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Destructive Political Discussions: ‘Shibboleths’, and Moral/Religious Imperatives

April 27, 2009

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

-Barack Obama

My sister sent me this great quote (she originally sent it without identifying who said it, which was a good way to challenge my thinking on the thoughts presented, rather than the speaker. Big props for this! Coincidentally, this is why I refer to Obama as, ‘the speaker,’ below.), and it has inspired a rather lengthy discussion between us on some of the pitfalls that happen when religious or moral imperatives and politics intertwine.

Before I say anything, ‘intertwined,’ must be defined as I am using it here. I do not mean when people allow religious convictions to inform their decisions on political matters. Being a Christian myself, I certainly hold many philosophical beliefs that are based on a Christian view of existence. What I  mean by the phrase, ‘intertwined,’ is when a certain political opinion is discussed or argued only from a religious imperative. Here would be a Christian example:

“I support policy X, because the Bible says X.”

So with that definition in mind, here are some of my thoughts on this topic as I mulled over the quote above (this is slightly edited for clarity and relevance.):

I think the speaker is mostly correct here – though, there are many aspects to this idea that I think need to be expanded.

For one thing – as the speaker starts out, I would argue (and this might just be a minor point of linguistics) that it isn’t necessarily Democracy that depends on this view, but Liberty in general – and religious liberty to be specific. In fact – this very issue of freedom of religion, may be one of the reasons that America is not a strict democracy (based on the will of the majority of the people), and rather a constitutional democratic-republic (“the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.'” -John Adams).

Other than that though – I think the point the speaker is making is a valid one. Like I said above though, there are many things to consider when discussing this topic. For instance – this problem seems mostly leveled at the ‘Religious Right’ (I use quotes because I think this label makes a one-size-fits-all boogy-man out of the ‘religious right’ and is unhelpful and unfair to rational people of faith). In other words, ultra-conservative people who base political decisions solely on ‘Because the Bible says…’. I don’t deny that these people exist, and I think that this mentality, as the speaker suggests, is dangerous, and I would add, politically immature. Moral and religious imperatives negate argument, discussion, and disagreement. You aren’t just wrong if you disagree, you are evil. This is completely destructive to our political discourse in America.

In a way – I think that this view (along with Islamism and 9/11) has spawned a lot of the reactionary New Atheist stuff. They see one ultimate result of the religious imperative: death for those who disagree. On some level, I can actually relate and respect someone like Christopher Hitchens who views that type of religion as a threat, as it is a threat to liberty – but unfortunately, I feel Hitchens paints with too broad a brush, seeing all religion as a threat.

I agree with the speaker that people of religious faith must present their arguments upon the idea of compromise, common reality, and religious freedom. Many people argue that America’s philosophy of government was founded on a judeo-christian world view, and I agree. But ‘world view‘ (or metaphysic), is not the same thing as religion. I am actually thankful that Jefferson and Franklin were Deists – because they clearly understood that a free and civil society required freedom of religion, and not adherence to one particular faith.

In fact – I think that most religious people should take their cue from the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson introduces the argument – then says “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” and presents a long list of grievances that any rational person of any belief could attest to. Though he appeals to a higher power (endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable Rights, etc…), nowhere does he say, simply, “because God said…”

In my view, Religious people must make their arguments based on “a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind,” as well as facts and evidence (more props to John Adams ;). I think that if they did this, people in opposition wouldn’t feel so threatened and be so vocal about, “separation of church and state.”

With all that in mind, I don’t think this problem is something unique to conservative evangelicals or the ‘religious right’, though it is usually talked about this way. In my opinion, this is because the loudest voices, are always the most radical – and thus – get the most attention. You hear about abortion and gay rights all the time, but consider that many issues, whether left or right, are presented with a similar religious, or moral imperative.

As I mentioned above, the reason the moral imperative is used is to negate argument and discussion. I recently got an email about how I should sign a petition for socialized health care, which was explained because it’s something Jesus would be for. How could I possibly be a “good person” (whatever that means) and oppose something Jesus was supposedly for? Also – note how I’m now arguing against Jesus, not a socialized medical policy.

