When Moral Issues Become Political Issues

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Should our political views always align with our moral views?  When and if they don’t align, why not?  Guest blogger Ray explores this idea in today’s Guest Post:
The proliferation of posts in the Bloggernacle dealing with same-sex marriage after the CA Supreme Court decision prompted me to make the following comment here on Mormon Matters:
“Once a moral issue enters the political arena, it no longer is just a moral issue. It becomes a political issue, subject to different forces and obligations and stresses and interpretations ad infinitum than when it was “just” a moral issue. This is not the thread for it, but abortion is a perfect example of this. How I feel about it as a strictly “personal moral issue” varies radically from how I feel about it as a political, legal issue. That’s the core reason why the Church can and should comment on moral issues while not attempting to dictate political action.” (“Voting Mormon”, comment #30)
This post fleshes out that foundational claim – that once a moral issue enters the political arena, it is OK for Mormons to vote differently than they might preach.

My moral stance on abortion is, unsurprisingly, that of the Church: Abortion is not murder, and it is not inherently a sin in all cases, but it is a serious action that should be undertaken only in specific situations – like rape or incest, when the mother’s life is in danger, or when the fetus cannot survive birth.  Furthermore, it should not be automatic even in these situations (link to LDS official stance).

When abortion enters the political arena, however, my stance changes radically.  The same statement in the Church’s website Newsroom also includes a concluding statement, which rarely is quoted in these discussions:
“The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.”
Why not?   As a political issue, there are three options:
  1. Always prohibit abortions – not consistent with the Church’s moral stance;
  2. Always allow abortions – not consistent with the Church’s moral stance;
  3. Allow some and prohibit other abortions – can be consistent with the Church’s moral stance.

It would appear that I should support #3 as the basis for legislation.  I don’t.  I support #2 (even practices like partial-birth abortion, which I find simply revolting and barbaric in theory, but absolutely necessary in strictly limited instances) instead of #3, for the following reasons:

  1. Exceptions must be decided through compromise among differing beliefs. Most who accept exceptions would support abortion in situations where the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, but many don’t.  I think most would support exceptions for cases of rape and incest, but many don’t.  Fewer support a doctor’s determination that the fetus won’t survive birth, since there is an element of subjectivity in some cases.  Compromise that does not include the exceptions the Church allows would be in direct violation of my own moral code – forcing birth in situations where I believe the parents (including my wife and I) should be able to choose abortion, if necessary in their situation.  I can’t support that.
  2. It would be fairly easy for a doctor who is committed to abortion as an option for all to over-estimate the danger to the mother’s life if an abortion was desired. In order to address this potential conflict, the courts would be required to assign a second doctor to verify the initial diagnosis, but this doctor would be just as likely to be opposed to abortion as an option.  If so, the verification might be withheld for many women whose decisions I would support otherwise.  I can’t support that.
  3. The most tricky situation legally is in cases of rape. Here’s what’s tricky about it:
    • For abortions in these cases to be allowed, there would have to be a charge made of rape.
    • Any charge would necessitate an investigation.
    • An investigation would require the possibility of a trial.
    • Typical investigations and trials cannot be undertaken and completed in nine months – especially in cases that might boil down to “she said/he said”.  In reality, these cases actually would have a “prosecutorial window” of only about 4-6 months – since the pregnancy might not be known until the second month and would need to be terminated prior to the third trimester in order to avoid late-term abortions that would never receive legal support.
    • In these situations, to be a viable option, an abortion would have to be possible before the completion of any legal action to determine the validity of the claim.
    • Rape cases are difficult to prove, but under this “exception” construct, abortions should not be allowed for spurious accusations.
    • Therefore, these cases would need to be expedited to reach a conviction that would justify the abortion occurring.
    • The cases that should not be rushed, ever, are explicitly those that are the most difficult to prove.  Such a focus makes it less likely that the charge will be substantiated, meaning that legitimate cases have a greatly reduced chance of being proven – meaning that the perpetrator has a greatly enhanced chance of being acquitted.
    • If abortions are granted on the basis of the accusation, in order to address the nearly impossible task of convicting within 3-4 months of the charge being made, the courts would need to be willing to punish women who make spurious claims in order to have that abortion.  Otherwise, a charge of rape would become the automatic action of any woman desiring an abortion, effectively legislating the allowance of abortion in any situation.
    • The near impossibility of determining guilt in some cases, even when the accusation is valid, would mean that many women would be punished for having to make the case in a shortened time frame – for making a claim that is difficult to prove in an expedited time frame.
    • The possibility of being prosecuted for making a valid but unprovable accusation would have the practical effect of scaring many women away from making such an accusation, thus effectively legislating option #1 for many in the guise of #3. I can’t support that.

