I was thinking about how best to respond to my friend Jenny’s comment on my last blog post, because it’s a really interesting and challenging and question, and because I think I actually agree with her in a lot of what she says, and suspect that some of my thinking about faith and politics got caught up in the convolutions of trying to work it out in relation to the particular issue at hand. And it got to be a thing (I even ended up making listy-bullet points) that I thought might be worth a post of its very own. I’m thinking back to what I wrote here:
You have to think about how your faith interacts with your society and your political system. Which, I think, is not as simple as working out what you think is right and what you think is wrong about a particular question and voting for or against measures relating to that question. You have to think about whether you think your faith should have a privileged voice In the discussion or not, and if it should, why.
And about this bit of Jenny’s reply, in particular:
To me this seems like a strangely dualistic way to approach this particular question, an approach I don’t think many socially-engaged Christians would take at all on, say, an issue relating to economic justice… For a start you’re not giving it a privileged voice, you’re just giving it a voice – yours – according to your conscience. And presumably because your view of the world says that what your faith leads you to believe is right and wrong is what your best guess is at what is actually right and wrong – and leading to good, abundant life. Otherwise we’re saying “I believe this to be right or wrong, but that’s probably just for me and has nothing relevant to contribute to an actual discussion about rights and morality and the common good.
I think that there’s a difference between claiming or having a voice expressing your faith and arguing that the voice of your faith should have a privileged place in the political discourse. And I think I elided those two in my argument, which is pretty messy of me - and also elided two sets of arguments in the frequent Christian arguments against gay marriage, specifically the, ‘I believe that this thing is wrong, and therefore this is what I want to campaign for and would vote for,’ line and the ‘We are a Christian country, and the Christian faith says this is wrong, therefore this shouldn’t be legal,’ argument (very basically expressed).
The latter is the privileged voice, and without wanting to become someone muttering, ‘Check your privilege’ (or, "Don’t be a solipsistic nutjob, dear"), this is something I’m wary of personally and for the church generally. I think we (in the UK) were a Christian country - and I think that that had it’s good results and its less good results. I also think that we may not be a Christian country any more and that this is something both church and individuals have to be aware of - and negotiate - when getting into a political discourse: not whether having the voice is valid, but whether this voice should have or demand preference, and - frankly - being aware that other people might assume that you think it should (which is always fun). Used as simply as I put it above (and I have heard it put thus in the gay marriage debate), it’s a pretty rotten argument against anything. But it’s not, honestly, what I was talking about.
The former, however, is giving voice to your conscience and your beliefs - and I think Jenny is right that that has a valuable contribution to a discussion, and I wish I hadn’t managed to lose that in my post - especially since, coming at things afresh, I suppose my political position actually does give voice to my current state of belief, because I am so very uncertain I am about what my thoughts are on this particular question in terms of my faith and my beliefs. So I’m not able to take a strong stand as an article of faith, because I’m still working out my theology on it - and in the absence of that it I can’t bring myself to argue to deny consenting adults the right to a civil marriage, regardless of the genders of the partners involved (especially given previously expressed thoughts about civil legalities, religious marriage ceremonies, and the importance of marriage as the ultimate symbol of commitment of romantic love in my society).
I don’t think it’s a ‘positive’ voice, in the sense of representing a defined opinion, it’s a more negative voice, representing a lack of definite opinion and an ambivalence about the options - and I would still like to move towards working out what I believe. And then I still come to the question of what I do with that, in terms of my politics. It’s entirely probable that I’m over-convoluting this because of my internal fight with a theology. Facing up to Jenny’s question, I imagine if I decide one way or the other, then the question about ‘how to vote’ will go away. But, equally, I don’t think I’m likely to decide with that much certainty, because of my tendency towards ambivalence and towards valuing it, politically - so I still have to struggle through.
And I’m not certain that there aren’t some issues where I might hold an opinion about the best way to live, as an article of faith, and choose not to vote for it to be the law of the land - probably becuase it coincides with another bit of my belief system and then I have to choose which one I’m going to give preference to. And for this particular question that will involve balancing my beliefs about relationships, marriage, the idea of the family and the role of the family in society, what two consenting adults should be allowed to do between themselves and where I think the boundaries are between personal, private choices and the impact these have upon the society we build as a group of individuals.
I’m going to leave this here for now, because as well as balancing off all the above, I’m also trying to balance in thoughts about the distinctions between criminal and civil law, about law and personal behaviour, and how they interrelate in individual lives and with these ideas of a good life and the common good.
That said, by the time I’m done - it will still be my voice that I want to express and vote with, it will just be a voice that comes from a place that thinks that what I believe my faith (or religion, because here we probably are talking about the religion) has to say about the moral rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships isn’t the only factor in the seriously complicated equation of my belief-system, and that it might not be the most privileged factor either.