We are surely not experiencing the first time in American history in which we find ourselves torn by competing moral values. This current test that we have before us in the new Indiana religious liberty law is just the latest of these events. I have mused over this interesting face-off, and come to see it as just another test for the real viability democracy. The debate over Indiana’s religious liberty law forces each of us to examine such things as whether or not democracy is feasible for the long term, how much should or should not be legislated by a democratic nation, and to finally answer the question, when do personal convictions trump the basic rights of another and vice versa. I do not pretend to be the all knowing voice or any kind of authority with an answer to this test, but perhaps raising additional questions might be part of the answer.
Q. 1. How is virtue determined and applied in a democratic society?
We owe this process to Plato who insisted that in a democracy national choice must be constrained by a set of virtues.
“This city has been created to be the best city possible, we know this because we can be sure that it has all the virtues. So we will now look for each of the four virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.”
The Republic; book 4, 419-34.
The idea found in the above quote was one of the major influences that led to our constitution and the bill of rights. However, our problem in present day America is that we have shifting definitions of virtue and vice. For, example what used to be a virtue (being religious) is now considered by many to be a vice, and what used to be a vice (LGBT) is now considered a virtue. The obvious problem seems to be that we cannot agree on right and wrong, and even if we do now there is no guarantee we will in the future. Right and wrong are shifting sands. The fact is that the two sides totally disagree. Historically when this occurs, the side which is strongest either politically or militarily wins the debate. In other words, it becomes a case of force decides virtue (as in the civil war). We will have to wait and see on this one.
Q. 2. How much religious liberty is actually to be tolerated by a democratic society?
America has not answered this question fully. Political history seems to be full of political figures that are somewhat eager to placate religious folk for the sake of votes. In other words, religious people are treated as a voting block and that’s all, if they are significant in number they matter, if not then they don’t matter that much. The outcome of Indiana will probably reflect our politicians reliance upon keeping the religious on their side as a voting block. The outcome will then point to the future direction of religious liberty in America. In short, the outcome will answer how committed are our politicians are to pursuing the religious voting block. It doesn’t look good for the religious. All indications are that America has a decreasing level of tolerance for religion.
Q. 3. How much moral liberty is actually to be tolerated by a democratic society?
The answer here seems to be easy, moral liberty will rest completely on public opinion because that is the greatest voting block. Our future moral convictions are completely in the hands of those who can both afford and be willing to invest in major funds into their convictions. Whoever is willing to use public media and the educational system to form values, will in due time be found virtuous. We know this much, once something is deemed virtuous, then the republic mindset kicks in and the dissenters are overridden by the masses who vote for the politicians.
As I said, this is merely a political observation and not a moral commentary, I will save the moral commentary for another day.