Given that I can’t support outlawing all abortions, and that I can’t support outlawing all abortions with the exceptions of rape, health of the mother and viability of the baby, all that is left for me is to leave the decision in the hands of the individual mother (and father, where applicable) and let them deal with the moral consequences of their decisions.

Morally, I am opposed to abortion, but I allow for exceptions; politically, I oppose legislation that restricts abortion in any way that would not address the issues I articulated here.  I have yet to see a proposal which I can support.

Abortion is just one example of this conundrum.  Morality dictates our individual choices, but as has been said elsewhere:  “You can’t legislate morality.”  That statement is usually taken to mean that you cannot force people to behave morally.  This example illustrates why it is also impractical.

Can you think of other impracticalities when moral issues become political issues?  Does voting your conscience always have to align with your moral choices in your opinion?  Should political action be a social outreach of one’s moral center or not?  Discuss.

Comments 26

  1. Welcome to libertarian philosophy. It is stuff like this that would drive my mother insane, but with which I am absolutely comfortable. Once you start connecting all the logical pieces that make up the church’s stance, the political reality of what seems like an initially very conservative moral stance leaves you with a libertarian political stance. I have found this to be the case in almost every instance. There are very few remaining issues on which I would willingly enact strong legislation against actions to which I am adamantly opposed on a moral basis because I don’t believe that it is the purpose of government to do so.

    As I said to my friend the other day: despite what some LDS folks would have you believe, Heavenly Father is most likely NOT a Conservative Republican (or even, gasp, American). Shocking, I know, but it is true. The gospel is far more libertarian than most of us would ever guess. There is an awful lot of talk about freedom and choice in the scripture, and I have the audacity to believe that those passages are just as true as the passages about obedience.

  2. My opinion is that “moral” values differ from one to another and therefore you just can’t make a “moral” value a political decision. Therefore I oppose any restriction in any field that will take free agency away no matter what my moral standards are.
    If we consider things from a mormon persepective then we need to remember that God placed free agency above anything else in the way he planed things for us. No matter how much I feel about an issue I am not the one who will take someone’s free agency away. I want to lead my life the way I feel and I won’t be able to do if I don’t have in my heart the desire to protect others’ right to leave the life they want.
    Same with abortion and with same sex marriage.
    Yet I have come accross an interview about this last subject of a man just said what I have thought for a long time.
    I honestly believe that for a lot of people (could be wrong) the same sex marriage issue is just a vocabulary problem. If you’d grant same sex couples the same rights as married couple but would not call it a marriage but a “contract” for example a lot of people would not care anymore.
    In France even a lot of gays are opposed to gay marriage. Just because they aggree that marriage is something between a man and a woman and it has been this way for milleniums.
    They feel that calling it a “same sex marriage” would be like calling Hanucka Christmas. It just does not make sense. And yet some do want the same rights as married couples.

    Anyway, going back to the question of your post I would tend to say that yes, my political vote and my moral values are in tune just because what I feel about abortion or anything else is a matter of choice and/or what I have experienced in my life and therefore what I thinks works best. So I am not sure they are morale values at heart. My only moral value, the one I cherish really is respecting others’ free agency and I always vote in the direction that will emphasize respect for it.

  3. I am soooooo – I agree on the “same sex marriage” to some extent. I absolutely feel gay couples should have access to the same rights as others, including partner benefits, etc. But the term “marriage” doesn’t seem to fit exactly either. Life is hard enough without making it harder for people.

    Ray – I love your perspective on abortion here. One of my good friends who is very pro-choice was adamant that you have to vote democrat to protect a woman’s right to choose. I’m fairly neutral on abortion as a law. Its legalization does seem to have had some social benefit (if Freakonomics is correct), but I’m not going to be having one, so it’s just not my hot issue. I have other issues that are more pressing to me, but in general, I think it should be legal, safe, and rare. And murdering doctors is murder.

  4. Just about every law we have is an attempt to legislate morality. When behavior X is punishable by law, you discourage that behavior. People are always free to disobey the law, of course, because they have free will, but inasmuch as anyone can be “forced” to do anything, we do try to force people to act in ways we have collectively decided are “moral.”

