Friday, March 21, 2008

Jackson & Perkins: Personal Faith, Public Policy (review)

Authors: Harry R. Jackson, Jr. & Tony Perkins.
Title: Personal Faith, Public Policy.
Subtitle: 7 Urgent Issues that We, as People of Faith, Must Come Together and Solve
Publication: Front Line. 2008 ISBN 978-1-59979-261-3.

The authors appeared in the media recently, purporting to offer a kinder, gentler version of the message of the “religious right.” To cut to the chase, they do claim that the RR is alive and well, is misunderstood, and simply wants its proper place in setting public policy. Right off the bat there is some semantics: they have as much right as anyone to have their views, even when religious aired, known and aired in politics; what seems at issue is whether religious doctrine alone should define right and wrong, or whether such ideas need a secular “mathematical proof.” And those with a math background like me know that any system of thought has to start with some postulates (assumptions) and definitions. So why can’t some of the assumptions be based on faith? I guess they can.

The book has twelve chapters and takes up seven core issues: The Value of Life (2 chapter), Immigration, Poverty and Justice (2 chapters), Racial injustice, Religious liberties, Rebuilding the families (2 chapters with the second focused more on fatherhood and education) and The Environment and Global Warming. There is an introduction and then two more “introductory” chapters on the place of the religious right and faith in determining what is right public policy, and a conclusion. Each chapter ends with “prayer points.”

The authors keep their tone careful and polite and tend to equivocate. But they are getting at something, of particular pertinence to GLBT people, and it gradually unfolds, however unevenly, in the book.

The “Value of Life” section has the carefully detailed discussions on abortion and then stem cell research. It also talks about the ethics or war and capital punishment. It believes that these are expected of Christians within the scope of a Christ-influenced civil government. It’s interesting to me that the “right to life” position does not fix the “unfairness” of the sacrifice made by those in war (as with the draft in the past or the “stop-loss” policies today), even thought society does take care not to involved the disabled in these activities. The discussion on eldercare is brief, but mentions a critical point: modern society has developed “utilitarian” values, and many people will have emotional issues when faced with the unselected “burdens” of those who consume time and resources and are no longer economically “productive.” Utilitarianism (Wiki reference, including discussion of Jeremy Bentham) could be connected to "radical individualism" which can lead to logical consequences that seem anti-faith and "anti-family."

On poverty, they take a complementary position. That is, the Bible (especially the New Testament) accepts the reality of poverty, and does not claim that man can eliminate it. Some poverty, but not all of it, comes from activities within the control of the poor; other comes from external sources. A lot of it comes from single-parent families, and (we hear this a lot) government policies that reward single parenthood make it worse. That’s probably correct. Their most important point is that addressing poverty needs to be taken up as responsibilities by every individual to help poor people with personal contact. Again, that runs counter to the values of a “utilitarian” attitude toward people, that places so much emphasis on the integrity of personal choice. Their poverty “part 2” deals with health care reform, and the suggestions are rather non-specific, other than to reiterate conservative calls for using pre-tax dollars for insurance, tax credits for children, and better personal health practices. The authors claim that countries with single payer health insurance have tremendous problems with wait lists and have increased mortality, especially over certain age ranges, for cancer and heart disease as a result. Presumably, an elderly person may be more likely to get coronary bypass surgery under the US Medicare system than in the systems in Britain, France and Canada (does a visitor really know?) My own physicians tend to confirm what they say.

On race, they admit that the Christian community has dropped the ball in the past, but believe that an individual-effort centered approach is necessary, rather than massive government action (like affirmative action and perhaps reparations) alone.

On religious liberties, they play some word games with the “original intent” of the founding fathers. But they wind up saying something relatively innocent: that Christians have as much right to expect government to reflect their values as anyone else.

On global warming, they claim that Christians should be stewards of the planet, but they do not accept as “truth” all of the claims that global warming is necessarily man-made (despite overwhelming evidence otherwise).

Let’s leave the best to the last: marriage and family. We all know the usual for-family and pro-marriage conservative arguments (including limiting no-fault divorce). But they imply excursion into some psychological territory. They make the interesting point that marriage gives each adult partner sexual security, which is medically and biologically better for each person. Now it’s not too controversial to claim that marriage tames fathers, and encourages them to protect their children and most of all their wives during and after childbearing. Furthermore, marriage has a essential specific relationship to childbearing as well as childrearing in our culture (even though some heterosexual couples don’t have children). We all know how that point has come up in the gay marriage debate.

