I've found it useful to think about any society as having three separate but interpenetrating spheres--cultural, political, and economic. Long-time readers of this blog are familiar with my use of the terms, but I thought they might be worth revisiting because I want to use them later as a way of talking about pluralism and consensus development in a globalizing world, particularly about economic matters.
So this post is a little abstract and on the long side, but I hope you'll give these ideas some of your time and play with them to see if they work for you. Toward the end I show how thinking with these categories can help to think clearly about two areas where religion and politics collide--gay marriage and abortion.
First, the cultural sphere in social life as I want to talk about it is governed by a fundamental principle—freedom. The rights we talk about in the Constitution—freedom
of speech, freedom of religion, etc.--are simply specific instances of this more fundamental right. Freedom means that each citizen is given the scope to live in any way he or she wants so long as he doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. It's the sphere of where we pursue the things that give our lives meaning and enjoyment--religion, philosophy, the arts, learning, for the sake of learning, sports, hobbies.
The key point is that all the fundamental rights derive from this basic right, and they do not depends for its justification on moral beliefs or religious traditions. Freedom is a secular value which nevertheless insures that everyone can live with whatever religious or other values matrix he or she chooses. The cultural sphere is the sphere that makes sacred a pluralism of beliefs.
Americans, especially conservatives, talk about freedom as their most sacred value--well this is where it’s up to them to put their money where their mouth is. In this sphere, people should be allowed to be as good or as bad, moral or immoral as they want to be, so long as they respect the rights of others and live up to their civil obligations.
The cultural realm, therefore, is where freedom and individuality are celebrated and given free reign, and it’s where the government has no right to intrude. The government never has the right to legislate morality; it's simply not within its jurisdiction. The government can only intrude on the freedom of the individual when he infringes on the freedom and rights of another or when he fails to live up to contractual or other civil obligations. Murder may be forbidden by moral law in any given religious tradition, but in the politcal realm it's not a question of morality; it's an infringement by one person on the right of another person to life and liberty.
Second, the political sphere has both active and a passive aspects. It is active in the sense described above in that it has a policing function to insure that the rights of individuals and groups in the cultural sphere are protected and in enforcing civil obligations. It is passive in the sense that it is responsive to shifts in the cultural mood, which in turn has a shaping influence on the nature and extent of a consensually determined set of civil obligations.
When the mood in the cultural sphere is conservative and individualistic, the scope of those civil obligations tends toward the minimalist end of the spectrum (small role for government); when the cultural mood is expansive and progressive, those civil obligations tend toward the maximalist end of the spectrum (big role for government). But whether minimalist or maximalist, the basic rights of individuals and groups in the cultural sphere—their freedom to live as they please—cannot be infringed upon.
I think that one of the mistakes that the libertarians make is to assume that the liberty proper to the cultural sphere is also proper to the economic, the third sphere in our social triad. But the essential principle that governs the economic sphere is obligation, not freedom. If freedom were the principle governing the economic sphere, it would lead to the law of the jungle in which economic
might makes right. If freedom were an absolute in the economic sphere, as it is in the cultural sphere, then the government would have no right to tax, no means to govern, police, and defend even in the slightest degree. The richest and most powerful could dominate the poltical apparatus and could ignore the civil rights of other citizens. The police serve the interests of the rich rather than to protect rights, because might makes right. Government would then become a tool by which the rich dominate the poor. Kind of what you see in authoritarian Latin American oligarchies, and kind of what I'm afraid we're trending toward in this country. Equality before the law and equality of fundamental rights is the key principle governing the poltical sphere.
And while there have been many Americans who have tried to make the argument for minimalist interference by government in the economic sphere, and that the law of the jungle should prevail there, it is in the final analysis not
on principle, but preference. We can argue about what is practical, what works best, but to make it a question of principle is misguided. And so, as suggested above, the political sphere is where the interests or preferences of individuals or groups hammer out a consensus about the extent of the individual’s obligations, and those obligations usually pertain to some level of constraint or obligation in the economic sphere. The tax to pay for even a minimum amount of government is still a constraint on individual liberty. The principle is clear; it's just a question of how much government you want and are willing to pay for, and that something to be worked out through the poltical process. Big or small government is not a question of principle; it's a question of preference.