    But “you can’t legislate morality” is really shorthand for “sometimes two (or more) moral goods conflict with one another, and decent people disagree about moral hierarchies or which course of action will do the least harm.” I think as we become more aware of our society’s diversity, we grow more uncomfortable with the difficult process of hashing out these differences in the legislative arena. We don’t want to be judgmental or uncompassionate. So instead we opt for a more “hands-off” approach.

    I’m not saying that the “hands-off” approach is necessarily wrong in certain instances–maybe it’s best in many instances–but sometimes we abdicate our moral responsibilities because it’s easier to leave something to the individual than it is to come to a consensus on what our collective moral values are.

    Abortion is one of those issues. You say that politically you support option #2 (allow all abortions), but technically you don’t because you say you oppose “partial-birth” abortions (as do most Americans, including those who are otherwise “pro-choice”). If you support a ban of this particular type of late-term abortion, you support #3 as a basis for legislation. You just support fewer restrictions than some others who fall into the #3 category.

    I don’t think there is one way to “vote Mormon.” Religious observance is different from political activity. It isn’t practical or advisable to run a government the way God runs the universe. It isn’t even practical or advisable to run the church the way you would run your family. Different spheres require different rules.

    I do think political action should be a social outreach of your moral center–but what is really at our moral center? Values, not just a set of rules. My political views have changed drastically over the last 12 years or so. I wouldn’t say my politics were fully consistent with the Gospel then, and I wouldn’t say they are fully consistent with the Gospel now; it’s more accurate to say that they weren’t inconsistent then, and they aren’t inconsistent now. There are different ways to apply the same values. That’s how decent, moral people end up in different political parties. Of course, not everyone buys into that last statement. 🙂

  5. #3:
    I absolutely feel gay couples should have access to the same rights as others, including partner benefits, etc. But the term “marriage” doesn’t seem to fit exactly either.

    I’d invite you, hawkgrrrl, to explore why you feel this way. For some, the term “doesn’t fit” because they simply aren’t accustomed to viewing the marital union of a same-sex couple as being the same social arrangement as a heterosexual marriage. For others, the term “doesn’t fit” because they actually see a same-sex couple’s marital relationship as something less than a heterosexual marriage.

  6. Nick – I haven’t settled on an answer to your question yet. It is related to childrearing for me, although I am friends with many gay couples and singles who are raising children (as well as hetero couples who are not). I would also not apply the term marriage to unmarried but long-term committed hetero partners. The qualifier “common law marriage” feels slightly more comfortable to me, but it is still something separate from traditional marriage in my mind. But I’m open to the possibility that my viewpoint is wrong.

    I have a post coming up next week about what we can learn from gay couples about marriage, so stay tuned for that!

  7. I wonder about the political issues surrounding “civil unions” being kosher but not “marriage”. Lots of religious people wishing to extend equal protection and privilege of the law to gays say this phrase all the time, but I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with it. I understand the way the LDS Church, for example defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Many other distinct church organizations have similar definitions of the term. But countless gay men and women belong to churches that have a broader definition of “marriage”.

    If “marriage” falls more under the purview of religion and not civil union, and if a church is the only entity with authority to perform “marriage”, 1) why does the government perform “marriages” at city hall, and 2) why are many Americans interested in telling other Americans through legislation how to practice their religion (I’m not saying this doesn’t occur; I know it does, but should it in a society that values a separation of church and state?)? Whether the government should allow gays to enter into civil unions is a matter of debate for local and national governments. Whether gays should be able to make a unifying covenant between themselves and God is a matter of religion, to be debated by members of each constituent religious organization.

  8. Gay marriage is another instance where my religious belief is different than my political stance. (With this one – as opposed to abortion, I draw a different distinction – as I don’t see homosexual activity necessarily as a *moral* issue but, rather, as a *religious* issue. The “moral” issue, imo, is fidelity and commitment and covenant / promise keeping.)

    For me, gay marriage is a matter politically of equality under the law. From a religious perspective, homosexual activity is opposed because it is considered to be fornication. From this perspective, it its most basic level, it is NO different than heterosexual fornication; it’s just a difference of what goes where.

    Turn to the political arena. If extra-marital sex is the religious prohibition, and if someone is determined to vote their religious convictions, the standard should be the prohibition of ALL non-marital sexual activity. I believe strongly in equality under the law – in prosecuting everyone who commits the same crime / breaks the same law / violates the same standard. I also believe strongly in defining “rights” and “privileges” the same way – equally for all.

