Monday, 22 August 2011

Silencing the Moral Discourse in Politics

Deputy M. Tadier: Are there any Christians in this Assembly, because I came in this morning listening to people mouthing the Lord's Prayer?...... (speech follows)

The Deputy Bailiff: Deputy, I did not want to interrupt you in the course of your speech - you clearly feel passionately - but you used earlier in your speech the expression that Members were "mouthing" the Lord's Prayer. Could you please explain the sense in which you used that expression because if you were meaning to imply that Members did not intend what they were saying, I think most Members would find that very objectionable.

Philip Ozouf: Deputy Tadier spoke about morality and the church and the Lord's Prayer. I have to say as a politician, I believe in a separation of the church and State. I am sorry if that is unpopular but I have never used Bible quotes and I have never used anything in relation to the issues of using selectively Bible quotes to make any political points and I do not propose to do so. I keep my own views to myself and I am not going to present any sort of particular moral religious issues on that.

These snippets from the last session of the States in July bring an interesting question to the forefront. How do moral and religious views interact with the States? It is a curious paradox, of course, that the States sessions begin with the Lord's Prayer, led by the Dean of Jersey, and somehow Philip Ozouf does not see this as contradicting the principle which he endorses. If it has no meaning to the Assembly, or should have no implications for the political debate which follows, what is the point of it being there? On the basis of this principle, it has been effectively relegated to a piece of empty ceremonial, because what follows can not take any account of the meaning in the words. In fact Deputy Daniel Wimberley argued that there should be a link between the Lord's Prayer and the States debates, and principles of justice and fairness should not be left out of the deliberations:

Following on from Deputy Tadier's mention of the Lord's Prayer that we all say every morning and in the preparatory prayer, we say, à la gloire de ton saint nom so the question is what glorifies God? I have a copy here of the Poverty and Justice Bible which is published by Christian Aid, I think, and they highlight all the references to justice or fairness in orange. As someone has said - I cannot remember who - if you cut out all the references to justice and fairness in the Bible, then the thing falls apart quite literally, it just falls apart.

But what exactly does it mean to separate church from States?

The philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that the "separation of Church and State", with the implications that implies for moral arguments, promises a neutrality that is not possible. This is because people have core values, and some regard the core values not as chosen, but as given because of their religious beliefs. Alasdair MacIntyre, asked about his Catholicism, replied that: ""I believe what I am taught to believe by God, through the Church. And, when God speaks, there is nothing to do but to obey or disobey. I don't know in what other way one could be a Roman Catholic."

Now by excluding religious beliefs from political debate, as Senator Ozouf wishes to do, means that these beliefs become submerged, as a hidden agenda, and other arguments have to be adduced to support them. But that is not necessarily a good thing: if the other arguments are exposed as fallacious, the person arguing in this fashion will change to another set of arguments, because the arguments are functioning on a surface level, and the debate about the real issues is concealed, so that in fact, members, are in fact being insincere because of the constraints imposed on them by this position. Brent Picket, from the University of Colorado, explains how damaging this can be:

Sandel presents human beings as creatures for whom moral goods and meanings are tremendously important. We look to our civic life to embody shared meanings. A failure to vest it with that meaning creates two dangers. One is that citizens will forsake the public realm since they find that it contributes little to their lives. Hence the sophisticated form of argument, by fastidiously trying to avoid the language of the good (even while covertly smuggling in a particular conception of the good), impoverishes the public realm, fostering political apathy and withdrawal. The version of liberalism by which we live thus weakens our capacity for self-rule. Also, when various conceptions of the good life are taken to be expressions of mere choice, the motivation to discuss and debate alternative conceptions is lost.

