4th July, Independence Day. I was at a party in Paris. As usual, when one of the guests learned that he was speaking to an American the conversation turned to the election and Obama. My French acquaintance seemed very confident that all would be well come November when Obama enters the White House. While I would be happy to share his hopefulness, I told him I was disappointed to learn that Obama has given his support to one of the most unconstitutional of Bush’s policies — faith based initiatives.
This prompted him to make what has become one of the most specious and ill-conceived arguments that has ever emerged from the United States since its founding: that the American way of life, “freedom and all that stuff about the individual, etc. is just a religion like any other”. Ah, that old chestnut… a very popular argument indeed and very widely (apparently even globally) circulated by the likes of Ann Coulter and other great American statesmen like Sean Hannity. I told my new friend that I wanted to respond to this but that I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts. His reply was to say that since I needed to think about my response I couldn’t possibly have any conviction of my own about this but was merely trying to memorise an argument taught to me by someone else so that I could regurgitate it. Oh my God how wrong he was! My mind suddenly cleared and I began to make my argument, at which time he proposed that we retire to the bathroom to do a line.
This was obviously not the proper context in which to argue the fine points of political theory, but I am very certain that the Enlightenment values upon which America’s constitution rests do not constitute a ‘religion’ in anything like the same sense that Christianity does. No one need ever be rendered silent by such an idiotic claim and I am confident that I can explain the difference.
First, the Coulter claim (i.e. “Your liberal values are a religion too!”), even IF it were true, is a fallacious form of argument.
Here’s an explanation:
Tu Quoque is a very common fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. This is a classic Red Herring since whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge. However, as a diversionary tactic, Tu Quoque can be very effective, since the accuser is put on the defensive, and frequently feels compelled to defend against the accusation.
S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Fifth Edition) (St. Martin’s, 1994), pp. 204-206.
But fallacies aside, it is simply not true that there is anything analogous between Christianity and the liberal founding values of the Enlightenment that are enshrined in America’s constitution. Christianity dictates a definition of “the good life” for all of humanity, so that the individual has no choice but to obey the externally imposed authority of an invisible deity, or be punished (either by His male representatives on earth, or in the fires of hell, or both). The motive to “be moral” is to avoid the punishment and to seek rewards. In other words, the individual is “being moral” for selfish reasons, which any sixth grader can recognize is a contradiction. In order for non-selfish (genuine) moral agency to be possible, one has to be free to choose it all by oneself, for good reasons, not just to save one’s own ass.
America’s founders understood, quite rightly, that there is a difference between selfishness and morality. Indeed, intuitively, we all know that being good is something different from seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – the latter are merely animal instincts, not moral virtues that warrant praise. On the contrary, they often seduce us into compromising our higher nature for immediate gratification.
This is why liberalism establishes the conditions under which individuals may choose values for themselves. Liberalism is not an “anything goes” philosophy – because the individual is only permitted to pursue his own vision of the good life within certain limits. He cannot harm others in the process, nor prevent them from pursuing their own values (within the same limits, of course). Where self-regarding behaviors are concerned, such as matters of conscience (i.e. religion) and (consenting) sexual behavior, the state does not interfere with the individual. The US Constitution provides a framework of liberty within which moral agency is a genuine possibility, because the individual has choices to make about what he values. It does not dictate which goals, or ends, the individual must pursue in order to be ‘good’.. It merely tells him what he cannot do to others while pursuing it.
Vive la difference!