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The myth of government neutrality between moral claims

11 Sep

Is it really possible in every situation for government to be morally neutral, even religiously neutral?  No.

From Anthony Esolen (clip):

On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

Two factors must be at work, for the Nude Beach Principle to apply. One is whether we can expect some people to act upon the permission. The other is an easily predictable harm that the permission so acted upon will bring to people who do not act upon it, or who, because of moral disapprobation, disgust, fear, or pain, would never act upon it. In Surftown, it means that ordinary people will have lost their beach. They will have lost it to theintolerance of the nude bathers, who, even if they were correct about the moral permissibility of their parading their wares, will not forbear with their more scrupulous neighbors. In this matter, to pretend not to choose is to choose.

Full article

From Darwin to Hitler (the mini-documentary) featuring Historian Richard Weikart

18 Aug

A few years ago, I read Historian Richar Weikart’s fascinating book From Darwin To Hitler, tracing the origin of Nazi ideology to Darwinian biological and social ethics.  A 14 minute documentary of the story concerning Darwinism and the first world war (Second Reich) is now available online:


5 Core Principles of the New Sexual Morality

15 Aug

From Alistair Roberts (original link):

The sociologist Mark Regnerus recently published a piece for the Witherington Institute’s Public Discourse, suggesting that support for same-sex marriage in some Christian circles correlates to broader shifts in morality surrounding sexuality and relations. Survey respondents were asked to declare their level of agreement with seven statements relating to the issues of pornography, cohabitation, no-strings-attached sex, the duty of staying in a marriage, extramarital sex, polyamorous relationships, and abortion. The results illustrated pronounced fault lines between those committed to historic Christian stances on sexual morality and supporters of same-sex marriage.

As conservative Christians, we often see such data and reach for one or both of two related narratives: the narrative of the rejection of morality and the narrative of the slippery slope. I’m convinced both approaches typically oversimplify matters and obscure the reality.

Within the narrative of the rejection of morality, those who abandon an orthodox Christian stance on sexual morality cast off all external restraint and moral norms and are subject only to the dictates of their own sinful nature. As the stars of the moral constellations are extinguished in their heavens, they navigate the pitch guided by the unprincipled light of their individual wills, doing only what is right in their own eyes. Should it surprise us that such persons are widely supportive of abortion and cohabitation?

For the slippery slope narrative, there is an inherent instability to error and, given time, the rejection of biblical truth in one area will lead to its rejection in a host of others. This narrative is employed by those who argue that support for same-sex marriage will eventually lead to support for polygamy, incest, paedophilia, and bestiality. Even if biblical morality isn’t abandoned wholesale, it will be gradually eroded. Those advocating a slippery slope narrative often present empirical evidence illustrating the steady abandonment of Christian truth among those who took a precipitous first step.

Elements of Truth

Both of these narratives contain elements of truth. In many of the moral shifts we are witnessing, the individual will holds privileged status, empowered to reject various higher authorities or bend them to its inclination. We also often witness the (d)evolution of moral commitments over time, seeing how pulling one thread can lead to a larger moral fabric unravelling.

Yet there are problems too. The rejection-of-morality narrative doesn’t do justice to the fact that most who abandon orthodox Christian morality don’t do so for a willful moral anarchy. Advocates of the slippery slope narrative often presume rather than demonstrate that the rejection of position A will eventually lead to support for position B. Relatively little evidence is forthcoming to substantiate claims that support for same-sex marriage will lead to support for things such as bestiality or paedophilia. In fact, opposition to certain sinful acts, especially those of coercive abuse, may even be intensified.

The elements of truth in both narratives can be retained and considerably strengthened when we appreciate that the shift we’re witnessing is not the abandonment of all morality but a shift to a new moral system, one with its roots firmly within the philosophical tradition of liberalism. This new moral system is loosely coherent, and its underlying principles will work like yeast through the dough of our moral vision. Rather than advocating mere amorality, it forcefully presses moral claims against Christian sexual and relational ethics: for this moral system, Christian morality isn’t just wrong, it is immoral.

Until we understand this new morality on its own terms, we’ll be unable to offer effective responses to it.

Five Core Principles

The following are some of the core principles of the new sexual and relational morality:

First, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic meanings or purposes. They don’t relate to a deeper natural order, which we must honor and not violate. Their meaning is merely constructed, by society and the persons engaging in them. Sexual relations between a man and a woman need not involve the natural significance of making them “one flesh,” with all that entails. “Meaningless” sex is a genuine possibility.