But the strategy of arguing that measures will improve the economy, and should be accepted primarily on those grounds, and removing the ethical dimension from debate, and the practice linked to that of "talking up the economy" rather than being realistic (e.g. "Jersey's economic rating would be AAA plus") leads to disengagement of a cynical electorate, who don't believe the "talking up" - and that itself, of course, is not value free. As Paula Thelwell observed of Philip Ozouf's statements:

While the world's economies are teetering on the brink of disaster and as political leaders cancel holidays or hurry home to avert national crises, we are in 'robust health' and in good enough shape to withstand any fallout. Tell that to the growing number of unemployed, and the alarmingly increasing sections of our community who are finding it very hard to make ends meet while those more fortunate enjoy all the luxuries 'fat cat' salaries can buy.

As Bishop N.T. Wright comments:

Our politicians have to go on promising us Utopia, because if they didn't the press would pillory them; but this essentially modernist dream, of socially engineered progress leading to Paradise, sits increasingly uncomfortably with our postmodern electorate, trained now in the high arts of cynicism, of 'Yeah, yeah' and 'Whatever'.

Of course, we do not want the Church imposing religious values in a theocratic rule. That is the real reason for a "separation of Church and States", that the State should not tell people how they should believe. History shows us the dangers of that, and how Christianity after Constantine became the "established Church" of the Empire, so that political decrees outlawed Pagan beliefs. Indeed, Christians themselves have seen how damaging that was. As the Methodist Thomas Coke put it:

No sooner did Constantine the Great ascend the throne of the Empire, and profess himself a Christian, but his Religion became the established one of the Empire. And now, the pernicious influence of that bane of truth and holiness, a national Church, began to pervade the Christian world. . . . And now the great, and the rich, and the wise after the flesh . . . pressed into the visible Church, which they treated as a mere Leviathan, . . . to frighten the vulgar,- the mere tool and stalking-horse of sinister and ambitious men.

The American Constitution endorsed this kind of separation when it stated that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But what it doesn't do is to say that religious and moral values shall play no part in political discourse. Stephen L. Carter of the Yale Law School comments that:

If the separation of church and state is understood as a doctrine prohibiting the government from endorsing a religion's claims or penalizing or encouraging membership, it is difficult to understand why that separation must go further and actually seek to exclude from the public square those to whom religion is important in forming their personal moral consciences.

So what happens for for many people the notion persists that "separation of church and state" inevitably requires the privatization of religion and a denial of its prophetic role in society. But the economic motivation is not value free, there are three major consequences.

Firstly, economic arguments contain embedded values, and by not unpicking those values, and engaging in a debate with on values, those values are not challenged, and the debate is flattened into one on how effective or efficient a particular strategy might be, which gives a primacy to those economic values, and ignores or subordinates the ethical debate on matters of principle, almost completely reversing the tradition enshrined in classical philosophy where the debate on principles comes first. As the Buddhist P.A. Payutto has noted:

Economists look at just one short phase of the natural causal process and single out the part that interests them, ignoring the wider ramifications. Thus, modern economists take no account of the ethical consequences of economic activity

Secondly, where individuals do debate on matters that are underpinned by their own religious or ethical values, because these are bracketed out of the debate, all kinds of other arguments are brought to the forefront to make their case, but as those are not core arguments, no real debate is taking place. It is like the creationists in America who grab any scientific argument (often torn out of context) in order to argue their case, where their real agenda remains off the political map.

Thirdly, the prophetic voice is silenced. How could Martin Luther King have made his case against racial segregation and against economic segregation if he had been bound hand and foot by an ideology which forbade all such debate in the public sphere? There is a place for righteous indignation, and for the call for values of justice and fairness to be given an equal place in the public debate:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." (Martin Luther King)

Justice, Michael Sandel
Sandel, Ontology, and Advocacy, Brent L. Pickett
The Separation of Church and Self, Steven Young, 1992
God and Government, NT Wright, 2010
Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place, Ven. P. A. Payutto


Alane Wallace said...

You make some good points that I haven't heard before in an old argument. It's good to see moral values defended in the church vs. the state debate without endorsing or rejecting any specific religion, but allowing for sensible acceptance that we cannot deny the influence of these values in every aspect of our lives.

Richard Syvret said...

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