    I could go into a long discussion of the common reasons used to oppose gay marriage, but suffice it to say that every one of the ones I have heard apply equally to many heterosexual relationships and single parents. What is most relevant to this point is that traditional marriage is not enforced among heterosexual unions as the basis for being termed marriage, nor is the traditional family used as the sole standard for financial incentives in the raising of children. “Common law marriage” is nothing more than two people who choose to live **as if they were “married”**; it is a legal way to fornicate and get the political incentives associated with marriage. Single mothers who have children without ever having been married receive financial incentives / benefits for their fornication within a welfare system that pays them per child.

    If we are to uphold a standard of equality under the law, I can’t support supplying incentives for heterosexual fornicators (including the classification of marriage) while prohibiting homosexual fornication and/or the marriage classification. Under the law, I see that as blatant discrimination – as treating one group differently than another based solely on a religious distinction between different manifestations of the same sin. Both are violating the same basic standard; each is weakening traditional marriage – the heterosexual version assuredly to a greater degree than the homosexual version; if one is “rewarded” in some way, the other should be rewarded in the exact same way.

  9. What? How did we get on to the topic of same-sex marriage? I blinked and missed it.

    I’ll say what I’ve said for a while. I don’t think that governments have any right to define marriage. Marriage is a private and intra-personal decision between two (and sometimes more) people. If your life leads you to a point that you conclude that same-sex marriage is right and good (although I personally disagree, sorry Nick, but that’s how I feel about it; if you want to discuss the why of that, fine, but frankly it comes down to reaching different conclusions about the same topics), then I will not argue with you. I will not argue with your legal rights to have medical, tax or other benefits, and I don’t think the government should either. I don’t think your employer should have a right to base employment decisions on your marital status or sexual preferences/practices (with the very obvious caveat that sexual practices that place others involuntarily in danger or discomfort are necessarily illegal and should be prosecuted by the law, but should not be considered for employment except in certain circumstances that I’m not going to delve into). In short, I’m morally conservative on this issue in many ways, but politically I tend to sit more with the liberals, but prefer the term libertarian. The democrats want to protect the action with legislation, while libertarians such as myself tend to prefer minimal legislation.

    Back to the broader argument, however, I think it applies in a number of areas. For instance, I have a very good friend who is, for a variety of reasons, adamantly opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other currently banned substances, while I waver on this point. There are days when I could be convinced that it is a good idea to reinvest our resources elsewhere, and other days where I wonder if such a move might ultimately prove detrimental to the overall situation. Generally, however, I see it as a reform issue. I favor reform of the penal code and prison system anyway such that drug offenders (for possession especially) are treated more as victims of addiction rather than as criminals, and are treated as hospital patients with violent tendencies rather than as people who need to be completely destroyed with harsh penalties.

    Can one legislate morality? Absolutely, but I think that the results tend to be horrific. That’s what I think Hitler was attempting, and it ended up being a terrible time for those who disagreed with his philosophy. If we try to do this now, I think we will end up in the same place.

  10. #10 – Benjamin, the medical marijuana example is a great one, as is the overall issue of drug legalization. There are all kinds of issues wrapped up in drug law enforcement, which makes it anything bit simple morality.

    Fwiw, I think that public education (especially sex ed) is another place where private morality and politics can be at odds.

  11. This is an interesting topic Ray. When I consider my political stance on moral issues I consider the following three questions.

    1. Is there a commandment that is being violated?
    2. Is there something inherently wrong with that act? By this I question whether the act in and of itself is wrong or if it is just a rule that God has given us. (I recognize this isn’t always an easy judgment to made)
    3. Have exceptions been made either in scripture or in teachings by modern day prophets that would allow the rule to be broken?

    If the answers to the first two questions are yes and no to the third question, then I align my political and moral stance. The question of gay marriage falls into this category for me.

    If the answer to the first question is yes but no to the second question then I don’t align my political and moral stances. For example, drinking alcohol is contrary to the word of wisdom but since I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with drinking alcohol in moderation then I don’t seek to force everyone else to abide by my moral stance.

    If the answers to all three questions are yes then I “vote my conscience”. Capital punishment and abortion are applied here.

  12. Benjamin O – I agree. I consider myself a social libertarian/fiscal conservative. I agree with protecting the legal rights of all fornicators (as Ray so eloquently puts it) regardless of the nature of the relationship, but I would generally just say to quit putting restrictions on everyone. The term “marriage” although not applied this way seems like it belongs to religion to define, IMO. If I were a non-religious person (agnostic or atheist), I would not care about the term and whether I was married or just in a committed relationship. If you take it out of the “religious” (and I think you have to include “cultural” in that) context, what’s the meaning? All people’s rights should be upheld and priveleges granted regardless of religious-based standing.