So ok. I know this is kind of abstract, but what I’m trying to do here is come up with a way of thinking clearly about our current liberal/conservative logjam. I believe that a lot of what makes our situation so difficult now comes from applying what’s proper in one of these three spheres to our thinking about what’s proper in one of the others where it really doesn’t have any business. Let's look at two issues where these factions collide: gay marriage and abortion.
The gay marriage issue is a problem because people who hold one set of moral values think that they can impose them on others by using the power of the state. But this is a confusion of the moral realm, which is proper to the cultural sphere, with the political sphere, which is the realm of rights. Moral values and civil rights are two different categories of things. The former, moral values, is protected by the society's commitment to civil rights, and moral values can never infringe on another's civil rights. It doesn’t matter what the cultural moral values consensus might be about certain behaviors, those minority behaviors are protected by the freedom principle that rules the cultural sphere.
And if gays and lesbians want to enter into a committed or covenantal relationship, what right has the state to deny them that? Call it civil union. Call it civil marriage. It’s just a civilly recognized contractual agreement, no more, no less. This Constitutional Amendment proposed by the religious right makes no sense, and sets a dangerous precedent because it establishes that rights in the cultural sphere can be given and taken away, and they just can’t, because they just are. They are not subject to the whim of the consensus majority.
This cuts another way when considering another issue in which the civil and moral are confused, namely abortion. Pro-abortion groups have framed this as a moral values issue proper to the cultural sphere in which the freedom principle should apply. If your privately held values tell you that it’s wrong to have an abortion, they would say, don’t have one. But if it’s framed as a civil rights issue, that logic doesn’t apply. For in the political sphere, the morality or immorality of abortion is irrelevant; it’s rather a question of civil rights. And in this instance, it comes down to a conflict of rights between a woman’s right to control what goes on in her body vs. the fetus’s right to live.
If you believe that the fetus essentially has the legal status of an appendix or a gall bladder, then it would logically follow that the woman has a right to have the fetus removed as she would an unwanted or diseased organ. But what if you think the fetus is a human being? There’s a problem then, isn’t there? It’s not so easy to say, “Well, it’s just a matter of choice.”
I agree with the people on the right here who say the conflict is not unlike the ante-bellum disagreement about the human status of slaves. A certain faction within the population insisted that slaves were not human and that they were property to be disposed of as the slaveowner was free to choose, and that view was upheld by the courts. There was a basic conflict of rights, that of the property owner vs. that of the human being to liberty. The same situation, in my opinion, pertains today regarding the status of the human fetus, and this is something that needed to be worked out in the poltical process, not the courts, which in effect declared the right of the woman to choose to take precedence of the right of the fetus to life.
Is that indeed what most people thought in 1972 or think now? If most people in America believe that the fetus has the same status as a gall bladder, then abortion should be permitted. If most people believe that the fetus is a human being, it should not be permitted. If people change their mind one way or the other, the process should be flexible to permit it. Then it would be up to people on one side or the other to make their case and persuade others that their position on the question is right.
Rather than enshrining this as an absolute principle on one side or the other it should be left to debate within the cultural sphere for a consensus to develop about whether the fetus is a human being or not. The reason abolition as law stuck, was not primarly because of any legal precedent, but because the prevailing moral consensus in the cultual sphere was that slaves were human beings, not property. The situation with regard to the human fetus is admittedly more ambiguous, but the conflict needs to be resolved in the cultural sphere before being settled in the political sphere. This was not for the courts to decide.
The reason I bring abortion into the discussion is to show that when it comes to a question of rights it shouldn’t be just a matter of liberals vs. conservative, the one group wanting to impose its values on the other. It’s a matter of principles being applied in the proper spheres and of intellectual coherence, which is pretty much lacking in any discussion of the most controversial issues of the day, particularly in the way culture and politics interact. Reasonable people can disagree about the applicability of any of these ideas, but it helps to know in which sphere you’re operating and which principles apply when a particular controversy arises.
Later I want to talk about how movements that begin within the cultural sphere can properly influence the developments within the poltical sphere. I've used the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties in this country as a model of relgious values inspiring action to make changes in the political sphere. The key thing to remember was that it was a religiously motivated movement that translated its concerns into the lingua franca in the political sphere, which is the language of rights. I want also to talk about how liberation theology as it developed in Latin America had a similar effect. I think it has a particular relevance to what's happening to us in the U.S. if I'm right about our drift toward a Latin American oligarchical politics. It might be a stretch, but I think it's worth talking about.