But, the concerns over gay issues reach far beyond the current marriage debate, as people like me who came of age in earlier generations know. The authors mention the gay issues “en passant” a few times, and try to make the comments sound innocuous, but they are surely building up to something. The mention a revival trying to bring Christian morality back to the Castro in San Francisco. They suggest that publicity of Vice President Cheney’s lesbianism somehow helped derail the attempt to pass a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In the chapter on religious freedom, they make a couple of assertions that on the surface I agree with. For example, they oppose protecting gays with hate crimes law, but on principle I agree that criminal sentences should be based on the crime, not the victim. They also complain that education of the “ex-gay” viewpoint is considered “hate speech”, and I agree that proponents of that viewpoint are entitled to present their views and have them acknowledged, even in schools. But the bigger question, one that they sidestep, is, what’s the big deal? Are gays really responsible for the “decline of the family” and the short half-lives of heterosexual marriage? Come on! After all (by definition), gay men usually don't father babies that can be abandoned to women.

That’s where the comment about utilitarianism comes in. After all, utilitarianism would have some tension with the a civilization's value of the preciousness of every human being "as a living soul" (as my father would say) for his or her own safe--because that takes emotional commitment from others, not always on personally chosen terms. Now, the mystique of heterosexual marriage, with all of its ceremonial and moral supports for some people, has a lot to do with a transformation of character – the willingness to relinquish some of the adolescent concerns (especially for men) with competition and self-promotion for an unfamiliar set of "protective" and "connecting" emotions (for the woman who will bear children) that seem to contract rationality. I guess the lyrics of the song “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical “South Pacific” address that, as well as the fungibility of men when that is demanded. The obvious immediate need for this kind of emotional change is to prepare to raise children, but it also fits into all kinds of other almost mandatory altruism and sacrifice that can well fall upon the heads of those who do not have their own children – including eldercare. The negotiation of thus psychic passage (where "women tame men") seems essential to the subsequent ability to maintain a lifelong "active" intimate interest in the marital partner, itself an essential component of stable marriages for raising the next generation. The emotion can justify the enormous sacrifices parents sometimes have to make for the next generation (the authors prescribe "no hobbies" at one point, just family with no dessert), something that me-generation mentality is unwilling to experience. This religious view accepts a sense of "right" beyond what individuals can craft for themselves with personalized ideas of personal responsibility and "justice" and focuses on the emotional stability of the family (especially parents) as a whole. In the view of the religious right, the “narcissistic” values of the gay male community, with its upward affiliation, gut this emotional process-change and can undermine many smaller families, leaving people to flounder fending for themselves. True, married people, and people in families with strong emotional ties based on blood, not totally voluntary, may live longer.

The "religious" view of much of what the authors would call (with perfect comfort) "public morality", in the area of marriage, would lead to something like this: Married couples need a sense of reverence for their commitment from the outside world, and the freedom that some people claim to succeed in life outside of the marital model for adulthood creates a serious, perhaps fatal distraction. Furthermore, everyone owes something of the emotional commitment that made their lives possible back to others (unless they were abandoned themselves). This view of things refuses to look a family morality in terms of usual calculations about "individual rights" and concomitant personal responsibilities, as a libertarian or rationalist would see them.

Here, I'm struck with the past attitudes of the religious right toward people with introverted personalities, which religious people view as "self-serving"; yet we know that personality is itself strongly influenced by biology and genetics. The extreme endpoint of introversion is perhaps something like autism (medically that idea could be challenged). In the 80s, religious author Tim La Haye gratuitously characterized the male homosexual as afflicted with a "melancholy personality" (the "Tchaikovsky syndrome") which clinically has a lot to do with "feminine polarity" and introversion. In her "opposing viewpoint" counterpoint to my essay (on teaching about homosexuality in public schools) in the book "Teenage Sexuality" (review link), religious writer Linda Harvey wrote about "homosexual feelings" as essentially malignant, as if to suggest existential arguments that loyalty to one's own biology (a desire to procreate) is an essential part of "reverence for life" and an important counter to the hardships that the external world ("God") would impose on those who try to follow their own choices.

But this idea, that people have a moral obligation to outgrow "utilitarian" adolescence and connect to people on an emotional level related to real needs, is a point of view worth noting. The “law of karma,” if one looks to that as some sort of common denominator for social justice, does mean that people will return some of the caregiving and connectivity given to them, whether they had their own kids or not; and this can be very difficult for those who remain emotionally separated. The religious position on this seems to be, that not everyone gets to "self-actualize" before becoming parents and agreeing to the emotional commitments (and sometimes limitations) of family life. Yet, much of the progress of our modern world depends on the freedom of people to act largely on their own and implement their own visions. That’s not possible without recognizing personal autonomy. The religious views surrounding the family sometimes seem blind or oblivious to the involuntary sacrifices of personal freedom (from those not interested in socializing themselves this way) that these views demand. It’s a perfect moral storm.

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