Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Speaking in the Common Tongue

Have you ever been privy to a conversation among members of a clique or even a profession of which you were not a part? You could understand most of the words, but you didn’t really understand the conversation because there were references to people, things, and concepts with which you were unfamiliar.

That’s what Ryan T. Anderson of The Phillips Foundation says that some religious social conservatives have been doing when it comes to political issues. In this WSJ op-ed, Anderson accuses religious conservatives of couching public arguments in religious terms.

This used to be publicly acceptable. But Anderson notes that the Bible, while still respected, is no longer the coin of the realm that it once was. Many people today are relatively ignorant of the actual content of scriptures. Their values and opinions are less informed by biblical teachings and Christian tradition than were those of previous generations. Anderson says:
“Arguing that "God said so" won't persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with you. Even though Americans remain a remarkably religious people, the Bible doesn't carry the authority it once did. And many of those who generally hold the Bible in high regard consider it "dated" and "out of touch" on certain controversial moral questions.
I think religious conservatives are well aware of this fact, and are actually deeply bothered by it. This letter to the editor of the Standard Examiner reflects a theme that is frequently expressed by American Christians. “We are a nation founded upon Christian principles. We are a nation under God,” writes the author. She goes on to imply that our Founders created a special status for Christianity.

While Christian ideals and morals undoubtedly informed our founding documents, I think the letter writer goes too far. Our Founders were actually very careful to devise a system that aspired to treat individuals equally, regardless of their religious thoughts or affiliations. Anderson suggests that public expressions like those of the letter’s author hinder the religious conservatives’ cause rather than helping it.

While it’s fine for religious conservatives to talk among themselves in religious terms, they must learn to use the common language of reason when it comes to public issues. Not only does this show respect for their fellowmen; it is the only way they can hope to achieve their desires in such matters.

Anderson contends that religious people should have no problem with this, because “the moral truths revealed in the Bible are also consonant with reason.” He writes, “Rather than argue from God's commands down to human endeavors, social conservatives should place their emphasis on human flourishing and the moral principles that protect it.”

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Respecting people as our equals — as individuals with individual rights — rather than treating people as things to be used is a principle that most people grasp, regardless of their religious beliefs. Anderson says, “This is the precise argument that social conservatives should be making when it comes to abortion, human cloning, and embryo-destructive research.”

Anderson cites scientific studies with respect to child rearing outcomes that support the cause of marriage being defined as being between one man and one woman. Social conservatives should use such studies rather than simply claiming that their view of marriage is best because God says so.

Even the Ten Commandments have been discussed using reason — by Pope John Paul II — as being “the universal moral law, valid in every time and place….” Keeping the commandments is being “faithful to ourselves, to our true nature and our deepest aspirations.”

People overwhelmingly agree with the concept that there are certain natural principles that should govern our actions as individuals and as groups. Social conservatives should base their discussion of public issues in those principles if they want to win the minds of others. Failure to do so will result in the problem Mike Huckabee had of being able to attract strong support among evangelicals while alienating everyone else.

I think that religious conservatives would do well to take Anderson’s advice to heart. If you want to achieve your goals in the public arena, talk in the common language of the public arena — the language of reason.


Bradley Ross said...

Incidentally, this is something you do very well and is one of the reasons I love to read your blog.

David said...

I notice that you list the language of the public arena as "the language of reason." I think that's well stated, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the possibility that we might be confused on any differences between "the language of logic" and "the language of reason."

Do you think those are different languages? If you do, how would you articulate the difference?

Jeremy said...

AMEN :-) I agree with what Bradley Ross had to say in his comment.

Reach Upward said...

Bradley, Jeremy: I'm flattered.

David: I think different people might have different answers to the question you pose. It largely comes down to semantics. I'm not sure it could be firmly stated that one view on this was correct while another was not. But let me give my two cents on it.

I think the language of logic assumes that everything can be scientifically deconstructed and that anything outside of that narrow realm is unworthy of inclusion in the discussion.

The language of reason, on the other hand, appeals to a person's sense of what is right. While logic plays a major role, there are other factors, some of which cannot be satisfactorily defined, let alone be scientifically deconstructed.

I think that most people believe that important facts exist that cannot be scientifically proven. We can -- and I believe should -- reasonably discuss points related to these elements as well.