Friday, November 25, 2011

Religion and politics - part 3

This third post in my series on Religion and Politics discusses ethical commitments important for politics. These include:

·         Truth telling: Without honesty, human community is impossible. Lying denotes intentional deception. Politicians who change their opinions may do so for the laudatory reason that they have obtained new information that caused them to rethink their views. Thankfully, President Kennedy did this following the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion. When the CIA and U.S. military leaders proposed subsequently invasion attempts, Kennedy refuse to approve them. However, when politicians become like weather vanes changed course and position in response to their perception of prevailing public opinion, these politicians generally lack the integrity required of any leader.

·         Promise keeping: Promise keeping, a subset of truth telling, offers an assurance of future behavior predicated upon the ability and intent to do what one has promised in the absence of receiving new information that causes keeping the promise to seem unadvisable. Much campaign rhetoric is full of promises that a politician, if elected, neither can nor intends to keep.

·         Beneficence: Political actions (speech, votes, contributions, etc.) should aim to improve or benefit the welfare of others and society.

·         Nonmaleficence: At a minimum, any potential political action is wrong if it will likely result in harm to self, others, or society. The principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence are both broadly applicable and require analysis of potential short- and long-term consequences as well as effects on the earth and other life forms.

·         Peacemaking: In both the Old and New Testaments, peace connotes the fullness of human flourishing. Hence, peacemaking entails more than the absence of armed conflict. Peacemaking involves working to establish a just, loving society in which all life flourishes.

Those ethical commitments are character traits rather than as rules to obey. Character traits describe habits or the predisposition to act in a certain way. Nobody perfectly obeys the rules – this is the basic premise of the traditional understanding of Pauline theology. However, most people generally have consistent behavior patterns, at least in the short-run. Unable to predict the future, the best gauge of a candidate’s fitness for office is his/her character as evidenced in past behaviors.

However, justice is the most basic Christian ethical concept for participation in secular politics is a value fundamental to any political system congruent with Christian theological and moral principles. The Hebrew words for charity and justice have the same etymological root. The Bible mentions the word justice more than 175 times. Exactly what is justice?

The twentieth century philosopher John Rawls, in a definition widely adopted by Christians, defined justice as fairness. In particular, Rawls emphasized that justice as fairness requires granting equal rights and liberties to all, arranging inequalities to benefit the least advantaged, and making those choices by assuming the original position. The original position demands that a person set aside her/his own identity, assess alternatives as if she/he did not know that identity, and select the alternative that, no matter what her/his identity, offered the most acceptable outcomes. In other words, an alternative is fairest if any of the possible outcomes equally satisfies an individual. For example, a tax policy is fair if – no matter one’s income, wealth, social standing, or any other relevant factor – one finds the policy equally satisfactory regardless of any possible permutation of those relevant factors.

Justice has at least three dimensions. Commutative justice describes justice between people (i.e., treating all people with equal dignity, giving them equal rights and freedoms). Distributive justice connotes the fair distribution of wealth, power, and other resources and assets among the members of a society. Legal or criminal justice means granting all due process and fair treatment in the courts and at law.

One additional theological/ethical concept important for politics is that from a Christian perspective, nation states are not part of God's ultimate plan for the earth. Metaphors and images for God's ultimate intent vary widely. All, however, embrace a unified human community in which race, ethnicity, nationality, or other human distinctions do not limit God's love.

The penultimate nature of nation states means that Christians will adopt a global rather than national view in evaluating political choices. Valuing all people equally and supporting equal rights and freedoms for all people is an inclusive endeavor encompassing all people everywhere. Parochial patriotism is inimical to gospel imperatives.

My next post, the fourth in the series on Religion and Politics, addresses the question of how Christians can discern God's will with respect to political choices.

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