They can be discussed. They can be the basis for informed political decisions.
But you can’t determine, communicate, discuss, or decide anything on a religious or what-God-wants basis. The moral tenets of every religion are unproven and unprovable, using Volokh’s words. However, the moral tenets that flow out of political decisions founded on accurate real-world information can be proven, because the real world is provable.
For example, fetuses either feel pain or they don’t. If they do, then it should be possible to determine how much pain is experienced during an abortion. People could use this information to help decide when an abortion is justified and when it isn’t. Intelligent debates about the pros and cons of abortion could replace the frenzied moralistic “I’m right and you’re wrong!” screeching that now passes for political discourse in this country.
You can’t debate with someone who doesn’t have a defensible reason for why they believe what they do. You can’t debate with someone who responds to a reasoned argument with “Because the Bible says so” or “Jesus condemns sinners.”
Fantasy is a dangerous foundation for making societal decisions. A nation that forsakes reality isn’t going to prosper, because actions in the real world have real consequences. Blind faith is fine so long as it remains safely sequestered in a person’s psyche. But when it replaces the light of reason and science as a societal guide, there are going to be a lot of missteps, and even some falling over cliffs.
I’m a vegetarian. Yet I have no desire to pass laws forbidding meat-eating, notwithstanding my tongue in cheek Oregonian opinion piece of a few years back, “Vegetarians, honk your horns!” My point then, as now, is that someone’s religious beliefs have no place in determining how people other than that person live their lives.
Amen to that.