Just like the speaker said, basing our public policy on uncompromising religious and moral imperatives is ridiculous. The greatest thing I love about America is the diversity of it’s peoples, beliefs, cultures – and yet the unity we share in freedom.

The destructive forces are not those with whom we personally disagree, but those, either left or right, who don’t allow space for disagreement.

John Adams has another great quote concerning this:

“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.”

A mature political argument must take this idea into account. If we, as people of faith, argue politics, “because God says…” we are arguing in the exact same spirit as the radical jihad: against religious freedom.

On the other hand, If we believe our God is rational (In fact – I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that God is the supreme rational being, from whom we get our ability to reason- therefore, I don’t simply believe God arbitrarily “pick things as sin” without a logical reason), then there should exist reasonable non-religious methods to form arguments.

==end original thoughts==

So the point is not that Religion and Politics are totally incompatible. Rather, it is about the way some people use religion, or moral imperatives to relate political issues. When I wrote about abortion, (All Conservatives are Actually Pro-Choice), I didn’t need to point to specific Biblical scripture to make my argument. Rather, I tried to present a rational case for my point of view with, “a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.” Perhaps I failed to do this, but this was how I attempted to frame my argument.

Expanding beyond Religion

Few things blind human beings to the actual consequences of what they are doing like a heady feeling of self-righteousness during a crusade to smite the wicked and rescue the downtrodden.

– Thomas Sowell

As I mentioned in the thoughts above, Religion isn’t the only realm from which we get destructive  uncompromising moral imperatives. Here is a great example:

“I believe this legislation has the moral significance equivalent to that of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s.”

And just what issue is so significant that it is being compared to civil rights here? This was a quote from Al Gore on climate change Cap & Trade legislation.

So what exactly does climate change legislation aimed at setting a cap on company’s “greenhouse gas emissions,” have to do with civil rights? Nothing, of course. Nothing besides subtly equating anyone who doesn’t think Cap and Trade is a prudent course of action – as possibly immoral or opposed to civil rights.

It isn’t possible to have a realistic, rational, or fair discussion of climate change or any related legislation when one side talks about it in terms of ‘moral significance’ and ‘civil rights’. As soon as the moral imperative is introduced, reasonable discussions and arguments are over.

This brings us to the idea of the ‘Shibboleth‘:

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”

If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.'” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim.

Judges 12:5-6

Again, Thomas Sowell explains this concept far more eloquently than I could (emphasis mine):

…shibboleths explain a lot about what is said and done in politics today.

Back in Biblical times, the word “shibboleth” was used as a password, because people from one side could say it easily and their enemies couldn’t. It identified who you were and which side you were on.

Today, many things that are said and done in our political life serve that same purpose — and often make no sense otherwise. When people say that they are for “diversity” or gun control or campaign finance reform, they are declaring themselves to be on one side in the political wars. In their own eyes, their position on such issues identify them as one of the good, caring and compassionate people.

What political shibboleths do is transform questions about facts, causation and evidence into questions about personal identity and moral worth. Shibboleths are also a great labor-saving device. You don’t need to find out what the actual consequences of affirmative action have been if being for “diversity” serves the purpose of identifying you as one of those good people who care about racial justice and the advancement of the disadvantaged.

You don’t have to find out what actually happens when there are more relaxed or more stringent gun control laws, if you only need to show that you are on the side of the angels. How many lives have actually been lost under one policy versus the other is a factual question whose answer you need not bother learning.

Mere facts cannot compete with shibboleths when it comes to making people feel good. Moreover, shibboleths keep off the agenda the painful question of how dangerous it is to have policies which impact millions of human beings without a thorough knowledge of the hard facts needed to understand just what that impact has actually been. Shibboleths are the life blood of the media. Stories which seem to support the side of the angels are trumpeted from coast to coast, while stories which support the other side are either downplayed or ignored altogether.

For example, vicious crimes committed by white people against black people are big news because these stories fit the shibboleths which establish the moral identity of the journalists who tell these stories. Vicious crimes committed by blacks against whites are not big news because these stories undermine the shibboleths — or, as it is phrased, “feed stereotypes.” Ditto with stories about the homeless, homosexuals and others favored by current shibboleths.

