As a student of politics, I can say that the defining characteristic of modern politics (i.e. political thought over the last several hundred years) is that there is a clear distinction between the private existence of individuals and the public interest. Before the Renaissance, this wasn’t the case. It was widely held that an individuals faith had to align with that of the establishment, a fact brought to light in the first century of the Enlightenment where the formula ‘cuius regio, eius religio‘ (whose realm, whose religion) was adopted to deal with the political split between Protestantism and Catholicism. Such a formula was jettisoned eventually. Instead, it was argued that there was a world where hard political decisions had to be taken, a world where one’s personal convictions had to be diluted, a world where one had to accept that not everyone thought the same, or believed the same, a world where there was no state-supported system of belief.
Every philosophy has a tendency to err, however, if pushed too far. A good example was the strange discussion that took place in the House of Commons yesterday between Tim Farron and Nigel Evans. Farron is a devout Christian and leader of the Liberal Democrats. With regard to same-sex rights, he seems to live a double-life, against homosexuality privately but supportive of LGBT relationships publicly. When pushed, he said that being gay wasn’t a sin, his declaration on sinfulness a strange utterance considering the place he was standing in.
Listening to it made me realise the insanity that has become of the private/public dichotomy, which is sometimes called separation of Church vs. State. Whatever one thinks about Farron’s real beliefs or the question of LGBT rights, the fact remains that being for or against LGBT rights isn’t a matter of doctrine, faith, or religion. It is not like questions of transubstantiation, or that of the role of the Pope, or any other specifically religious view. One can look at a same-sex relationship, and assess and evaluate whether it is in the public interest to lend official support to the practice. Farron has a ‘private’ existence. But is it fair to say that he can’t pass judgement on something that is not a matter of pure doctrine, but which is instead a matter capable of observation, or at least a matter of which we can make predictions concerning its outcome?
We hear the same stuff about other public issues. “Don’t bring your private opinions into the abortion debate.” “Don’t bring your private opinions into the euthanasia debate.” However, like LGBT rights, one can pass judgement on abortion or euthanasia without retreating to the next world. One can ask valid questions about the pain babies in the womb suffer, or about whether individuals have the right to kill themselves, or about what role the state has if it is not going to actively protect life. Abortion, euthanasia, what homes people grow up in; these are things that occur right in front of our eyes, not things happening in another dimension or in the hereafter.
To say that religiously inclined people like Farron mustn’t have convictions based on their faith is really saying that its a crime to hold religious views. Its disenfranchisement. Does Farron have a right to impose his opinion on people concerning the resurrection? No. Does he have a right to tell people that one form of intimate relationship is not in the public interest and another form is in the public interest, and to vote accordingly? Of course he does, provided he has evidence to support his point and a viewpoint that is in harmony with a specific political or legal outlook. Yes, he has every right to oppose LGBT rights because we can determine the strength of such arguments. Same goes for abortion or euthanasia in the US, Australia, Ireland, or any place else.