"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt


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Friday, January 23, 2009

The Trap of Government as a Moral Compass

I support gay marriage. The insipid antics, vandalism, name-calling, threats of violence and the unfair singling out of Mormons, Catholics, and other religious groups that has followed the passage of Proposition 8 in California has not tested that support. I offer nothing to excuse the perpetrators of these crimes and childish displays. If they broke laws (as some have) they should be arrested and prosecuted. I give them no exoneration. I implore them to stop. They are, of course, hurting their cause with each act of vandalism, each threat, each act of strong-arming Prop. 8 supporters and their businesses. This thuggish behavior makes me feel a sharp jab of personal shame when I remember that my position is allied with theirs. Yet, my support for same-sex marriage does not waver.

Why not? Because I deeply believe that the government should not determine what is personally sacred or moral.

When asked why gay marriage should remain legally unrecognized, the answer that I hear and read most often is that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Fair enough. If you believe that, fine. You have every right to. But what does this have to do with a government's recognition of a marriage? As far the government is concerned, marriage is a matter of tax codes, inheritance laws and other distinctly temporal and mundane legalities. It has nothing to do with recognizing what is sacred, nor should it.When I married my wife, we stood in a church before a priest and swore our love for and devotion toward one another. We promised to make a life together in the presence of our families, our friends, and God. That act is what causes me to view my marriage as sacred-- not the wedding certificate. Had we married in the Church and not bothered to get a marriage license I would consider myself married but the state would and should not.

Should people be denied the legal advantages and disadvantages of marriage merely based on sexual orientation? Since they are, how can this practice not be considered discriminatory and thus illegal?

Now please understand what I am not saying. I am not saying that churches should be forced to recognize and allow same-sex marriages. Church doctrine is a matter for the churches themselves and not the business of any government. I am not saying that any individual must recognize same-sex marriage as sacred. If you do fine, and if you do not that's fine too. It is purely a matter of personal morals, and they are your own.

Yet, what I personally find most disturbing in this "marriage is sacred and thus can be legally recognized only between one man and one woman" view is the voiced need for a moral stance to be justified by government decree. Although this stance holds the unmistakable desire that these individuals' moral codes should be the law of the land (debatable but understandable), there is likewise an implicit fear that if their moral code is not the law of the land, their ethics are somehow weakened. According to this view, government has become a necessary stamp of approval for morality and virtue.

My fears seem justified as I see politicians and government figures (from both parties) crouch their policies in moral rhetoric, invoking the need for societal morality as either an excuse or an imperative for legislation. This connection between morality, God, and the law is hardly new in America (or anywhere else for that matter). The Declaration of Independence invokes both God and the Creator in the first two sentences. The difference then was that morality (in the form of God or Creator) was used to shape the legal framework for our country. Now our country's laws seem to be expected to shape its citizens' moral code. Whereas laws had been written to codify the moral and ethical beliefs of its citizenry, now it seems that law is invoked to define what citizens should believe.

Atheists and agnostics have often used the legal concept of "the separation of church and state" to advance small but largely symbolic steps in a greater overall agenda-- attempts to wipe the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, chiseling off "In God We Trust" from coins, demanding copies of the Ten Commandments be removed from the steps of courthouses, etc. However one feels about this agenda (which is immaterial to this argument) it has led to the mistaken idea that the "free exercise clause" of the First Amendment is intended to protect the government from the influence of various churches.

The actual clause in the First Amendment reads "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It is difficult to argue that this clause inspiring "the separation of church and state" concept was ever meant to protect the government from religious influence. Legal drafts, letters, speeches, all recorded forms of communication dating from the days of the Revolution onward are filled with references to God. Indeed it seems obvious that the" free exercise clause" was primarily meant to protect citizens' religion from the government and deter a state-run church. One should remember that the British monarch was (is) not just the head of the state, but also the head of the Anglican Church, and that many European settlers of the original colonies came to this land to escape religious persecution and doctrinal disputes in their homelands.

The dangers of a state-run church are obvious. By giving the governing state (even a republic) sufficient power over the spiritual and moral convictions of the citizenry, a State Morality, the state may attempt to act with near impunity, have its every law and policy justified by self-perpetuating church/moral doctrine. As a consequence political opposition could be presented as not just wrong-minded, but sinful and immoral as well. Legal procedure would inform and shape moral beliefs by way of a parrot church rather than any sense of morality shaping the law of government.

It is important to understand that this situation need not arise due to any conspiracy or any conscious choice by the members of the institutions involved. The entire hierarchical body of the state-run church, every member of the legislative and executive branches of the government, could be completely innocent and blameless for for the tyrannical situation that could evolve. The First Amendment clause inspiring "separation of church and state" effectively acts as a barrier from state contrived moral values-- this State Morality. By insuring the opportunity for opposing moral and ethical positions the state's potential powers would be held in check by the citizenry's own sense of good and right.

A problem arises, however, when large numbers of people become uncertain of previously deeply-held moral convictions, and they notice that their moral codes (religious or otherwise) waver. For various reasons (which I will not go into in this post) more and more American people seek vindication through societal approval. This is not a new development, nor particular to America. However, in a society as large, complex, distrusting, confusing and cynical, as the U.S., increasing numbers of people see the political bodies of the national congress and presidency (which, after all, represents the people in the running of the government) as a stand-in for society at large. When this happens, the fine distinction between moral legislation and legislating morality breaks down. Without the need of a formal state-run church, a State Morality has been instituted and all the obvious dangers of a state-run church are then realized.

As a nation, we should expect members and bodies of government to behave in accordance to the majority's standard of decency. It is the basis of our political system to expect a member of government to behave morally. Representatives are expected to propose/pass/reject/enforce legislation according to his/her personal moral code (voters are expected to vote him/her out of office if he/she does not, or if his/her code significantly differs from the constituency), but to expect a member of government to lead the way to morality is unacceptable and dangerous. To expect him/her to legally define what is sacred is unacceptable and antithetical to to our political system. To truly be a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," the government cannot be morally, nor considered morally, superior to the people.

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