The Breakdown of Political Language

Arnold just did something very, very stupid.  He just signed a piece of legislation that bans anything that promotes a discriminatory bias against “gender.”  In effect, words like “mom” and “dad” will be taken out of the school lexicon, and text books must not give students the impression that heterosexuality is in any way a norm. 

Now if I remember correctly from my many debates with secularists of many stripes, us religious people should not be legislating morality.  This now common slogan is worthy of examination.  Contrary to what many Christians would like us to think, this Constitution was not written by Christians (for the most part), but deists.  These men–the paradigm case being Thomas Jefferson–had no problems citing some ambiguous divine Providence which ordered the world without interacting with it.  He famously had a Bible (which I saw in a museum this weekend, along with Kermit the Frog) in which he literally cut out all references to Jesus’ miracles and left only his moral teachings.  Religion, he argued, was a private affair.

However, this isn’t the whole story.  Although it can be conceeded that the founding fathers were not all Christians–and that the Constitution does not enshrine Christians values per se–it is also true that these men were natural law theorists; hence, so many documents cite divine Providence in several different ways and in several different contexts.  And while these men did not favor any particular religion, they did favor a certain type of morality.  All of them spoke in a common language as far as moral theories go.  They all thought that there is an objective right and wrong way to act.  They thought that this morality was ordered by God through how He created human nature.  And finally, they took it for granted that these objective good and evils were discoverable through rational discourse.   So while religion may have been private, morality was a very public beast.

And yet, this recently signed law in California is just another example of how the natural law theory assumed by the fathers of this country has been underminded.  Sure, there were moral disagreements between the founding fathers; but they were all arguing in the same language under a common set of first principles of moral reasoning.  But that just isn’t the case anymore.  Natural law theory has been jettisoned, and now we are left with special interest groups attempting to push a given agenda, not an attempt to conform the law to an objective moral reality.  There can be no discussions with people like the ones pushing this agenda in California.  Even when making the dubious assumption that they believe ethical discussions can be resolved rationally–which often isn’t the case–the first principles of the varying ethical paradigms involved are so different that we might as well be speaking different languages.  The only way to resolved such disputes is to find neutral ground common to all parties on which to settle the dispute.  However, this task is slow and arduous, if it is even possible at all.  The Enlightenment project also seems to have made the assumption that there is such thing as facts apart from an agent with a certain slant on the world interpreting those facts.  Thus, we can all just “set aside” our religion or our other beliefs and discuss policies on a completely level playing field of reason.  But as both medieval philosophers (“what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver,” for example) will tell you, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. We cannot just set aside our value systems as if they did not color the way that we viewed the world (and hence how we reason).  This does not mean that there is no objective truth, of course, but only that it is much harder to get at than Enlightenment thinkers seemed to realize. 

In the mean time, since the different groups cannot discuss moral issues without begging the question in some way against their opponents, we are left in a political landscape in which we cannot have moral discussions across paradigms.  Consequently, the only thing left to do is for the differing parties to pass laws in their own interests at the expense of the other parties. 

While the argument may have been a good one up until a few decades ago that we should not “legislate morality” in the sense of pushing the tenents of a particular religious creed, the argument seems to have no weight anymore.  The Enlightenment project failed.  As much as we may want to sit back and debate ethical policies with one another, it is simply not possible anymore, no matter how hard we try. 

It’s obvious that the gays in California are having no qualms about legislating a morality, forcing it on a great number of people.  Now honestly, is this act okay just because it is being legislated by people with no religious agenda?  After writing all of this, I am at a loss as to why I cannot attempt to legislate my own morality no matter what its sources are, even if that source is religion.  It seems absolutely ridiculous that we should stand by and call foul because other people aren’t playing by the same rules as our founding fathers intended.  If we can no longer settle these disputes because we lack a common language, and some people are pushing their morality on the rest of us, why does it matter where my own moral principles come from when I push back? 

Not “legislating morality” based on religious principles is unfortunately a relic of the past.  I really wish that we lived in a society where even the non-believers believed that such things as gay-marriage is wrong.  But we don’t live in that society.  Therefore, the only thing we can do is push back with everything we have.  Even if that includes pushing back with “religion.”

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3 Comments on “The Breakdown of Political Language”

  1. James G Says:

    Good post, just a few comments. I know that Jefferson is always the example that people use when speaking of the Founding Fathers but remember; Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution. Madison wrote the constitution and he just happens to be my favorite Founding Father; and he wasn’t a deist, he was a Christian (Anglican).

  2. phamilton Says:

    James,

    I am aware that Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution, but shouldn’t the opinions of fathers other than Madison be considered when judging what the Constitution says?

    It would be interesting to see how many of the founding fathers were Christians and how many were deists, though. It would be interesting in turn to see what those Christians thought about the role of religion in public life. It might turn out that I need to modify my second paragraph.

    But alas! Finals week approaches.

  3. James G Says:

    I just re-read my comment and I see that I forgot to paste the other paragraphs of it. Since I didn’t save them they are lost for all time. I didn’t mean to imply in any way that you were not aware that Madison wrote the Constitution. I just wanted to put in a plug for my favorite Founding Father: Madison. It just seems to me that all I hear from people is Jefferson this and Jefferson that, especially when the religious beliefs of the FF gets mentioned. I’m just sticking up for my namesake Madison.

    I totally understand the time-crunch of finals (hope they went well) and since I’m only now checking up on my comment you can see how busy I’ve been. I too would be interested in what the religious affiliation of the FF was. A quick Wikipedia search (I know, not the best reference) gives this short list:
    Madison, Washington, Hamilton, Jay – Anglican
    Jefferson, Paine, Franklin – Deist
    Adams – Unitarian
    Cataloguing what their views on religion and public life were would be a bit harder. I remember one of the FF from Virginia wanted that state to take over control of the Anglican churches there but I can’t remember which one it was. It’s been a long time since I studied the FF.

    As far as which FF’s belief is most pertinent to the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution; personally I would go with the guy who wrote it (Madison) and the chief promoters and explicators of it (i.e. Madison, Hamilton & Jay in The Federalist Papers). Jay was also the first Chief Justice and Madison wrote the Bill of Rights as well. But then again I’m biased in favor of Madison.

    James G


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