Monday, June 20, 2005

The Moral Democracy

The triumphant rise of the Religious Right since the election has once again forced us, as a democracy, to question what role morality plays in a plurastic society. The issue plays itself out in a number of realms, including stem cells, gay marriage, and the general tolerance of society for pluralistic values.

For Liberals who see these moralistic debates as an assault on our freedoms, we are, perhaps, angered, if not a bit terrified. But maybe it's good that we, as a society, have this discussion. Because a pluralistic society needs to understand its basic moral assumptions. About this, Mario Cuomo recently writes in the New York Times, "...our pluralistic political system adopts rights that arise out of consensus, not the dictates of religious orthodoxy.... Every day Americans who abhor the death penalty, contraceptives, abortions and war are required to pay taxes used in part for purposes they consider offensive. That is part of the price we pay for this uniquely successful democracy." So, as a society, we have our consensus morality - one that we support, even if it isn't our own.

Consensus, here, is the key issue. Consensus versus minority rights. When does a minority view become "intruded upon" - a right that needs protection from the majority? When is the consensus morality something that we personally support (through taxes, abiding laws, etc.) even when it goes against our own private morality?

These are difficult, critical issues for a pluralistic society. Conservative Christians often portray themselves as a besieged minority, fighting for their rights (they way gays, blacks, and women do). So is supporting gay rights and gay marriage akin to supporting school prayer and outlawing abortion? Are all moral issues created equal and in equal conflict?

I think, logically, they can't be - no Democracy would survive if all minority beliefs were equal. The key, then, is to distinguish between a moral consensus that all can support, and moral rights for minorities that don't infringe the majority.

If gay marriage really did harm the heterosexual institution - then, this it seems to me would be a question for the general consensus to decide. But if it does not...if it merely extends rights to a minority...then the consensus should have no business in it.

Similarly, if prayer in school had no effect on a minority group - if it were merely about what we all felt was the best way to give thanks to God in a constitutional manner - then the consensus should have a say on this as well. But if we are talking about denying a religious minority their right to express their views (or right to NOT believe in God)...then perhaps the consensus should stay out, decide which religious minority was being infringed upon (the one who wants to pray to God, or the one who wants to deny the existence of God), and grant them their rights.

The public sphere allows for many arguments to be made on all these cases. Our founders foresaw that a free press - free discussion - would allow the best of these views to emerge and dominate the consensus. Not all views are made to be decided by consensus: but where minority rights are at issues, the discussion will sort these out as well.

While many polemic arguments are made on all of these cases, I think that what we need most, these days, is for reflective, concerned discussion that sorts out these issues in a logical way. Unfortunately, there is way too little of that. Let me just give an example:

On gay marriage. Can a case really be made that this threatens the heterosexual institution? I really think not. Those who try to make the case rely on bad faith and bad science. All evidence suggests that support for equal marriage rights strengthens the institution for all. But even if it did not, there is very little scientific evidence that providing these rights to one group of people has any negative effect on society at all. Those who have an ingrained prejudice against homosexuality will be hard to convince on this matter. But our government HAS decided (in the Lawrence versus Texas case) that homosexuality is a value-neutral orientation in our society. So, the extension of marriage rights is the next logical conclusion. However, this discussion of the perceived threat to society *is* the right discussion: and these prejudices and convictions do need to be sorted out for a confused public, and once they are, the public, I believe, will have to conclude as the courts have done (as their only reasonable argument left will be religious fear).

On school prayer. Does NO prayer infringe upon the rights of the observantly religious? (A case could be made for prayer before the school lunch meal as well.) Possibly so - a routine with no moment of prayer forces these students to give up their daily observances. Can a case be made that having a prayer in school infringes on the rights of atheists? In some cases, it could - if a specific prayer is led by a teacher, if it mentions God, it could be seen as religious coercion. It seems then we have two minorities whose rights are pitted against each other. What is the Solomon-like solution? Don't we - as a more fundamentally religious country - shrink away at the French response, to ban all religious expression whatsoever, as akin to a punishment for all? What about the opposite approach - the encouragement of a flourishing of all kinds of religious and secular modes? For instance, could a moment of silent reflection - in which students of any faith or non-faith can decide what to do with their time - provide a solution in which both minorities were protected, and the consensus upheld as well? In fact, if done well, it can lead to a discussion and interest in various faiths and an ecumenical curiosity. This sort of religious discussion in fact is part of the essence of liberal democracy - and we shouldn't fear to have it in our schools (where it can only help).

On the death penalty, right to die, abortion, and stem cells - all these issues are about the beginnings and the endings of life. And here, one could reasonably argue, the consensus must hold. We are all minorities (we are all mortal, and born, and die) in these issues. So as a society, Cuomo is right: we must decide what moral belief we can reach as a pluralistic consensus. And those of us who disagree, must agree to live with the consensus - or attempt to change it, if we feel we must, through the moral argument and logical persuasion that is the lifeblood of our pluralistic Democracy.

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