Trying to Develop a Political Philosophy

I haven’t written a political post on my blog in a long time.  Well, there was my June post on Herman Cain, but, other than that, there haven’t been that many!  During the last Presidential election, I wrote a lot of political posts, as I commented on each candidate—even during the primaries.  Those who have followed me have probably noticed my movement from being a right-wing conservative to being, well, whatever I am today!  At the present time, I tend to lean towards the Democratic Party.  I find some difficulty writing political posts nowadays because all I can really talk about is why I don’t like the right-wing, and that can get stale pretty fast!  Moreover, during the last Presidential primaries, I could say something that I liked and disliked about each of the candidates, both Republican and Democrat (even Hillary).  These days, however, I can’t stand the vast majority of the Republicans running (even some of the ones I liked in 2008), and Obama, although he strikes me as rather inept, will probably be the one I will vote for.

I think that something I am learning is that elections have consequences.  It’s easy for me to understand, and even to sympathize with, libertarianism as a political philosophy, from the perspective of an amateur analyst of ideas.  But what happens when elements of this philosophy actually have the potential to become national policy?  Take, for example, the budget cuts.  Libertarians are saying that these are not sufficient cuts, but rather are the government choosing not to spend as much as it planned.  But, whatever they are, they’re having an impact on people’s lives.  Students at my institution of learning will receive no subsidized loans this coming year.  There is talk about the roads falling into disrepair.  States will have to raise taxes, if they are forced to assume tasks that were previously supported by federal funding.  Medicare and Medicaid may be cut.  If there are cuts to fat and pork, I’m all for that!  But many of these cuts sound as if they will have profound effects on people’s lives, and not exactly for the better.

Then there is Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who is having a prayer rally for our country.  I was having an online discussion with some Christian conservative friends, and it got me thinking about what my political philosophy is, and why.  A conservative friend wrote that God does not support separation of church and state.  I responded that I don’t want Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann imposing their idea of “biblical values” on America, when their idea of such values is the product of cherry-picking from Scripture.  My impression is that they won’t support laws in the Bible about taking into account the indebted, or supporting the poor with taxation (which, in Old Testament Israel, was a tithe), or the king being responsible for being a shepherd to the poor.  But they’ll oppose abortion and homosexuality, as if those are the only issues that concern God!  I said that I will not support a candidate who acts as if America is like Old Testament Israel.

I can easily point out where I believe that the religious right is flawed and one-sided in its approach to Scripture.  But, as a Christian conservative friend pointed out to me, even the Christian left seeks to impose its will on people who disagree, and it too has a one-sided approach to Scripture.  It may be open to society recognizing gay marriage, and yet it wants to coerce people to pay for social programs for the poor.  What my friend was essentially asking me was this: Why does the Left have a right to impose its ideas and values on society, but Christian conservatives do not?

That’s a fair question.  If I am going to believe that society should help the poor out of a commitment to biblical values, then shouldn’t I also maintain that society should oppose homosexuality—also due to biblical values?  And yet, as I was pointing out, once we allow people to bring their religious beliefs into the public arena—shaping their positions on public policy—what would prevent them from imposing their religious beliefs on others?  Roman Catholics do not believe in contraception, for example.  Would they have a right to impose that idea as law on people who don’t agree?  What is the difference between that and believing that society shouldn’t recognize gay marriage because it goes against the Bible?

My impression was that my friend was saying that majorities have a right to enact their will for society.  I wondered if that amounted to “might makes right”.  Someone else was bringing up the founding fathers and how, even though many of them were deists, their values were shaped by the Bible.  I doubt that every founding father left religion at the door when he sought to develop a conception of how the government should be!  But the founding fathers also had a commitment to freedom—to people being allowed to worship as they pleased, without compulsion to conform to a particular religious dogma.  Were they consistent on this?  Probably not.  There were anti-sodomy laws back then, and there are people nowadays who would probably see those as an expression of a religious opposition to homosexuality.  But the founding fathers, on some level, still did not want religion to restrict people’s freedom in a political capacity.

I was trying to express a consistent political philosophy, even though I was walking around with contradictory ideas in my head.  And what I came up with is this.  First of all, although we are a democracy that values the will of the majority, the will of the majority is not an absolute.  There should be institutions in place that protect minorities, and rights in general.  Although I am more liberal now than I have been in the past, I find that a John Birch Society video illustrating the difference between a republic and a democracy conveys my feelings rather accurately—even though I may take its message in a direction that the John Birchers would not support!  The video mentioned the scenario of a lawman catching a criminal.  Under a democracy, if the majority screams for that criminal’s execution, then the criminal must die!  A republic, however, recognizes the rule of law, which means that the criminal must be tried.  This is why there are liberal activist courts that strike down laws—they believe those laws are violating people’s rights, even if they were approved by a majority of legislators.  This is why even Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, has written opinions that strike down certain local ordinances.  There is something higher than the will of the majority.

Second, people should have a right to do what they choose, unless doing so would directly harm another person.  I support pluralism.  But what if people make choices that create an immoral environment for society, such as view or create Internet pornography?  What if Nazis choose to march through a Jewish neighborhood?  I have a Christian conservative friend who thinks that we as a society should not idolize freedom.  In my opinion, although the slogan of “You can’t legislate morality” has weaknesses (since laws do express some concept of morality), there is a sense in which it is true.  Christian conservatives, for example, may not want people to have sex outside of marriage, but people will do so anyway, and so contraception had might as well be available!  Laws exist to enforce a minimal amount of moral conduct, which is necessary for the security and maintenance of society, but they cannot make people perfect.  Plus, on the issue of freedom, I think that the freedom of people to do things we don’t like is our freedom to do things that others may not like.  In essence, I think that a society should recognize pluralism.  That means recognizing gay marriage, but also the right of conservative Christian religious groups not to perform them.  I tend to oppose, however, places of employment (except for churches) and apartment complexes being free to discriminate against people on account of sexual orientation, for that has to do with people’s livelihoods.

Third, although elements of my second point sound rather libertarian, I do believe in a social safety net.  I think that the government should be compassionate, rather than leaving charity solely to the discretion of individuals.  When people are financially broken on account of our health care system, for instance, that is a problem, and the government should do something to ameliorate it.  I’m open to solutions on how to do this from the right and from the left, but I tend to trust the left more, since it actually tries to do something about health care when it is in power.  On what should compassion be based?  On religion?  Well, for me, it is, in part.  But perhaps there are secular arguments for a compassionate society.  John Rawls asked us to consider how we would fare if we were poor or marginalized or disadvantaged, and to form a society with that in mind.  A society that is “every man for himself” is a sick society, and, eventually, it will collapse.

My political philosophy is not fool-proof, for I’m sure there are areas that need ironed out.  I’ll close by saying this.  Although I do not trust Rick Perry, and I feel he is leading the country in prayer at least partially out of political motives, I do support the idea of praying for my country.  My country does need prayer right now!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Trying to Develop a Political Philosophy

  1. Pingback: John Courtney Murray and Reflections on Religion in the Public Square « James’ Ramblings

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