Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Gerson on Obama on religion

Michael Gerson nails Barack Obama on religion.

He also raises the issue about how to appeal to the younger generation of evangelicals, who, he says, differ on some issues from their elders. I think he’s right about those differences (on matters like the environment and their attitude toward gays). He thinks that these developments might provide an opening for both parties to educate themselves and this constituency about the difference between prudentially adopted means and essential ends:

This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim "Thus sayeth the Lord," spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

I’m not sure I’d use the word "rights" in this context, because it--especially in our political culture--tends to short-circuit prudence and the kind of balancing political judgment always requires. I can have a duty toward someone and he or she can have a claim on my attention and compassion without requiring me to take political action on his or her behalf. Stated another way, by emphasizing the political as opposed to the charitable element of the concern with widows and orphans, Gerson already begins to distort the debate.

Update: Acton’s Jordan Ballor adds more nuance here, arguing in part that not all rights language is merely political in its import and implication. This is a complicated question, made so in large part by the power and hence the extension of rights language in the contemporary world. Every strong preference, and indeed every human good, tends to have a right attached to it, with the goal of provoking a response from those to whom the claim is addressed. When I say I have a right to something I want very, very badly (or when I say I have a right to something I need), the normal implication is that someone has a responsibility to provide it. I realize that this isn’t simply the classical liberal conception: Hobbes’s rights were, in effect, hunting licenses; and the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration demands respect, but not necessarily assistance or service. But Gerson’s rights language doesn’t draw simply from the older liberal tradition, but rather from the welfare rights tradition that borrows liberal language for more communal, not to say paternalistic, ends. It’s meant to borrow the powerful rhetorical advantage of the liberal conception of rights and apply it to a different set of issues. And especially in the American context, as Tocqueville already notes, rights language trumps all other moral language, absolutizing claims and pushing them to the center of our legal and political systems.

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