While theists on the political right have been regular contenders in battles over public policy, those on the political left have recently flexed their muscles. First, there was the letter from progressive Catholics chastising fellow Catholic and Congressman John Boehner for pushing a budget that would cut some social welfare programs. And later, some liberal Christians decried fellow Christian and Congressman Paul Ryan for drawing inspiration from atheist pro-capitalist Ayn Rand. These Christians on the left argued that Boehner and Ryan were abandoning Jesus’s teachings on protecting the poor and the weak. The infighting has recalled to the fore a question that had been floating around in my head for a while now: how do theists decide which of their alleged objective moral duties and commands to make public policy, i.e., to impose on everyone?
On one level, it’s strange there’s even a question about this in the first place. Shouldn’t every alleged divine dictate, no matter how trivial, automatically be a civil or criminal law? They are, after all, supposed to be objective rules, adherence to which is not limited merely to believers, but mandatory for everyone. Instead, theists pick and choose, seemingly at random:
Gay marriage? No way! Divorce? No problem.
Abortion? Life is sacrosanct! Adultery? Live and let live.
Theft? God’s Word prohibits it! Keeping the Sabbath? God’s Word..! Uhhh..oh, nevermind…
To make matters even more confusing, theists consistently revise what commands they think should be codified in law. What was once vigorously outlawed by theists as an unforgiveable affront to God’s Holy Word, punishable by such tortuous means as tongue impalement with a hot iron, is today not only legal but routinely engaged in by theists to boot.
The historical contingency of what’s supposed to be timeless morality is slightly less bizarre than the unresolved disagreement over just what that timeless morality is in the first place. Can you use contraception? Some say yes, some say no. Drink alcohol? Some say yes, some say no. Have multiple wives? Again, some say yes, some say no. Never in the entire history of theism has there been agreement on what is moral and what is not. And what agreement there is has often been achieved through overwhelming force rather than voluntary acquiescence.
With all this persistent moral divisiveness and befuddlement, you’d think the reasonable thing for theists to do is keep their morality out of the public sphere altogether, or at least with only deep reluctance turn to scriptures when promoting it in public policy. But “reason” and “theism” are like oil and water – ne’er the twain shall meet – so instead many shamelessly continue to insist on the primacy of whatever divine command they’ve happened to pull out of the scriptural hat.
I once had a conversation with a Christian who saw no problem with this practice. Christians, he said, oppose murder and theft based on biblical dictates, and no one has a problem with that. So why should anyone have a problem when they oppose, say, gay marriage on the same grounds? Objections to promoting one’s religious convictions in the public sphere are really a red herring; religion isn’t really the issue.
As I explained to this Christian (in a post which he deleted), things like theft and murder are violations of liberty, which is independent of religion. Because one’s religious views happen to align with the preservation of liberty in this or that case does not make them synonymous, nor does it mean one’s religion is the font of rights and responsibilities applicable to all. Such positions subvert liberty, and that’s what’s being objected to.
The ironic thing is, this is the same defense most theists employ against the imposition of other theists’ supposed divine dictates. But such opposition is hypocritical. If you grant yourself the right to impose your religion on others, in a democracy, you’ve granted it to all – and abdicated any grounds to object.
My advice to theists is to keep your religious morality to yourself. Your efforts at imposing them are wildly inconsistent, which undermines both their authority and alleged objectivity. If that isn’t sufficient reason, then remember: the sword you wield to force others to follow your morality can just as easily be wielded by someone else to force you to follow theirs.