Friday, October 15, 2004

A Paradox of Faith 

In both of the last two debates questions turned to the matter of religion and faith. While important to most Americans, these two words, in a political context, often make some uncomfortable. I think I am not alone when I say that President Bush, a man of open and acknowleged faith, was more comfortable and at ease addressing this personal matter then Senator Kerry was. I do not imply by this that Kerry himself is in any way uncomfortable about his religious beliefs, but rather that Bush is almost certainly more comfortable talking about his. I did, however, note what could be called almost a Paradox of Faith inherent in Kerry's comments, a paradox that often is manifested as an accepted discontinuity in the Left's perception of American politics.

When addressing the issue of abortion in St. Louis, Kerry made a point of saying that he could not legislate what, for him, was a matter of faith. This is a position and belief frequently expressed, not only in the matter of abortion but concerning other topics as well, and is most often accepted whole cloth as an aknowledged truth. It is most often assumed to be required by the establishment clause of the Constitution or is evoked as part of the (perenially misattributed) ideal of "separation of Church and State." Seemingly at odds with this position, though, was his later statement in Arizona that he had been taught to "love your neighbor" and that his legislative philosophy was deeply informed by this. If, on the one hand, the definition of life is a matter of faith how could this latter sentiment, one that is quoted almost verbatim from the Bible, be considered less? And why, then, is legislation based upon one less valid or acceptable than the other?

The way clear past this apparent paradox is in recognizing that the two positions seemingly at odds are founded upon two separate and distinct assumptions. I hold that the assumption that is used to support Kerry's position concerning the role of faith in legislating abortion is flawed, while the assumption employed in his second standard is more consistent with both historical precedent and logic. In clearly evaluating both assumptions inherent and identifying where the first falls apart we may begin to reach a more consistant understanding of what may be called "faith-based legislation."

There are a few other unstated assumptions in John Kerry's answer to the question on abortion. For example, assuming that a woman's "right to choose" is guaranteed by the Constitution. Even the most ardent abortion-rights advocate, if they are honest, will not try and argue that the Constitution explicitly addresses anybody's "right to choose" anything other than their elected representatives. As such, the presumed "right to choose" must either be an implicit right or one derived from explicit rights but is, therefore, entirely up to the discretion of the Courts. Another assumption that makes this presumed "right" stronger is the assumption that the unborn child either has no rights or no status with concern to the Constitution. This is a strong reason that abortion-rights groups regularly oppose legislative efforts to infer rights (such as laws protecting unborn children from abuse or murder), as this may open the door to Constitutional recognition of status. The main assumption, though, and one that reaches far beyond the specific topic of abortion, is that the presumption of personhood and, therefore, recognition under the Constitution on behalf of the unborn is solely a religious belief and is therefore unsuitable for legislation.

But, this completely ignores the very valid question of if that belief is a matter of religion or a matter of faith. At first blush, the two terms may seem analogous, but this is not necessarilly so. For example, although I have never been there I have full faith that at certain times of the year the sun never sets in Pt. Barrow, Alaska. I base this faith upon scientific knowledge of the tilt of the Earth's axis and the effect of this tilt as the Earth revolves about the sun. I have no doubt, though, that if not today at least in the past there were natives living in the area who had faith in the exact same thing. Without the same scientific knowledge their faith was based either upon personal experience or a belief that some god or the other was pleased or displeased, but they still believed the same thing that I do. The fact that we came to the same conclusion by different paths does not, however, make the native's article of faith any less true than my own. They are the same and, therefore, both equally right. In the specific case of abortion, scientific knowledge that the union of egg and sperm, given its natural course, will yield a child is sufficient for some to sustain a faith that the unborn child is a person. For others, personal experience from carrying a child or viewing ultrasound photography or from the volumes of neonatal development literature serves this purpose. This faith is neither more nor less "right" than the exact same faith arrived at by Christian, Jewish, Moslem or any other relious-based teachings. Contrast this, for example, with the faith that Jesus is the Son of God or that there but one God and Mohammed is his prophet. There is a fundamental difference between beliefs that can only be reached as a result of specific relevent religious doctrine and moral judgements that are not so narrowly defined.

Let us look, now, at Kerry's second article of faith, so to speak. Although the Golden Rule is specifically derived from the New Testament, a document of faith unique to Christians, the sentiment expressed is common and shared not only by many religions but even among non-believers. The expressed willingness to use this teaching as a guide to legislating is consistent with much of our existing law. For example, although the Old Testament says "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not steal" one would be hard-pressed to find anyone so bold as to make the argument that laws prohibiting murder and robbery are based in religion and therefore violate the establishment clause. Basically put, the fact that a particular belief or moral standard is supported or taught by a specific religion does not relexively mean that the belief is, itself, a religions article of faith. It it completely indefensible to and illogical to contend that "separation of Church and State" requires no law be based upon the faith and morality of the legislators. If we understand and recognize that beliefs an individual holds upon their religious teachings are not necessarilly "tainted" solely based upon the source of the belief, one must wonder why some topics, such as abortion, are often treated as is it were.

Returning to the St. Louis question, Sen. Kerry seems to say that he believes life begins at conception (assuming his beliefs conform to Catholic doctrine), yet that it is wrong to legislate on that belief because is is derived from religion. What he ignores, however, is that millions of people from thousands of religious teachings and from just about as many non-religious paths come to the same or a substantially similar conclusion concerning the beginning of life. How, then, can the fact that he or any other individual happened to reach that conclusion by the path of Catholic teachings render it an exclusively religious belief? There is no dount that it is a moral issue of faith, but, like laws against murder or robbery, seems to pose a grave threat to neither the establishment clause nor to the concept of Church/State separation. It is too bad that Kerry and others of like political mind fail to recognize the paradox inherent in his two answers. Without this honesty of the real issues at hand the potential for constructive communication is severely compromised.

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