  13. #13 – I didn’t make this explicit in my post, but one of the fundamental differences I see between a MORAL belief and a POLITICAL belief is the element of enforcement inherent in laws versus morals.

    We have two AofF that might be construed in certain situations as being at odds with each other. One says we obey the laws of the land; the other says we allow EVERYONE to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. What happens when what I believe others should do conflicts with what their own conscience tells them is fine to do? Can I, based on this AofF, work to deny them the right to do so based solely on my own conscience’s view of it?

    When it comes to gay marriage, am I willing to admit that a little over 100 years ago, Mormons were the legal equivalent of gay marriage of that time – and we fought long and hard to say that nobody could define marriage to exclude us, the ones whom everyone else thought were the sinning fornicators? How is it LEGALLY and POLITICALLY consistent for me to say that the Edmunds-Tucker Act should not have been passed and support a ban on redefining marriage to include gay couples? Again, to me, that’s legal discrimination, regardless of moral issues.

  14. As a person of faith, who believes in God, I feel a personal responsibility to use my influence in the public forum to support laws that will strengthen the family.

    As stated in the Proclomation to the World, “… we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets. We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

    I think as a member of the Church we can confuse agency with legal rights or freedom; agency is not a moral blanket that is used to protect immoral choices with legal rights of choice.

    As Elder Oaks stated “Few concepts have more potential to mislead us than the idea that choice, or agency, is an ultimate goal. For Latter-day Saints, this potential confusion is partly a product of the fact that moral agency—the right to choose—is a fundamental condition of mortal life. Without this precious gift of God, the purpose of mortal life could not be realized. To secure our agency in mortality we fought a mighty contest…But our war to secure agency was won. The test in this postwar mortal estate is not to secure choice but to use it—to choose good instead of evil so that we can achieve our eternal goals. In mortality, choice is a method, not a goal.

    If we say we are anti-abortion in our personal life but pro-choice in public policy, we are saying that we will not use our influence to establish public policies that encourage righteous choices on matters God’s servants have defined as serious sins. I urge Latter-day Saints who have taken that position to ask themselves which other grievous sins should be decriminalized or smiled on by the law due to this theory that persons should not be hampered in their choices. Should we decriminalize or lighten the legal consequences of child abuse? of cruelty to animals? of pollution? of fraud? of fathers who choose to abandon their families for greater freedom or convenience?” – Elder Oaks

    When abortion was made legal it created more abortions, when the culture said you don’t need to be married to live together or have sex, it created more fatherless children. Each of these “choices” have brought costs to our society. Statistics show that in a few years 75% of all children will have grown up for some time in a single parent house holds. The statistics also show that 75%-80% of all children in single parent house holds are at greater risk for poverty, crime, substance abuse, high school drop out etc. This moral decay has a price; more welfare, more prisons, more rehabilitation centers, more courts. The cost for this comes from me and other tax paying citizens. By allowing their “choice” I loose my choice for my money that I have earned to help my children. More of my money is taken to support a legal right for immoral choices.

  15. tk, I appreciate deeply your stance, but are you wiling to support laws that are harsher than the Church’s own institutional stance? If the Church allows for exceptions, are you willing to take those exceptions away? You said, “when abortions were made legal…” Are you saying that abortion should be illegal in all cases?

  16. tk – “when the culture said you don’t need to be married to live together or have sex, it created more fatherless children.” So, when did the culture say this? If you are referring to the 60s when “free love” was touted and societal views changed, okay I guess. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the 60s invented premarital sex or bastard children or that the ostracization or forced marriages of the 1950s were a great alternative. Your post smacks of that “the world is getting wickeder and wickeder” thinking as if everything in the 1950s (or some previous era) was rosy and since then it’s all downhill. I think that’s fooling ourselves. People have always sinned, and so far as I can tell, they always will. And you should check into Freakonomics as AdamF suggests. In societies where abortion was outlawed, fatherless children, poverty and crime flourished. That doesn’t mean abortion is not a sin. It just means that it’s a sin that’s easier regulated than the root sin. Of course, we could pin scarlet letters on unmarried pregnant women, but that turned out to be a pretty unfair system as Nathaniel Hawthorne pointed out.

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