Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Invoking "God" in Political Arguments (In Short, God Yes, Revelation No):

My readers know that I have conceded, along with some very notable left-liberal political thinkers like Jeremy Waldron, Paul Sigmund and Maurizio Viroli that God is useful, arguably necessarily to make political-moral norms binding in an "ought" sense.

What follows then is a comment that demonstrates the limits of sectarian arguments in politics. It short, yes, tying things to God helps clinch why it's ultimately wrong to steal from people and kill innocents (the postmodernist notes all arguments ultimately rest on unproven and unprovable moral premises; tying these premises to God invokes the ultimate source of non-negotiable authority). But it does not follow that quoting verses and chapters of scripture as what God thinks to "settle" political/moral matters is useful, effective or -- because I have an interest in the subject -- what America's Founders had in mind.

John Rawls, of course, recognized the inadequacy of sectarian religious based arguments in public discourse. Interestingly, so has the late Father Richard John Neuhaus whose seminal work The Naked Public Square stresses the need for religious conservatives to make "public arguments," -- those that appeal to folks who don't interpret the Bible the same way you do or perhaps don't believe in the same revelation.

So I'd like to think what follows is in the spirit of Rawls, Neuhaus and America's Founders.

I get accused of picking on the evangelical-fundamentalist "Christian Nationalists" too much. On the one hand, they are a very sizable influential part of the Republican Party's base. On the other, they haven't been all too successful in their political battles. Perhaps what follows below helps to explain why their verse and chapter quoting the Bible on behalf of religiously conservative political purposes has been less than fully effective.

The note that follows was to a politically conservative evangelical who argued contra atheism (which he asserted was inherently nihilistic and relativistic) in favor of a more "godly" view of politics and morals. Along the way he and others noted that biblical Christianity is superior to atheism and agnosticism because the Bible provides them with "moral absolutes":

I concede tying things to “God” does help to make them binding in an “ought” sense, at all times, everywhere (it solves the problem of relativism). However, not everyone believes in the same revelation that you do. Some folks believe in God, not the Bible. Some believe the Bible is partially, even if it’s most of which, inspired (that is parts of it are the Word of God, parts are interpolations). Some add additional Holy Books (i.e., the Mormons and Muslims). Some take the biblical canon and add rules discovered from the natural law (i.e., Roman Catholics and some other non-RC Christians). Some (the Jews) believe in your first Holy Book (the OT) but that your second book (the NT) is not the Word of God. And even among evangelicals, they interpret the same words, verses and chapters to mean different things. And, reading the same Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God, they differ on moral matters of such great import that they fight (or have fought) bloody wars over the matter.

We’ve discussed this matter in particular, say what you want about and disagree if you will with what Drs. Gregg Frazer and John MacArthur believe, but they are as intelligent, biblically learned, and devout evangelical-fundamental Christians as ANYONE on this [conservative evangelical] site. And they, in good faith, with COMPLETE biblical knowledge of the relevant verses and chapters of scripture, believe revolution is absolutely forbidden, the moral equivalent of witchcraft. And this includes the American Revolution. And indeed, a bloody war (the American Revolution) was fought with evangelicals, believing in the same inerrant, infallible Bible on both sides but differing in their interpretations.

We could say something similar about the Civil War with Abe Lincoln -- a man who though he believed in God, most certainly did NOT believe the Bible inerrant or infallible -- leading the victorious side.

In short, if you want to connect your favorite moral issues to God to make it binding, fine. However, trying to connect your absolute morality to verse and chapter prooftexting raises more problems than it solves.

It’s a non-starter — the equivalent of spitting in the wind — in the modern society that we live in where we are not all of the same religion and where ecclessiastical authorities do not rule politics from the top down.

That’s the only potential way for your divine command theory of political morality to work; and it arguably didn’t even work when tried; it led to the persecution of minority sects and burning of heretics at the stake.

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