A taste of healthier political thinking

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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 Image credit: family.go.com


10 Comments

  • Chase

    Sarah, great thoughts! I agree that we are to cultivate deeply Christian convictions — and not conflate that with deeply subscribed party lines.

    Would the Rick Langer mentioned be Rick Langer of Biola fame? He’s quite the inspiration.

    Thanks!

  • Sarah Jackson

    Thanks, Chase! Yes, it’s Biola’s one and only Rick Langer. He is fantastic! How do you know him?

    S

  • Arlin Edmondson

    I do not think this really words.

    When you consider the diverse views on not only what are the moral absolutes in society, or,even more importantly, the divergent views in our society regarding whether moral absolutes even exist, would it not dictate then that one’s views of ‘moral absolutes’ are themselves ‘personal convictions’?

    Moreover, would a ‘personal conviction’ that is itself not grounded in one’s view of ‘moral absolutes’, or a particular ethical mooring, be compelling in any sense of the word ‘conviction’?

    Does not the definition of having a ‘conviction’ imply that the ‘conviction’ is itself grounded in ‘moral absolutes’?

    In other words, when question, it would seem that the categories of ‘moral absolutes’ and ‘personal convictions’ collapse into different descriptions of the same idea making them redundant and reducing our vocabulary back to a dichotomy between taste and ethical mandate.

    Id Est, another approach to broadening the common vocabulary is necessary.
    Qed Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

    • Dale Fincher

      Arlin, this is great food for thought.

      I actually don’t find moral absolutes to be much of a contention in society, if by moral absolutes we believe that there are objective morals available to everyone (even if we don’t always agree what they are)… THAT there are morals is different than agreement about morals. That is what makes it objective. I find relativism, the skepticism that nothing metaphysical exists, including morals, to have fallen on hard times. All (well, most, I’m sure) pub fights revolve around people who thinks the other person ought to know better… relativism says there is not such thing as “knowing better.”

      I wonder I could add some clarity to what I think Sarah is saying. Moral absolutes are objective. Personal convictions are subjective. The former is available to out there as an object of inquiry and accessible to others. The latter is only available to us and is about us. The latter could certainly tear along the perforated line of the former, this making our personal conviction the same content as a moral absolute. But personal conviction can also resist the moral absolute. And in that sense, these are two very different things that do not collapse into one another.

      Sarah, is that what you are saying?

      Arlin, I look forward to your response!

      • Sarah Jackson

        Yes, Dale. You nailed it. My intention was to offer a vocabulary that accounted for the distinction between moral absolutes and our personal opinions about the government’s role in upholding natural law. In my view, providing a more precise vocabulary for the types of beliefs we hold will help us to dialogue about politics and Christian belief in a more efficacious way.

        Thanks for sharing, Arlin. You mentioned another approach to broadening the common vocabulary is necessary here. Do you mind sharing your alternative approach?

        Sarah

        • Arlin Edmondson

          Sarah and Dale,

          I am unsure what a better set of categories would be at this point.

          In the back of my mind was the example of a discussion regarding abortion I had a few years ago.

          Someone claimed to have the ‘personal conviction’ that abortion is wrong because murder is absolutely wrong but they do not believe we should force our convictions on others and that each woman has the ‘right to chose’.
          Another person claims that abortion is not wrong at all and it is not murder.

          Both agree in an absolute standard of murder being morally wrong, and share that basic ethic.

          However, one believes that standard applies to the unborn and another does not.
          In both cases abortion goes unchallenged.

          However, a third person believes that murder is absolutely wrong, an unborn child is absolutely human, and abortion is absolutely morally murder, and nobody has the moral right to destroy another human being’s life without a just cause.

          All three people claim to be Christians.
          All three claim ethics exist and absolute morality can exist moored to those ethical pillars.

          Yet the categories break down.

          Maybe I am missing something?

          PS: Jonalyn’s two lectures talk at BIOLA were very good. and beneficial.

          • Sarah Jackson

            Hi Arlin,

            This is good stuff. I think you and I would agree that God’s commandment to ‘not murder’ is a moral absolute. And since abortion is murder it is absolutely wrong. Of course people have lots of different opinions about abortion, but they can’t all be right. Our goal, as Christians, is to see the issue the way God does, and so we ought to revise our current beliefs so that they are true and good.

            Here’s the thing: you can get a group of Christians together who all have true beliefs about abortion—they all absolutely agree that life absolutely begins at conception, and that abortion is an absolutely egregious thing. But they might have different ‘personal convictions’ about HOW the government ought to go about minimizing the number of abortions. Of course their convictions can’t all lead to equally efficacious political action, which is why they should talk about it, and invite Jesus to show them how their personal convictions can be deeply informed by Christian beliefs.

            Does that clarify the distinction I was trying to make?

            I agree, Jonalyn’s talk was fantastic! Like you, I’m thankful I could listen in.

            Sarah

          • Dale Fincher

            Does Sarah’s explanation help? I agree it can be confusing… but I don’t think the categories break down. We’re talking about different categories: one is about abortion and the other is about legislation.

            What we do know is that legislation is not the same thing as morality. There are many immoral things that are legal. And many illegal things that are amoral… and legally enforced things that may be immoral, and enforcements that may be immoral because they are unjust… have you ever seen the punishments for tax evasion? It’s far greater than prostitution (yet the former is not a moral category in the strict moral sense than the latter). But the primary condition is the morality of a thing… which should drive the legislation of a thing at some level. Should all lying be illegal? I hope not. Many 8 year olds would end up in prison. But let us at least make it illegal under oath. Is abortion immoral? The majority of americans do think there’s a problem with abortion. But should it be illegal and to what extent? The legislation doesn’t change the morality of it. And some legilation is strategic, though imperfect, like the person who wants to legislate the illegality of abortions after the first trimester. It would still be legal but immoral to abort during the first trimester, but it is still moral and wise to protect the unborn who are more than 12 weeks of age…

  • Benjamin Ady

    Sarah,

    thanks for writing and sharing a bit of yourself with us.

    The thing that stood out to me was your using the word “should” 6 times. What do you mean when you say or write “should”?

    • Sarah Jackson

      Hi Benjamin,

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

      The meaning of ‘should’ varies a bit throughout the article, depending on context, but generally I mean ‘ought to, because it is desirable, and, in some cases, expected.’

      Is there a specific usage in particular you were wondering about?

      Sarah




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