Religion, Politics and Liberalism

religion_politicsBy Ayon La Vanway.

Many of my religious friends cannot comprehend how I can profess a liberal political ideology and maintain traditional morals. I know that my religious friends are not necessarily spokespeople for the religious right, but they do tend to listen to, accept, and support right wing/conservative principles, and a great many of them, when they learn that I consider myself a liberal, look at me askance and ask something to the effect of “but you’re not a Godless heathen, are you?” Just kidding, they don’t usually go that far, but they do wonder how I can maintain traditional morals while categorizing myself a liberal.

I try to explain that I consider myself a classical liberalist—one that espouses the political liberalism that helped found this country and forge a working Republic that affords freedoms, liberties, and opportunities to it’s citizens unparalleled in the history of the world. But generally, my friends cannot get past the part where I call myself a liberal and either change the string of the conversation, or tell me that we’re going to just have to agree to disagree and cut the conversation short. My friends that consider themselves liberal are so happy that I call myself a liberal as well, but can’t understand why I maintain old-fashioned morals and hold onto my religion if I really am a liberal. Sometimes they think me quaintly naïve, and not to be taken seriously: other times they not only dismiss me because of my religious and moral beliefs, they cease talking to me altogether.

This forum seems a good way to attempt to clarify to anyone who wants to listen, what I consider a classical liberal political ideology. It also affords me the opportunity to clarify to myself where and why I feel disenchanted by both the left and the right.

First, the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, defines the term ‘liberal’ in a political sense as the following: “Favoring civil and political liberties, democratic reforms, and protection from arbitrary authority” (2001). In this definition there is nothing that connotes any particular morality or precludes any set of religious beliefs or lack thereof.

One of my religious conservative friends has pointed out to me that nothing is purely political—generally there is some moral agenda behind the politics. While this may be true in some cases, I don’t believe it to always be true. Of course people’s moral system will color their political beliefs, but the one is not the other, and to think so may reduce and deflect from a meaningful rational discussion of ideas and principles. One illustration of this is Obama’s stance on abortion. Many of my religious friends and relatives cite this as one of (if not the) major reason they did not vote for him in the election. Personally, I believe that abortion is only justified in cases of rape, incest, and imminent danger to the mother’s health. But in the Saddleback forum, then Senator Obama mentioned that rather than merely ban abortion (which I think he believes would infringe on womens’ rights making the issue political rather than moral), he wanted to try and reduce unwanted pregnancies. This seemed to me to be a better approach to the question of abortion than has been offered. If the cause of abortion is by and large unwanted pregnancy, shouldn’t we try to get at the cause of the problem? The treatment of the cause will more readily resolve the symptom. Merely trying to treat the symptom is more likely to result in unwarranted interventions.

I would like to diverge a bit here and clarify the statement made in parenthesis above, that by believing that the banning of abortion would infringe on the rights of women, Obama makes the issue political rather than moral. A moral issue seems to me to necessarily include the idea of judgement regarding good or bad, while a political issue tends more towards topics of liberties, freedoms, and rights. I know that many of my religious friends would be screaming about the rights of the unborn child, and I do sympathize, but the issue remains political (even if heated) if we are discussing rights. It is easy to include morality in a discussion of abortion, because we that disagree with abortion as a form of birth control have definite moral concepts regarding the practice; however, I believe that in order to effectively reduce the number of abortions in our country, we must first reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. That appears to me to be reasonable regardless of one’s moral stance on abortion.

John Rawls has stated that broadly, the content of liberalism has three main elements: equal political liberties, equal civic liberties, and liberal principles that “assign to all members of society claims to adequate all-purpose material means to make use of their freedoms” (2007, pg 12). I believe that democrats and the republicans would both agree to at least the ideas of equal political and civic liberties and maybe even the idea that citizens have the right to the means to enjoy political and civic liberties. After all, don’t the democrats and republicans share a common beginning—aren’t both based in Jeffersonian political ideals? Perhaps the real difference of opinion between democrats and republicans is how the right to means is afforded the citizenry.

I believe the function of government is to protect the civil and political liberties of the citizenry as well as ensure the possibility of means to enjoy those liberties. I believe that this protection comes not only in the form of military/defense, but also in the form of government programs and legislation that ensure equality of opportunity, security of civil and political liberties, and fairness regarding the burden of taxes to uphold equality of opportunity and security of civil and political liberties.

While I feel that I have a political ideology, I am still in the process of trying to understand and articulate what that is. I know that I have a lot to learn and am trying to come to grips with what I perceive to be a classical liberalism. I hope that this entry will spark some meaningful discussion and (selfishly) help me in my struggle to define my politics.