Shibboleths are dangerous, not only because they mobilize political support for policies that most of the supporters have not thought through, but also because these badges of identity make it harder to reverse those policies when they turn out to be disastrous. When admitting a mistake means renouncing one’s identity as one of “us” and lining up with a demonized “them,” do not expect as many people to do it as if all that was involved was the question whether policy A produces better results than policy B.

Those who strain for moral equivalence — itself one of the shibboleths of our time — may assume that shibboleths are part of all political or ideological positions. But, for at least two centuries, shibboleths have been at the heart of the ideology of the left, whether moderate left or radical left.

Assumptions of being more concerned, caring and compassionate than their opponents can be found on the left from Godwin and Condorcet in the 18th century to a whole galaxy of liberal-left journalists, academics, organizations and movements today. But there were no such assumptions in the writings of Adam Smith in the 18th century or in those of Milton Friedman today. It was enough for them to say that their opponents were mistaken and their policies harmful — and why.

What we need are more factual arguments and counter-arguments. With shibboleths, we are flying blind into the future, through mountains of hard facts that are being ignored when they contradict the vision that gives many people their sense of self-worth.

Whether you see yourself as politically right, left, or center – religious or non-religious – it is important, as we move forward as a country, to stop framing our arguments inside religious/moral imperatives and or shibboleths. These destroy rational discussions on political ideas and programs because they eliminate the ability of either party to disagree. Even worse – rather than simply viewing the opposition as incorrect, they are viewed as evil.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elisha Arlan permalink
    April 28, 2009 12:52 am

    Wow, like I said, pretty amazing post. I guess my only feedback comes from the issue of “The Bible says…”You were correct that our society is slowly (or rapidly depending on your point of view) forgetting about the “Republic” in our Declaration. The ‘rules’ if you will, being based on a set of principles founded within the pages of scripture. Freedom of Religion was to agree that there was indeed a Creator but, that there should be no preference given to one sect of religion over another as it dealt with the US Congress ([it] shall make no law….)

    However, the issues we face today deal with an attack against those ‘rules’ which make up the Republic of our democracy. Since it’s being challenged more aggressively today than ever before, I believe it has become necessary to proclaim why the Republic was/is founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It’s the foundation from the “Creator” it is in reference to. Without “The Bible says…” or “The Creator says…” we fall back on the only available standard of accountability left: the Democracy. And in a Democracy, majority rules. And if majority rules and the rules are changed to for example, “murder is OK as long as 3 witnesses say they deserved it” then who’s to challenge this rule as immoral? On what grounds or on who’s authority is ANY action wrong in spite of the majority thinking otherwise?

    Back in the days of the Declaration of Independence, the issue wasn’t God or no God. It was which God or which way to worship God, thus the usage of the term “Creator”. I’m not saying Darwinism or Atheist didn’t exist… I’m saying as it was for America, a small minority construct. The founders were willing to include such views in making the American society anyway. There was no requirement for citizens to claim there was a Creator but, according to Thomas Paine, they believed in order for one to hold public office, there should be an acknowledgment by a candidate of such a Creator. We’ve notice over several decades as the belief in a Creator has declined, the need for “displaying” the Republic of that belief increased. “One Nation Under God”, “In God We Trust”, “So Help Me God” etc.

    These terms re-established an equality of principles, guidelines & laws that all men would adhere to. Not because one group of people made it legal for one, while making it illegal for another… no these rules were to be governed by the Creator so that no man could claim bias and that all men had the basic understanding by which these rules existed from scripture or inspired there of.

    I realize there’s more to this and I’m focused only on one aspect of it. We do have radical believers out there who are so misguided that they violate the very belief they claim to defend. Jesus never hated anyone, yet people in the name of Jesus say and do pretty hateful things. They mean well I think. We’re living in more & more frustrating times. It’s unfortunate that politics points this image only on the right or Republicans but, I think there’s a reason Jesus avoided being a politician. That’s not to say he wasn’t political. :-) Since the world is changing, I believe those who proclaim the Republic over Democracy, Jesus over active judiciaries, will appear to be more radical by definition of how far from the Creator we have drifted.

    Thanks for allowing me to share. I appreciate all you’re doing to bring sanity to an insane world. :-)


  1. The End of Western Civilization: America Alone, by Mark Steyn « Appeal To Heaven

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