Should a religious conviction be a good reason for voting one way, rather than another?In the gay marriage debate, we often here refrains like: “As a devoted Christian (or person of faith), I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and so I oppose same-sex marriage”. Such statements can make it seem that particularly devout religious people have special reason to vote NO, once they ascertain that their scriptural and religious authorities dictate that marriage is between a man and a woman.
But this misses the point that there are at least two issues of moral and religious conviction in play here, not one.
What does my religion say about marriage and homosexuality?The first question is the obvious one that springs to mind. Presuming for the sake of argument that I am a religious devotee, I will of course want to enquire into what my religion (and my interpretation and understanding of that religion) says about marriage in general, and homosexuality in particular.
Now I am not a theologian, or any sort of expert on scripture, religious authority (like the papacy) or religious interpretation. So for our purposes here, let’s simply accept that I (as a devoted religious citizen) can – on the basis of a reasonable interpretation of my religion’s commandments – decide that my religion forbids same-sex marriage.
This decision about what religious authority requires will have obvious implications for my own actions. For one thing, it will impact powerfully upon what I will do in my own personal life. Obviously, I will have strong reason to not get married to a same-sex partner. Also, I will probably want to encourage my friends, and educate my children, to follow the same religious convictions.
As well as these ramifications for my own personal behaviour, my religious convictions will also have political relevance. Most importantly, I will not want the law to prevent me having these convictions, speaking about them, and acting upon them. That is, I will want to protect my freedom of religion to follow the dictates of my God and my tradition. This does not mean that 'anything goes' in terms of how I can treat others, but it certainly does provide an important reason for me to ensure the law provides room for me to act upon my religion’s commandments in my own personal life. (In a later post, we will talk about the implications here for conscientious objection.)
What does my religion say about the relationship between religion and law?There is another, further way my religious convictions might turn out to have political implications. Having decided that my religion says that marriage is between a man and a woman, I might vote in order to ensure that this understanding of marriage is reflected in law.
This is a very different application of my religious views. Why? Because in this case, I am no longer using my faith to determine how I will live my life, but using my faith to determine how others will live their lives. The religious articles of faith I possess are now impacting on the law that coercively governs all citizens, including those of different sects, different religions, and the un-religious.While in my personal life, I could move more or less immediately from an evaluation about my religion’s requirements to a decision about how I should act, in the case of democratic voting, the move is not straightforward.
The reason this move is not straightforward is that my religion, and my commitments to my religion, may also give rise to powerful reasons to resist imposing my religious views on others through the force of law.
Three considerations about the relationship between religion and lawThere are three types of reasons my religion might give me pause before I vote on the basis of my religious convictions.
The separation of church and stateThe first reason is that my religion might itself declare that there should be a gap between church and state, and that the former should govern our personal, spiritual lives, and that the latter – in having charge of our social and interpersonal lives – should be based upon secular (or at least non-sectarian) principles. Consider, in this light, Jesus’ command to, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Now of course it goes without saying that all religious quotes are subject to varying interpretations, but I think it is fair to say that at least one sensible interpretation of this saying is that there is an important distinction between the temporal and the spiritual spheres, and that our political decisions may rightly include consideration of temporal factors and issues that we do not need to consider in our personal and spiritual affairs.
It should be pretty clear that if there is to be a distinction between church and state, then this cannot be realized if we live in a democracy where everyone votes simply as if their own religion’s dictates should apply to everyone. If there are enough voting Catholics to take control of both the upper and lower houses of parliament, then (in such a world) the entire society can be required to eat fish on Fridays, to criminalize homosexuality, to be punished for blasphemy, and all the rest. The distinction between church and state will exist in name only. The fact that this doesn’t happen (even in cases where religions command a strong majority) is because many religious people acknowledge a distinction between the temporal and spiritual fields.
Tolerance and social peaceThe second type of reason is that my religion may say things about tolerance, and about social harmony, that give me pause before imposing my views upon others. If my religion says that other views should be respected, and that non-religious people should be persuaded, and not forced, into religious practice, then this will affect the way I vote on such matters. Similarly, my religion might speak a lot about the importance of social harmony and peacefulness. If I think that forcing other people into religious practices they do not themselves accept is a sure recipe for internecine divisions and sectarian conflict, then this will shape how I contribute to political decision-making on the basis of my religious convictions.
These were the sorts of lines of reasonings that led John Locke – the 17th Century political philosopher and devout Protestant – to mount some of history’s most powerful and influential arguments for religious tolerance in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke did not laud religious toleration, and a separation of church and state, despite his religious convictions – he did it because of his religious convictions.
The right to freedom of religionThe third type of reason recalls the importance (mentioned above) of my being able to act on the basis of my own religious convictions – and therefore of my right to freedom of religion. When my own co-religionists are in the majority in a democracy, I might not perceive any tension between my religious liberties and the practices the majority enshrines in law. But demographic shifts are possible, and so too are changes in people’s religious convictions. If the majority comes to hold a different religious view to mine, then I might suddenly perceive a very powerful tension between democratically made law and my own religious liberties.
For this reason, in order to protect my (and my family’s) religious freedoms, I might be better placed in trying to ensure that no-one’s particular religious views can be enshrined in the law. True, I lose the benefit of seeing others conform to my religion’s view about proper practices. But if I am (and those who think like me are) successful in safeguarding all citizens’ freedom from having religious practices and institutions imposed upon them, then I guarantee my own religious freedoms even in a future scenario where another group commands a democratic majority. The constraint imposed upon me when my group held a majority opinion becomes a freedom granted to me when I hold a different view. That, after all, is how rights work.
What should we conclude?I am not here providing any sort of definitive moral (much less religious) case that these three types of reasons are decisive in the gay marriage debate. Whether that will be true or not depends on the specific religion in question.
What I am arguing is that a religious devotee deciding about how to vote on gay marriage is – by the very nature of that vote – coming to a stand on all of these three types of reasons. For devoutly religious people, simply considering what the religion says about gay marriage is far too narrow an engagement with their religious scriptures and authorities. It is also essential to consider what the religion says about the relationship between church and state, what the religion says about tolerance and social harmony, and what the religious community thinks about the importance of protecting rights of freedom of religion.
So when providing a full justification or explanation of how they voted, religious devotees should appeal not only to the passages in the scriptures that set down the church’s stance on marriage and homosexuality – but also to appeal to what the religion says about these three further and very significant factors.None of this should be very surprising
In other contexts, the types of reasons I have been discussing here are routinely accepted by devoutly religious people. Religious devotees may well possess deeply-held and unshakable convictions about proper eating, clothing, cleanliness, sexuality, worship, charitable giving, and so on. But they do not suppose that, on the basis of these views, they should agitate and vote for laws that will bind those people who do not share their religion. They allow others outside their religion to legally do things that are sinful according to their revealed law. These sinful but non-criminal acts would include, for example, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, use of contraception, atheism, apostasy, blasphemy and so on and on.
In many respects, for all these above-noted sins, it just seems common-sense to think that the law should not follow the idiosyncratic dictates of a particular religion. But for some reason, religious devotees, and even religious authorities, seem not to apply the same sorts of considerations about political and legal decision-making to the issue of gay marriage.Conclusion
My aim has not been to show that it is wrong to incorporate religious thinking into one’s political decision-making. In fact, I have been arguing the very reverse. I have suggested that it is wrong to apply only a superficial and narrow engagement with one’s religion into political decision-making. In decisions that affect other people, and the laws that govern them, many different religious-based considerations matter, and warrant careful reflection.
(This post is one in a series, looking at the arguments in the gay marriage debate.)