Facts, Values and “Your Personal Beliefs”

In discussion on To Treat One Another As Humans at Evangel (the parallel post to this one), Jayhuck said (comment #118),

I believe legislating you’re [sic] personal religious beliefs is wrong. Hold onto your beliefs, pass them onto your children, just don’t force everyone to live under your religious rules.

In response I asked him (comment #121), “what prevents the same from being said back to you, with the word ‘religious’ removed?” His answer (comment #142) was,

I’m surprised I have to answer this for you. One, we are not a theocracy. Two, you are using your religious beliefs to denigrate and oppress a minority. I am not trying to do that. Is that clear?

What he intended with that may seem clear, but it needs work, for there are doubtful assumptions buried within it. I will pass by the question of theocracy quickly, as it’s a red herring (although see below). The U.S. Constitution protects this country from theocratic rule, and no Christians I know of have expressed the slightest interest in undermining the Constitution. Whenever we speak of x-ocracy, we’re referring to some process x by which laws are passed and enforced. We’re all operating under the same democratic processes, so theocracy is not a danger we face.

As for denigrating and oppressing a minority, that’s just a tit-for-tat situation. He’s denigrating Christianity. Whether it’s a minority or not makes no substantial difference. I doubt Jayhuck would voice support for oppressing anyone, whether in a majority or a minority.

That leaves us with the far more interesting matter of “personal religious beliefs.” For clarity I’ll repeat the question we were discussing. His statement read,

I believe legislating you’re personal religious beliefs is wrong. Hold onto your beliefs, pass them onto your children, just don’t force everyone to live under your religious rules.

I asked him to consider the alternate:

I believe legislating your personal beliefs is wrong. Hold onto your beliefs, pass them onto your children, just don’t force everyone to live under your rules.

Jayhuck undoubtedly knows people are forced to live under others’ rules in any civil society. Traffic laws, zoning regulations, public safety requirements, mandatory immunizations, TSA security checks—all of these are rules we are forced to accept. So that in itself can’t be his problem. He’s also fine with persons holding their beliefs and passing them to their children. His problem is not that, either. The issue becomes clear in comments #121 and #142 (see above): it’s “using your personal religious beliefs.”

Here’s the fascinating thing: he might have said “using your erroneous beliefs,” but he didn’t. Undoubtedly he disagrees with Christian belief, but he didn’t think it necessary to say so; it was sufficient to label it “religious.” Apparently that’s all it takes to disqualify one’s beliefs from being brought to the public policy table. Note also that he qualifies “religious” with “personal.” This is, in fact, a paradigm case of the fact-value dichotomy that rules much of public discourse. I have written about it at least three times previously.

Briefly stated, the fact-value dichotomy consists in considering certain beliefs and values to be strictly matters of personal opinion or choice, removed from the realm of fact. Religion in particular is one’s personal and private affair. One chooses one’s religion (or lack thereof) from a menu of options. The choice one makes is a matter of taste, whim, or the accidents of one’s upbringing. As such, it’s not capable of being either right or wrong—but it is always wrong to call upon it to inform public policy. This is why the charge of theocracy gets trotted out: not because anyone is afraid we’re going to replace Congress and the President with a council of bishops, but because there’s something wrong with anything religiously-connected from being made into law.

In contrast to private beliefs and values there are facts. Generally speaking, facts are what everyone can observe, touch, measure, count, and so on. The ultimate arbiter of fact is science. Values and beliefs don’t fit in this realm: we can count how many people hold a certain value, but there’s no scientific way to assess values themselves.

I can’t know for sure that Jayhuck is operating under these assumptions, but they are common enough that this is at least a good opportunity to raise a strong caution against them once again. Christianity is not one among a menu of options. Neither is it a matter of one’s private choice, a purely personal matter. It is either true or false—publicly true or false. If Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again, he did so in real history—public history. If he did these things, then his claim to be the Son of God is confirmed, and he is Son of God for all persons in all times, and his teachings carry authority for all persons in all times. If not, then Christianity is publicly false.

Thus the fact-value dichotomy is misguided and misleading as a matter of (yes) fact. But that’s not all. Placing religion and values into the private realm is dangerous and self-defeating. Jayhuck believes in justice for oppressed minorities. That’s a private and personal value which he holds. What gives it any authority in the public sphere? Not that I disagree with it; I don’t at all. We share that value in common. Even though we both adhere to it, still it is private to both of us, and divorced from the realm of fact.

Jayhuck thinks this value holds some real authority. History tells us we can’t count on that lasting—not unless it stands on a firm foundation of public truth.

Where does this leave the gay “marriage” question that got this whole discussion started? It puts the focus where it belongs: on God. God is the issue. If a loving creator God exists and has spoken on the matter, it would be utter foolishness to think we could come up with a better answer than his.

40 Comments