Second, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity. Provided no harm is caused to others, we have a duty of care for ourselves to realize and express our desired sexual identities, even when this may involve measures such as sexual reassignment surgery. As members of a society, we also have a duty to ensure the sexual identities of our neighbors are affirmed and supported. Opposition to nonmarital sexual relations, or the expectation a person should remain in a marriage for the rest of their life (even though it may be sexually unfulfilling), are two Christian positions in tension with this principle of sexual morality.

Third, sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals. Sexual relations are therefore mutually enhancing arrangements. Appropriate relations presuppose the partners are equal in their agency and there are no significant imbalances of power between them. For those who have developed this principle, traditional forms of marriage can cause discomfort. Such forms of marriage have typically recognized the existence of some degree of inequality of power between husband and wife (e.g., physically, economically, socially), harnessing male powers for loving and responsible service rather than presenting men and women as autonomous individuals facing each other with equal bargaining power. They have also placed limits on individuals’ and couples’ sexual choices, expecting lifelong exclusivity and commitment even against their private desires. Much of this restraint has been for the sake of children, who by the nature of their existence confound liberal concepts of the person and social relations.

Fourth, freely given consent is the watchword for sexual relations. Where a relationship between given parties is consensual, few if any reasonable objections can be raised against it. When advocates of traditional Christian ethics oppose consensual same-sex relations, for instance, they violate this strongly held moral principle and threaten both the rights and identities of other sexual agents.

Fifth, beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas. While marriage may grant public recognition and affirmation to a couple, each couple should be freed to practice marriage as they choose, and no couple should be expected to get married. But Christianity has always sanctioned certain sexual relations and condemned others, treating sexual relations as matters of public and communal concern and thereby falling afoul of this principle too.

Instinctive Appeal

It’s imperative we appreciate the instinctive appeal of these moral principles to most persons within our society. These principles spring out of the liberal tradition and its definition of personhood, a tradition that has decisively shaped our politics, our economics, and our society’s ethics more broadly. As the assumptions grounding these sexual ethics are so pervasive in our society, and even in much conservative Christianity, we often lack the resources to present a principled challenge to them. The “thou shalt not” of biblical authority is erected as little more than a last-ditch resistance, a dam against the encroachment of principles we have no means of neutralizing, as we have imbibed them so fully. The Scriptures, however, have a far more compelling and substantial alternative vision to offer us, one that could inoculate us against this ersatz morality.

At the outset I questioned the typical narratives offered to explain such shifts—the narrative of the rejection of morality and the narrative of the slippery slope. I suggested that a careful account of the new morality would provide us with a far more illuminating framework. We are now in a position to see how it does so.

In response to the narrative of the rejection of morality, we have seen the replacement of Christian morality by an alternative form. The absolute moral anarchism this narrative envisages doesn’t materialize. However, we do see an elevation of the individual will over against the natural order and divine and social norms, rendering individual self-realization a more central moral end. The narrative of the slippery slope typically lacks a sufficient account of why the rejection of the historic Christian position on same-sex relations will often be accompanied by the rejection of specific further positions, while leaving others intact. When we appreciate that the shift is occurring through the gradual outworking of these principles of a new moral system, the logic will become clearer, as will the positions under threat. For instance, the principles of this moral system will generally produce strong moral opposition to paedophilia, which is seen to involve harm, significant imbalance of power, and the lack of capacity for informed consent. In contrast, the principles offer little resistance to consensual polyamorous relationships.

Armed with a firmer grasp of this new morality, we will be better able both to interpret and also to predict its movements.

Alastair Roberts is completing a doctorate at Durham University in the north of England. His interests are principally focused in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespass beyond these bounds. He is a participant in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.

You are for liberty, but what kind? 5 conceptions of liberty classified by a political philosopher

11 Aug

From Professor Carl Scott:

In American civic and political life, nearly everyone is a champion of liberty, but not everyone means the same thing by that term. We hold several conflicting ideas about liberty, though we are usually unaware of that fact. This lack of awareness means that, whenever a conflict between these conceptions leads to a political dispute, people on all sides of the dispute are apt to be shocked and to regard their opponents either as enemies of liberty or as lacking any understanding of what it really means.

This adds to both the bitterness and the confusion of our most prominent political and cultural battles. To better understand our common life, therefore, we need to step back and examine the different meanings of liberty and how they have played out in our history and continue to shape our contemporary debates.

