by Micah Tillman
An acquaintance recently told me her British countrymen find the American concentration on candidates’ religion shocking. Why is it appropriate to make Romney’s or Huckabee’s or Obama’s faith an issue?
I wanted to respond, “Come talk to me when you Brits finally end state-sponsored religion.” But that would’ve been rude. And I could see her point.
In the country where “separation of church and state” was coined, questioning a candidate’s faith does seem puzzling. But when our politicians want to fix many issues precisely because they are “moral” (e.g., global warming, health insurance, abortion, gay marriage), making religion a political issue seems almost natural. If it’s okay to legislate morality, why not base our votes on faith?
What worries Americans is not losing the religion/politics distinction through asking candidates about their faith — it’s losing the personal/political distinction through legislating morality. Our tradition (whether rightly or wrongly) treats both morality and religion as “private” issues, and relegates government to what is “public.” But if it’s becoming government’s job to take on moral issues, then the distinction between private and public seems to be disappearing.
What We Believe About the Distinctions
I’ve begun to wonder, however, whether the distinctions we appear to be losing were ever consistently articulated or practiced in the first place. If they weren’t, then they can’t really be collapsing. Perhaps the distinctions have always been more-or-less collapsed, belonging more to our mythic past than to our actual history. Students may one day learn about “the American Political Distinctions” (“public/private,” “political/moral,” etc.) alongside the Ancient Greek, Roman, Nordic, or Babylonian deities.
If, however, those distinctions are still worth believing in, it’s time we believers articulate exactly what our creed is. Let the following be an initial attempt:
(1) that every society consists of persons divided into two groups: those who are in the government (the ‘politicians’) and those who are not (the ‘citizens’);
(2) that ‘issues,’ ‘consent,’ and ‘authority’ should be defined as follows:
(a) the things about which persons make decisions are ‘issues,’
(b) to go along with a decision someone else has made is to ‘consent’ to that decision,
(c) to consent to a decision is to take (or follow) the maker of that decision as your ‘authority’;
(3) that citizens must take the politicians as their authority on some issues, but not on others:
(a) it is (physically) impossible for politicians to make every one of every citizen’s decisions for him or her, so there will always be some issues — no matter how “small” — on which politicians have not been able to provide a decision for the citizens,
(b) therefore, there will always be issues on which citizens must choose their authorities for themselves (or reject authorities altogether);
(4) that the kind of issue an issue is depends on the kind of authority that is followed on that issue:
(a) the issues about which citizens must take the politicians as their authority are ‘political,’
(b) the issues about which citizens do not have to take the politicians as their authority are ‘personal’:
(i) citizens may follow moral or religious (etc.) authorities on personal issues,
(ii) the personal issues on which citizens follow moral or religious authorities become, respectively, ‘moral’ and ‘religious’;
(5) that the role of politician is to fill the need created by a decision — which we will call ‘original,’ in the sense of logical (not temporal) priority — that some issues should be decided by politicians (i.e., that some issues should be ‘political’):
(a) in other words, it is the role of politicians to make a specific set of first-order decisions (decisions about issues), and it is the role of government-creators to make a second-order decision (a decision about decisions):
(i) the first-order decisions which it is a politician’s role to make are those about the issues which the ‘original,’ second-order decision — which generates the politician’s role (through generating the need for politicians) — made (potentially) political,
(ii) we say, ‘potentially political’ because an issue doesn’t become actually political until politicians are actually taken as the authority on that issue,
(b) therefore, the issue of which issues should be political is one which every politician encounters as having already been decided, and it is a logical condition of their becoming politicians that they consent to this decision:
(i) in other words, to be a politician is to play the role of politician, and that role is generated by the ‘original decision’ that specific issues should be decided by politicians,
(ii) therefore, to not make decisions about the issues which it is the politician’s role to make decisions about, or to make decisions about issues which it is not the politician’s role to make decisions about, is to not play the role of politician, and therefore to not be a politician,
(c) it is a logical impossibility for a person, through carrying out the role of politician (i.e., making first-order decisions), to change the second-order decision which generates that role:
(i) therefore, the politician’s role cannot be changed through making laws (first-order decisions about issues),
(ii) therefore, the politician’s role does not include changing the politician’s role,
(iii) therefore, if a politician attempts to change the politician’s role, she or he is not doing so as a politician, and therefore cannot appeal to his or her authority as a politician as justification for doing so,
(6) that politicians cannot legislate morality (i.e., make laws about moral issues) specifically, nor make laws about personal issues generally:
(a) such ‘laws’ are lies, not laws:
(i) for a politician to propose a law about an issue which the ‘original decision’ does not make (potentially) political (i.e., a ‘personal issue’) is for that politician to lie about the role of politician, and therefore about the ‘original decision’ which generates the role of politician,
(ii) such a law, then, is the decision of the politician qua person, not qua politician, and therefore is a personal decision, not a law,
(b) and such laws must be lies, because they are attempts to do the impossible:
(i) for such a law to not be a lie, it would have to have the power to change the issues included in the ‘original decision,’ simply by being passed,
(ii) but it is logically impossible for a law to alter the ‘original decision,’ because first-order decisions cannot alter second-order decisions,
(7) that there is a distinction between personal and political issues in general, and moral and political issues specifically, whether or not politics involves (personal) morality:
(a) even though the ‘original decision’ by a government-creator most likely involves moral reasoning (i.e., reasoning about what is ‘good,’ ‘right,’ or ‘best’), and every decision by a politician most likely involves similar reasoning, none of those issues about which politicians decide (as politicians) is moral,
(b) this is because the authority which a citizen must follow on such issues is the politician, so those issues are political (after all, the kind of authority which is followed on an issue makes the issue the kind of issue it is),
(c) and since not all issues can be political, there are always issues which are personal, and therefore there are always issues which can be moral.”
It would require an entire book, no doubt — devoting a chapter to each of the seven clauses — to fully flesh out this “creed.” I’d have to show, for instance, how the US Constitution relates to talk of “original decisions,” and how such talk differs from Social Contract Theory. But hopefully the outline above has made the following clear:
The political/moral distinction seems to have been lost in part because we confuse it with the politics/morality distinction. You cannot separate politics and morality — but you cannot eliminate the fact that there is a distinction between political and moral issues either. Once this confusion is cleared up, you see that the political/moral distinction can never be lost, even if politicians want it to be.
Whatever our European comrades think about religion in American politics, therefore, it is the attempt of politicians to legislate morality (or to make laws about personal issues) that is the real problem. What is a country to do when its politicians misrepresent their own roles either due to ignorance or power-lust?
Beside that issue, it doesn’t seem worth getting worked up over the fact that we citizens think we can use the decisions a candidate consents to in following a religion to predict the kind of decisions that candidate will make in office.
Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. His blog can be found at: http://micahtillman.com/.