OK, now that we’ve basically cleared up any confusion surrounding the ontological status of agency and atonement, let me see what you think about something a little more… political.
For many years friends and I had considered the possibility of some kind of political-philosophy oriented educational foundation that would try to help religious people, and LDS in particular, to navigate the world of ideas as these concern politics, broadly understood. What finally got some of us off the dime with this concern was the controversy surrounding the Church’s efforts in favor of Prop 8 in California.
Let me first satisfy your curiosity, if you have any, by stating simply that I favored and I favor the proposition, as well as the LDS Church’s efforts on its behalf. This has been much discussed, and we can discuss it more if you like. But maybe it will be useful to go back behind (or above, or beneath) this particular issue to some questions about religious convictions in the public square.
Here is what I found in conversations with many young and smart LDS (BYU students and others) during or in the wake of the Prop 8 business: many were convinced (on religious and/or other grounds) that homosexuality is wrong, that homosexual “marriage” is not a good idea, and that it would be better if homosexual practices were not further encouraged/legitimized. But a good number, maybe most I talked to, also were very uncomfortable with the Church’s taking a public position and playing an active role in political issues surrounding homosexuality. “I believe the homosexual lifestyle is wrong, but it’s also wrong for me to impose my values” is one typical response I heard. Another is: “I believe it’s wrong, but how does it affect me, my marriage, my family, or my religion, finally, if Jack and Joe, two harmless fellows I know, get married and live down the street, minding their own business?”
I believe these responses reflect a great and perilous political naïveté. They are based upon a very late-liberal view of politics, in fact a de-politicized view of politics, one that assumes a simplistic dichotomy between the public and private, and simply takes for granted the space of public ideas and opinions in which religious liberty is defined and redefined, as if individual rights were unproblematic facts of nature and not the perpetually re-negotiated stakes of political debate and conflict. Some friends and I (3 Mormons and 2 Catholics; 3 professors and 2 lawyers) formed the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs about a year ago to raise awareness among LDS and other religious believers and their friends concerning the inevitable moral stakes of political re-definitions of “rights.”
Rights are obviously never absolute; they are necessarily limited by some shared, authoritative priorities, some implicit understanding of “the good.” The recognition of new “rights” always reflects a shift in this background understanding of the good, and thus always involves some trade-offs. The expansion of one kind of rights always involves a shifting understanding of the good, and thus the restricting of other kinds of rights. For example: the civil rights laws of the 1960s that (rightly, in my view) made it illegal to deny public accommodations on the basis of race, while, obviously (and again, rightly, in my view), adding a restriction to certain property rights.
Returning to the more contemporary issue: a number of anti-Prop 8 activists considered the majoritarian victory of Prop 8 as illegitimate, since the “discrimination” involved in the heterosexual understanding of marriage could, on their view, be explained only as sheer “bigotry.” Now, the opinions of “bigots” are precisely those that do not deserve protection as “rights.” In the long run, the victory of the homosexual-rights faction would be incompatible with the religious freedom of those who oppose such rights – the freedom, for example, to teach one’s children that homosexuality is wrong and not conducive to ultimate happiness, or to run a private university in which the practice of homosexuality is grounds for dismissing a student or an employee.
The public space in which American religious freedom has operated, a space defined by implicit dominant assumptions concerning “the good,” has happily been quite wide by any historical standards, open to considerable diversity. But every such space has limits, implicit boundaries that are always being re-negotiated. To imagine the public sphere can be morally neutral is simply to abandon the definition of the moral grounds of rights to activists who are confident that morality (such as the morality of unlimited individual self-expression) is on their side.
But what do you think? Again, you may exercise your right to agree or disagree with me on the particular, substantive issue of a “right” to homosexual “marriage.” But I would be particularly interested in responses to the second-order thesis I have stated here: that the defining or re-defining of particular “rights” always involves a reshaping of a dominant substantive morality, and thus that no morally neutral settlement in terms of “rights” is possible.