Life as an Extreme Sport

Politics and Faith in a Pluralistic Society

Archbishop Dolan raised some eyebrows by participating in both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in the last two weeks, something that dovetails nicely with conversations I’ve been having (mostly with myself) over the necessity to reveal religious motivation in political positions.

On the one hand, I think that if someone can make a rational argument in the public sphere to advocate for a position without clearly relying on non-public concepts and beliefs that are developed via their comprehensive doctrineYes, I’m leaning heavily on Rawls here. Should I apologize? Probably. (whether that comprehensive doctrineThis is a kind of important concept for Rawls, since his political concept of justice is set in opposition to these comprehensive views. There’s a good rundown of what Rawls’ idea is here: is religion or utilitarianism or whatever), then go for it – differing belief systems can and do often have overlapping principles. For example, Judaism and Islam have overlapping principles regarding kosher/halal foods, and so can very easily find agreement about how animals should be slaughtered – but if these religious groups wanted society to change to embrace those principles, they would need to present it to the non-Jews/Muslims in a non-religious way.For example, by trying to connect kosher or halal butchering to a lower incidence of transmissible pathogens advocates could make an argument for the health and safety of an entire community. Smulders F, Korteknie F, Wollthuis C. Control of the bacteriological condition of calf brain. 1985. International Journal of Food Microbiology 2(3):169-176. If their appeal succeeds, well — okay. Society listened to the argument for something, agreed, and there ya go.

On the other hand, though, it sort of skeeves me out when people hide their motivation for a goal. For example, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, there’s an on-going debate over a drug given to women when they are pregnant in order to prevent something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which can cause masculinized genitals, urogenitary developmental issues, and so forth.I’m skipping a lot of the details here in order to avoid detracting from the focus here. If you’re curious, please go read the other post. Go read Dreger et al.’s work. It’s important research. However, this is one of those things that you have to treat before you know for certain that the embryo is female, or has CAH. (Note: treatment isn’t a cure, it’s just an attempt to prevent the worst physical ailments of the disease.) This means that women who take the drug generally have already had a daughter or close family member with CAH.

All sounds good and sane, right? Utilizing the public reason and discourse positions advocated by Rawls, I think just about everyone would go “yeah, if you know there’s a strong chance your baby is going to be born with fused labia, or urethra open to the vagina, or a bunch of other issues, popping a pill for 6 weeks seems to make a lot of sense.”

The problem is when you peel back to the non-public reason and realize that one of the reasons that the researchers are advocating for this treatment is because they think it’s medically wrong and abnormal for women to be lesbians, to be interested in masculine jobs like becoming doctors or firefighters or going into businessNimkarn, S., and M.I. New. 2010a. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency: A paradigm for prenatal diagnosis and treatment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1192: 5—11., and that they believe it’s actually a medically diagnosable problem if a woman does not want to be a mother.Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F. 1999. What causes low rates of child-bearing in congenital adrenal hyperplasia? The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 84(6): 1844—1847.

By presenting only a fraction of their beliefs to the public sphere, these researchers are able to deceive people into agreeing with something that I think/hope most people would not actually agree to or with, if they knew the entire story.

While this is largely a secular example, unfortunately this behavior does extend to religious beliefs and motivations; people are driven to create laws that reflect the morality and beliefs that they adhere to (see: opposition to gay and lesbian rights, the issue of abortion, birth control access, and just about every other social issue of the current election). Trying to appeal to public reason, many conservative Republican politicians, as well as religious voices, rely on arguing for smaller businesses, less government oversight, and so on, in order to justify their disinclination for support of these social issues. In theory, this is the correct move — appealing to arguments that are separate from their comprehensive doctrine, in an effort to appeal to a pluralistic society. However, it doesn’t take much to strip back to the religious motivations for these positions (often all it takes is an interview on Fox News).

So while I can see the benefit in being able to portray beliefs across comprehensive theories in a pluralistic society, there’s an element of truthfulness missing that I think forms a fatal flaw in the entire thing.

Practically speaking, that flaw — that inherent lack of open truthfulness — is what drives me away from Rawls’ position. And perhaps this is a reflection of my tendency to ask “why” — why do you hold your position? What makes this a reasonable thing for you? Can you show me science? What forms the foundation that your argument rests on? It seems like Rawls isn’t interested in the foundation so long as the public face is convincing. These seems a bit like an Old West backdrop on a Hollywood backlot, though — put up the pretty front and hope no one knocks the saloon down during filming.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if a bunch of diverse opinions all end up at the same final point; people have different life experiences, cultures, and so on. While one person may be motivated by a strong sense of justice, another may be motivated by compassion and a third by pragmatism. The important thing there is that, while their paths may have been different to the conclusion of say, Civil Rights, they all reached the same goal in the end. But at other times, the path taken to reach the conclusion is as, if not more, important as the conclusion itself.

In the realm of public discourse, people should be able to examine the foundations a position relies upon, regardless of if that foundation rests on religion, flawed logic, science, spaghetti or anything else between.

This was written, in part, for the Faith and Science Synchroblog.
It was also written because I told a certain instigator I would.

One comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Kelly. While my reasons for much of what I believe politically are religious – or more specifically, based on my faith – I try to be upfront and candid with those reasons.

    Very much appreciate this post. Thanks.

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