When we carefully consider the idea of liberty through the lens of the American political tradition, we find that Americans have held, and continue to hold, five interlocking but distinct understandings of the term. First and foremost, liberty has been regarded as the protection of natural rights — a notion of liberty we might simply call “natural-rights liberty.” Second, we have taken liberty to refer to the self-governance of a local community or group, a conception we might call “classical-communitarian liberty.” Third, we have taken the term to refer to economic individualism, or what we might call “economic-autonomy liberty.” Fourth, we have understood it to refer to the social justice of the national community, or what might be called “progressive liberty.” And fifth, we have understood liberty to refer to moral individualism, which we can call “personal-autonomy liberty.”

Each of these has a claim to being the correct conception of political liberty, as well as the most genuinely American one. Over the course of America’s political history, these conceptions have been posed against one another in various ways, and several have also cooperated with or been combined with one another. But they are theoretically distinct and fundamentally in tension in ways that have shaped our history and will certainly shape our future as well.


The first two conceptions of liberty can be plainly discerned in the political thought and action of the founding era and the early republic. The core principles of natural-rights liberty are those expressed in the opening of the Declaration of Independence, and they are correctly regarded as reflecting the teachings of John Locke, as well as other early-modern liberal thinkers. The core practice of classical-communitarian liberty, meanwhile, is given most vivid display by Alexis de Tocqueville in his descriptions of the participatory townships he observed in 1830s New England. That the principles and practice of early-American politics tended to answer to two different understandings of liberty is one key reason why the political teaching of the American founding is no simple matter.

In contending with some political questions, such as breaking away from Britain, these two conceptions complemented one another. But regarding other questions, such as the ratification of the Constitution, they tended to oppose one another. Many of the Anti-Federalists — the writers and activists who opposed ratification — insisted that the key political unit for the fostering of liberty would have to remain the small polis-like republic, whereas the authors of the Federalist Papers famously made a case for the superior ability of the extended republic to secure natural rights.

Of course, certain Lockean understandings of politics permeated the thought of many of the Anti-Federalists as well. Their most eloquent 20th-century scholarly champion, Wilson Carey McWilliams, stressed that, although they seldom spoke about “private rights,” they “characteristically spoke of a state of nature.” Similarly, aspects of the classical-communitarian conception permeated the thinking of the founders most consistently associated with the natural-rights tradition. Thomas Jefferson had an appreciation for the wisdom of communitarian republicanism — he urged Virginia to imitate New England’s township pattern of local government and encouraged all Americans to maintain an agrarian way of life. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton not only adopted the Roman republican pen name “Publius” when writing the essays that composed the Federalist Papers but made examinations of ancient confederacies, founders, and constitutions key parts of their argument. Still, it is easy to show that Jefferson was more Lockean than classical republican when it came to the fundamentals of politics, and it is easy to recall several famous passages from the Federalist Papers that warn that small republics foster, among other rights-endangering maladies, majority faction and continual war-making.

Natural-rights doctrine did a great deal to light the fire of American independence: We can trace its influence upon key figures like James Otis, John Dickinson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others, and we can work out the way it supplied key doctrines of the revolution. (It is visible, for instance, in the maxim “no taxation without representation.”) What is not as widely understood is that the classical-communitarian conception of liberty was at least as critical to American political life in that era.

This point is well illustrated by an anecdote from the 1840s about a conversation between an elderly veteran of the Battle of Concord, Levi Preston, and a young historian, Mellon Chamberlain. When Chamberlain asked Preston whether he and his fellows had been influenced by James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Locke, Preston said he had “never heard of ’em. We only read the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” When asked why he and his fellows had fought the British, he said, “[W]e had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” As Tocqueville and many historians have suggested, the experience of a comparatively high degree of community self-rule which had developed among the Americans, colony by colony and town by town, was a primary cause of their vigorous resistance to Britain’s effort to increase its control of colonial affairs after 1763. That experience had significant influence in key respects prior to their widespread adoption of natural-rights doctrine.

Over time, the hold that the classical-communitarian conception of liberty had exercised over our thought and sentiment ebbed, particularly as the prominence of the town in American life diminished. Still, it has remained an important, albeit lesser, part of the American political tradition, providing sustenance to groups like the Populists and the Southern agrarian writers, and to all sorts of theorists wanting to promote fraternity or “participatory democracy.” Its common identification with the practice of Christian brotherly love extends back to its colonial Puritan and Quaker articulations, and, while that identification is not emphasized by all of its contemporary proponents, it remains important.

