The problem of personal, private faith and morality

If you are following the news surrounding Kate Forbes’ tilt at the SNP leadership, you will have come across a fairly common argument about faith in the public square. It can take various forms, but it is usually something like this: having a personal faith is absolutely fine, but you shouldn’t act upon your faith in public. The general sentiment is summed up in this tweet by Sunny Hundal:

As far as the underlying sentiment goes, I broadly agree. Specifically, that it is to our benefit that a wide range of views and opinions can be heard in the public square and it is not good that religious conservatives might be barred from entering public life. On that, I agree.

But it was interesting – and I have seen comments to this effect continuously over the last few days – about “personal faith” or “personal morality”. As a term, it can be helpful as far as it goes. There are things that religious conservatives may think about God and ethics that they believe are matters of morality than nonetheless should not be implemented in law. So, to take what I think is a broadly uncontroversial example, most evangelical Christians think it is a matter of sin not to worship Jesus Christ as God and saviour. That is, it is morally wrong not to be a follower of Christ. But it is also true that almost no evangelical Christians (except, perhaps, some extremely hard line theonomists of whom there are vanishingly few) believe that such a moral imperative ought to be imposed by law. Indeed, not only do they not think it should be imposed, they would largely believe it could not be meaningfully imposed. That is to say, there are matters of “personal faith” or “personal morality” – things we may believe are matters of sin, moral matters of right or wrong – that ought not to be legislated and imposed by the civil authority.

But in these sorts of comments about “personal faith” and “personal morality”, most the people saying it is fine for someone to hold such personal views are also quick to insist that such personal faith or morality should not be brought to bear in the public square. But it is impossible for NOT to be impacted by personal faith or morality. Everyone comes with personal morals that inevitably affect their public life. They might not be drawn from the Bible of Qur’an, but if your morals derive from the philosophy of Hulme or Kant, or you take your cue from Das Kapital or The Virtue of Selfishness, you are inevitably going to bring your personal morality to bear in public life. Nobody seems concerned when other philosophical moral beliefs are brought to bear, but religious beliefs are seemingly verboten.

Jonathan Leeman, in his book Political Church, sums the situation up well:

The division between politics and religion, I dare say, is an ideological ploy. Imagine an airport security metal detector standing at the entrance of the public square, which doesn’t screen for metal but for religion. The machine beeps anytime someone walks through it with a supernatural big-G God hiding inside one of their convictions, but it fails to pick up self-manufactured or socially constructed little-g gods. Into this public square the secularist, the materialist, the Darwinist, the consumerist, the elitist, the chauvinist, and, frankly, the fascist can all enter carrying their gods with them, like little wooden figures in their pockets. Not so the Christian or Jews. Their conviction that murder is wrong because all people are made in God’s image might as well be a semiautomatic. What this means, of course, is that the public square is inevitably slanted toward the secularist and materialist. Public conversation is ideologically rigged. The secularist can bring his or her god. I cannot bring mine because his name starts with a capital letter and I didn’t make him up.

This seems to be what we are seeing in most of the comment on personal faith and morality.

But as Tim Farron rightly argued here:

Of course people of faith allow their faith to affect their politics, and so they should. Every human being has a worldview. Every one of you. And you may think you have no beliefs whatsoever, but you do. You’re not neutral. In which case, it’s okay for somebody who is a Marxist, for example, to bring what they’ve learnt from Das Kapital into the room, but not to take what you believe from the Bible? That’s nonsense, isn’t it? The fact is, there is no neutral space in the public square and a genuinely liberal society is one where we bump up against each other respectfully and are helpfully healthily curious about why people think things that are different.

You can watch more here:

But that is the problem with arguments to personal, private faith and morality. If what you mean by that is that we all bring our respective morals with us into the public square, informed by whatever religion, philosophy, politics and culture we have imbibed, then fair enough. But typically what is meant is that your personal, private morality – particularly if it is informed by your religious convictions – must not inform your views in the public square. Not only is it unfair, it is a nonsense.

For a start, how is one supposed to unpick their religious morals from any others they might hold? If I consider murder to be wrong because we are made in the image of God, am I allowed to hold that in public square or must I find other reasons why I think murder is wrong even though that is why I think it is? What if my religious convictions as an Independent and Baptist push me to a belief that church and state ought to be kept separate? Must I give that position up because I concluded it based on my religious convictions and then, against what I actually think, insist on a wedding of church and state after all? You can see how this might minimally get religious folks into a pretty pickle.

But the problem isn’t unique to religious believers. Secularists insist that they are coming to the public square morally neutral. Which begs the question, what is secular morality? If they approach the public square without morals, one might uncharitably say A-morally, what makes anything a moral matter at all? Morals, by their very nature, are not neutral. Take the issue for which Kate Forbes is currently under fire. Why is gay marriage and equal rights a moral matter? What secular principle determines it is a moral matter and from what moral authority do you derive it? If all that exists is moral neutrality, how is anything a matter of morality? How can someone entering the public square know whether the moral matter they are deciding on has been determined by secular values or not?

Then, of course, there is wider issue of other factors. The United Kingdom, for example, has not reached whatever moral consensus we may have apart from cultural factors. Whatever we may be now, there is no doubt that we are historically a culturally Christian country that has clearly operated on Judeo-Christian values. The question is, how does the secularist know which of their values has been derived from the verboten Christian heritage of the UK and which have popped into existence from the apparent moral vacuum of secular thought? If the Christian or Jew must leave their religious morals at the door, surely the secularist has to do the hard work of figuring out which of their principles have derived from the Judeo-Christian worldview and hang those assumptions up at the door too.

Even if we could reach moral neutrality, and you can see how difficult it is, once we get there there is nothing governing what a moral is. If we are truly neutral, nothing is actually moral. The moment we insist something is moral, we are making a value judgement that is no longer neutral. The reality is that we all derive our morals from somewhere. It may be religion, culture, philosophy, something else and a hotchpotch of all of them put together. But as soon as we do determine something to be moral, we have necessarily given up any claim to neutrality. That is to say, moral neutrality is a myth.

If that is so, the answer is clearly not to tell some people they cannot bring their moral framework with them into the public square. Rather, the answer is to say you bring your morals, I will bring mine, and we will try to understand how one another got there as best we can. If we insist on moral neutrality, we lose the ability to appeal to any morals at all. We call them moral judgements for a reason. They are, by nature, not neutral. The question is not whether your judgements are neutral, but whether they are right. Dismissing someone because they have derived their answer from a different source to you just the genetic fallacy in different packaging. The answer is not to hang up our respective moral frameworks, but to be aware of them and to understand how and why other people might think differently to us on certain moral matters.