Sunday, 21 September 2008

Proposition 8, Mormons and John Donne

California is in the middle of a constitutional battle over the issue of same-sex marriage, with liberals asserting that they have every right to do as they please in this matter without let or hindrance and conservatives insisting that everyone has the right to do it their way. The liberal argument is a familiar one – the greatest degree of freedom (read licence) with the least amount of interference from any particular (read religious) viewpoint. The conservative argument is as familiar – the greatest degree of responsibility for the greatest number of people to create the widest possible security for society by maintaining the Christian foundations on which that society was established.

I am not a resident of California, neither am I American so my interest in this issue has been what you might call concern from a distance. As a Christian of the conservative variety my sympathies lie with those who wish to strengthen Christian values. What has caught my attention, however, is the way the argument is made on the liberal side and I think it illustrates a fundamental and dangerous flaw in the thinking of those arguing the liberal cause.

The case, as I understand it, is that there are those who wish to enter into law the right of individuals to marry, if they choose, someone of the same gender. Opposed to this are those who wish to enter into law something called proposition 8, a fourteen word amendment to the state constitution to include the words, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” On a blog entitled Daily Mendacity it is argued that the Mormons, who are busy advocating proposition 8, are trying to change the constitution to reflect Mormon doctrine. The writer goes on to argue:

“To be very clear - if a gay couple weds in the United Church of Christ it does not affect Mormon doctrine in any way.But they are determined to use our state constitutions to prevent the UCC from following their beliefs.”

Of course, we all know that religion is a hot topic in America, what with the militant idea of the separation of church and state (originally intended to separate the state from the church, not the church from the state), the preoccupation with private morality and the insistence that public leaders show themselves believing something even if they privately harbour doubts. The thing that has caught my attention, however, is not a religious so much as a philosophical problem, and one that shows up the inherent weakness of every liberal argument I have ever heard.

No Man is an Island

First there is the notion that “believers” of any stripe must not be allowed to bring their faith informed views into the public square where all the great issues are debated, while those with no particular faith may bring forward any idea that suits them however it is informed or arrived at. It amounts to insisting that a person must vote with their conscience so long as their conscience isn’t informed in church, in which case – what? It is a view that has people of a liberal bent free to lobby canvas and promote while those of a religious bent are denied the same privilege. It appears that “One nation under God” cannot countenance the views of those who trust the God under which that nation prospers.

Then there is the idea that what people in one part of society do need not have an effect on what those elsewhere in society experience. But, surely, that is what the liberal is complaining about, i.e. if the conservative argument holds sway it will impact others because whatever is passed into law is binding on everyone. John Donne famously wrote:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The naked truth is that, whether liberal or conservative, any view that holds sway over such an important issue will impact everyone. When people debate such things they are not arguing over private morality, or any individual group’s rights but over what sort of society everyone wishes to live in. All have an interest and perhaps one of the great complaints in the political arena today is that not enough people engage with the issues that potentially impact them. Those who do so engage will find people of like mind and work together to an end common to those of that particular view. It is not a question of whether that view should be heard but whether it is heard and found to be compelling enough to influence others.

If the conservative view wins then the consequences are perhaps more immediate and obvious in that the law will immediately have a proscribing effect. But if the liberal view prevails, while the effect on a wider society may not be as immediate, make no mistake it will prove as far-reaching and ultimately more insidious, its influence being felt by many more people than the island of liberalism envisioned by the blogger. Ideas know no borders and “the madness of crowds” is contagious.

Totalitarians Need Not Apply

The blogger goes on to wave at us the usual bogeyman of religious totalitarianism:

“What the church is doing is within the law, but I think that it also shows how vulnerable we have become to a theocracy as oppressive as those Islamic Republics we claim to deplore and how little regard we have for human rights when religions enter the mix.”

The irony here is that the human rights which he is so anxious to protect are founded on Christian values and, far from being ancillary to the main business of life, religion is integral to people’s lives as well as to the communities in which they live. It is not a question of whether religion is permitted a place but whether it takes its place in a way that recognises the high values common to a democratic society. Perhaps we need to deal with the bias that highlights religion as the totalitarian threat we should concern ourselves with when history teaches us that totalitarianism is the product of wrong thinking not particularly religious thinking. As though to prove the point the great totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, surely the bloodiest century in history, were secular. Whether an ideology wins adherents and wields influence depends on how society engages with ideas, religious or secular, and it is quite wrong and misleading to suggest that secular thought is somehow better than religious.


Mormons, Baptists, Presbyterians etc, are not inhabitants of individual island communities, for each is part of the continent. In the same way, liberals do not inhabit islands of private morality in which they can do as they please with no thought for the consequences on a wider society. Of course, it is the ambition of liberals to spread the message of liberalism as much as any other ideologues and by any means. The conservative, the Christian wishes to be heard above the cacophony in the marketplace of ideas while the liberal wishes to dictate who is allowed a voice in the public square before the argument begins. Totalitarianism indeed! It was once considered a virtue to declare, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it”. This is no longer the case as the liberal declares, “I don’t agree with what you say and I will go to any lengths to deny you the right to say it.”

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