Texas Faith: When is it okay to apply moral absolutes to public policy?

Theology Professor William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, and SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson talk religious absoluteness in the debate of public policy.

Matthew WilsonMATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

There are certain issues in our public life where it is not only acceptable, but essential, that we be guided by absolute moral beliefs. When the abolitionists in the 19th century opposed slavery, they were right to do so in absolute terms. Likewise, in my view, those who work today to protect human life from conception to natural death, or who struggle against genocide, of necessity base their activism in uncompromisable moral absolutes. These are fundamental issues of human worth and human dignity that do not lend themselves to "split the difference" solutions.

At the same time, however, it is problematic when the moral fervor and unwillingness to compromise that rightly characterize this small subset of issues become the rule rather than the exception. Of course fiscal and economic policy have moral dimensions; they are necessarily informed by our notions of justice, stewardship, and the common good. When approaching these kinds of questions, however, we need to realize that they don't represent the sort of bright-line, dichotomous moral choices that slavery, abortion, or genocide do. What exactly constitutes "out-of-control" spending or "excessive" taxation? How can we tell when trimming an entitlement program constitutes an "immoral" cut? Can we really argue that a 33% marginal tax rate is OK, but that a 36% rate would be evil? What eligibility age for social security benefits is morally permissible--65, 67, 70, 75, or what?

Economic issues just do not lend themselves to morally absolutist stances, which is why I think both the anti-tax fundamentalism of some on the right and the unwillingness of some on the left to consider any meaningful reforms of entitlement programs are unhelpfully dogmatic positions that make it difficult to compromise in the interest of the common good. The bottom line is that economic policy is largely made at the margins, with relatively small shifts in tax rates and expenditures usually at the crux of political debate. In these situations, it is difficult (and often counter-productive) to bring absolutist moral stances to the table.

William LawrenceWILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

Religious groups have, from time to time, sought to establish public policies that were in line with their own moral and theological absolutes. One case in point was the demand, initiated in the 19th century and accomplished in the second decade of the 20th, that mainstream Protestants' absolute opposition to consuming alcohol be established as national policy. It was, by almost all assessments, a disaster. It spawned an underground economy that involved the production, distribution, and sales of alcohol. It fostered a system of organized crime designed to protect the alcohol business and its related activities. Not only that, but it was probably based (at least in part) on the religious bias harbored by many Protestants (who claimed to spurn alcohol) against the Roman Catholics (who did not share that absolute view).

After Prohibition was repealed, Methodists were still free to impose abstinence on their members. But they, along with other Protestants, were no longer free to insist that their denominational disciplines had to be the law of the land.

Amish hold to an absolute prohibition against violence and, hence, against participation in war. They are free to practice their absolute convictions, and the policies of the government offer protections (such as conscientious objector status) that guarantee them the freedom to uphold their absolute beliefs. But they do not seek to impose their views on the nation.

Religious organizations may seek to impose absolute moral standards in public policy only when those absolute positions transcend theological differences, benefit the society as a whole, and support the personal freedoms of those who do not share the religious beliefs of the group that proposes them. For example, an absolute prohibition against slavery was the religious conviction of many Americans in the 19th century and before. Eventually, the nation amended its constitution to ban slavery because it was morally repugnant not only to some religious organizations but also to the very nature of human dignity.

Abortion is morally repugnant to SOME religious traditions. But it cannot be proved and has not been proved that it deserves to be prohibited as a matter of national policy. Many religious citizens and many non-sectarian citizens find, as The United Methodist Church has said, that the only appropriate forum for discussion about the moral issues surrounding abortion is a discussion between a woman and her doctor. No religious group has the right to impose its attitudes toward abortion on the whole nation. But every religious group is free to teach its own adherents what that tradition believes about the topic.

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