October 8th, 2012 by Sarah Jackson
My friend Rachel likes coffee-flavored ice cream. I don’t get it. Sure, I like a steaming cup of coffee every now and then, but, when it comes to ice cream, the coffee-flavored kind doesn’t float my boat. I would much rather dip a very large spoon into a tub of peppermint-flavored ice cream. It not only floats my boat, it raises its sails and sets it flying toward the sherbet-streaked sunset.
There is part of me that is so passionate about peppermint-flavored ice cream I’m tempted to try to convince my friends and family to make it their favorite type of ice cream, too. But I don’t, because that would be silly.
Matters of taste are not a big deal.
We cannot argue for or against matters of taste because they’re neither reasonable nor unreasonable. And we certainly don’t have expectations for universal agreement of taste. Different people like different flavors of ice cream because, well, just because. And that’s that.
Some people want to treat politics the way they treat ice cream. They want to chalk their political opinions up to matters of taste against which there can be no logical arguments, for which there are no expectations for universal agreement. The problem is that when we classify our political opinions this way we cannot argue that slavery or rape should be illegal, much less expect everyone to agree with us.
I know a lot of people who recognize the danger of thinking so irrationally about political opinions. They recognize the presence of natural law — a system of law determined by human nature, through which we have knowledge of moral absolutes and inalienable human rights. And they believe it’s the role of the government to develop laws and policies that jive with natural law.
The evident relationship between morality and politics leads many people to conflate moral absolutes with political opinions. And since moral absolutes require universal agreement, they believe our political opinions should be monolithic, so that disunity among voters is an urgent problem they need to solve.
It seems to me that classifying political opinions as either moral absolutes or matters of taste is inadequate. It stifles Christian political conversation and causes dissension in Christian community. There is a third, helpful way we can classify some of our political opinions.*
Let me explain. We all probably recognize our inalienable right to live freely and pursue happiness. As a result, I’m guessing we all think health care is important, since it helps to keep us alive and all. And though it’s likely we arrived at these conclusions through similar means — reason, intuition and the Word of God — I’m guessing we have differing opinions about how the government should be involved in our health care.
We might classify our beliefs about how to realize a political ideal as ‘personal convictions.’
Unlike matters of taste, we arrive at our personal convictions through reason.
Unlike moral absolutes, there are no expectations for universal agreement of personal convictions.
Like matters of morality, personal convictions are important. The apostle Paul reminds us that each of us should be completely convinced of them in our own minds because one day we will answer to Jesus for them. Jesus cares about our personal political convictions. He knows what leaders would guide us into good living, and what laws and policies would best cultivate human flourishing.
So we should think deeply about our personal convictions, and make a point to dialogue about them with each other. We should work to cultivate a culture of encouraging and challenging each other, with the common goal of developing efficacious personal political convictions that are deeply influenced by Christian beliefs.
And hopefully your neighbor Joe Smith discovers through Christian discourse that his convictions about the sex education mandate aren’t as informed by profound Christian belief as he thought.
And perhaps you realize your convictions about the government’s role in preserving the planet won’t be as fruitful as Joe’s.
And maybe you’re both further convinced of some of your personal convictions as a result of dialoging with each other.
Whatever the case, understanding that personal convictions are different than moral absolutes can be helpful and freeing. It can help us to understand that liking an education bill is not the same as liking rocky road ice cream, and can free us to engage each other in political conversation with the goal of developing personal convictions that please Jesus.
*Thanks to my colleague, Rick Langer, whose recent lecture inspired this article.
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