The natural-rights doctrine, of course, retained a central place in American political thought and most notably was re-emphasized by Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship. The embarrassing fact of America’s initial toleration of slavery reminds us, however, of an important self-limiting aspect of natural-rights liberty. The Declaration’s third sentence begins with the word “prudence,” and goes on to explain that revolutions for the sake of securing natural rights should occur only when a pattern of serious violations against them has become evident and indicates a trend toward tyranny. A similar spirit of prudence pervades the Federalist Papers, which is one long reflection about what kind of union and government is necessary to preserve liberty given what experience teaches us about human nature, political dynamics, and geostrategic realities. Though the leading founders regarded slavery as a basic violation of natural rights, they evidently made the judgment that they could not get the Constitution ratified if they were to first insist upon slavery’s dismantling; this was another instance of prudence at work, as they understood it.

The founders were not for a come-what-may insistence upon perfectly securing all natural rights, nor were they for following out every implication of natural-rights thought. Such radicalism would likely result in the inability to establish or maintain effective government, and thus in the inability to secure any rights at all. Instead, the founders (and perhaps adherents of natural-rights liberty in America more generally) understood liberty as the prudential protection of natural rights.

The Western Heritage series by Hillsdale; simply the best

6 Aug

Let me take a moment to HIGHLY recommend the online courses for a general audience available through Hillsdale College. I particularly recommend the one entitled Western Heritage. It’s a big help; the talk on the Hebrew Legacy is great.



So what’s the best paradigm for understanding the Founders’ philosophical underpinnings?

31 Jul

Very helpful essay from Professor George Carey:

There is no dearth of studies on the political thought of the American founding era. Yet there is no consensus on what theories, values, or goals were uppermost in the minds of the founding generation. On the contrary, on a number of critical theoretical issues and concerns, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the scholarly attention devoted to this era and what we can affirm with certainty. What we have are competing “paradigms” and schools of thought, each with different approaches, perspectives, and assumptions. And while it is clear that the Framers believed in limited government as essential to prevent oppression and tyranny, these paradigms point to significant differences among them over what these limitations should be, how they should be enforced, and how they might be maintained.

We can begin our survey with a brief examination of the most prominent of the early and adversely critical accounts of the Founders and their motivations: that of the Progressives. It is best to start here, because limited government was one of their central themes: they were against it. In significant ways, as we will endeavor to show, the progressives also provide the background necessary for understanding the modern paradigms, as well as for the differences between them. Finally, by way of assessing where we are today, we turn to modern conservative thought to see in what ways, if any, our political and social evolution over the decades has “unleashed” government, posing threats to limited government that could not be anticipated by our forebears.

Read the whole thing here

Understanding the legal and cultural context in which religious liberty has been trumped by homosexual rights

28 Jul

Very fair and helpful summary here, as well as suggestions going forward, from a religious liberty legal scholar (John Inazu):

Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights? It's More Complicated

A private Christian school holds what it considers a biblical view of marriage. It welcomes all students, but insists that they adhere to certain beliefs and abstain from conduct that violates those beliefs. Few doubt the sincerity of those beliefs. The school’s leaders are seen as strange and offensive to the world, but then again, they know that they will find themselves as aliens and strangers in the world.

This description fits a number of Christian schools confronted today with rapidly changing sexual norms. But the description also would have fit Bob Jones University, a school that barred interracial dating until 2000. And in 1983, that ban cost Bob Jones its tax exemption, in a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even for a relatively small school of a few thousand students, that meant losing millions of dollars. And the government’s removal of tax-exempt status had a purpose: one Supreme Court justice described it as “elementary economics: when something becomes more expensive, less of it will be purchased.”

The comparison between Bob Jones in 1983 and Christian schools today will strike some as unwarranted. Indeed, there are historical reasons to reject it. The discriminatory practices in Bob Jones were linked to the slavery of African Americans and the Jim Crow South. The 1983 Court decision came within a generation of Brown v. Board of Education, and its legal principles extended to private secondary schools (including “segregationist academies”) that resisted racial integration.

There are also significant theological differences between Bob Jones’s race-based arguments and arguments that underlie today’s sexual conduct restrictions. Those differences are rooted in contested questions about identity, as well as longstanding Christian boundaries for sexual behavior. Gay and lesbian Christians committed to celibacy show that sexual identity and sexual conduct are not always one in the same. But these points are increasingly obscured outside of the church. We see this in the castigation of any opposition to same-sex liberties as bigoted. That kind of language has moved rapidly into mainstream culture. And it is difficult to envision how it would be undone or dialed back.

How should Christians respond to these circumstances? First, we must understand the history from which they emerge. Second, we must understand the legal, social, and political dimensions of the current landscape. Third, and finally, we must recognize that arguments that seem intuitive from within Christian communities will increasingly not make sense to the growing numbers of Americans who are outside the Christian tradition.

Read the rest

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