How do we go about deciding what ethical system government should be built upon? In something such as a monarchy or a religious theocracy it is based upon either one mans ideas or revealed authority. But in a democracy, when we have a pluralistic society, what dictates what is right or wrong? There is furious debate over this in the public sphere, with many on the Right saying that we must take America back to “Christian” principles and establish Biblical Law; because such Biblical Law is given from God.
I have been thinking about this for the past two weeks as I have been reading the following books (a previous BOTW and a future one) The Conservative Soul by Andrew Sullivan and American Fascists by Chris Hedges. These authors skillfully address the delicate balance of a majority’s religious opinion in a democratic pluralistic society, and thus they have influenced greatly my thinking on this.
The Fundamentalist will argue that we as humans cannot know right from wrong, because we as humans are imperfect beings. They will then claim that we must have a “divinely revealed” code of ethics and morality. This is true to an extent. We as humans cannot know right from wrong definitively, but this does not necessitate that we have divinely inspired revelation. Reason and science are able to rationally understand some ethical issues through the “checks and balances” of scientific inquiry and review.
This my friends, is how a pluralist society (which has many different religious beliefs and thoughts) must function. In a democracy we cannot just have one idea reign supreme, as the fundamentalist wants, because to do so would established governmental approval of one particular ideology. Not everyone in a society will agree with the fundamentalists’ religious ideal, so that is why we have to have governmental policy based upon something that humans can know, through experimentation and reason.
We cannot have a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish theocracy it we want to have a democracy and pluralist society. A fundamentalist theocracy will not allow dissent against the ideals of their religious dogma, so therefore there can be no democracy or pluralism. Having differing views is subversive and anti-government. We see this type of system existing in states such as Iran or Syria. Theology cannot and should not have an influence in government, because religion cannot truly tolerate dissent. An example of this historically is the Puritans in Massachusetts. They fled from the religiously oppressive England and established – not a City on a Hill like they claimed – but instead a society just as oppressive and closed to dissent as the one they were fleeing from; just look at the examples of Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson.
Because fundamentalism cannot and should not be established within a pluralist society, the fundamentalists claim that they are being discriminated against when government will not establish their ideals within society. They say that the pluralistic society of tolerance is not applying to them; that those who claim to be tolerant of other beliefs and ideas are themselves being intolerant of the fundamentalist beliefs. Is this the case? Yes it is; but it is an acceptable form of intolerance. When faith and “divine inspiration” are established in government (over logic, reason, and science), one persons belief system has been established over others. Thus tyranny ensues, for as stated above dissent against the government is dissent against God. On the opposite side, no one in the pluralist society has established their own personal beliefs in government – yet the pluralist society allows the fundamentalist to practice their beliefs in private. This is the essence of democracy and pluralism.