I didn’t catch this exactly enough to quote it all, but it went something like this. Mark Halperin was on one of the morning shows this morning, discussing the (apparently) surprising pushback the Obama administration has been getting this week, since announcing there would be only narrow exceptions to the new federal requirement that insurers give away contraceptives and abortifacient drugs. The effect of the ruling is that many Christian organizations, especially Catholic ones, will be required by law to violate their own doctrines and standards.
(It’s an outrageous decision. Not just Catholics but also Evangelicals, Jews, and even Muslims are lining up against it. See more on that here, and sign the Declaration while you’re at it.)
In the meantime I want to dwell on something Halperin said, if I heard him right (and I’m pretty sure I did). This is not about politics but about an all-too-common view of reality, one with far-ranging effects. Paraphrasing, he said that the Administration had been unprepared for what happens when a decision pushes up against people’s “deepest feelings,” and that it was important for the Administration to show that this decision is right for women and right for our country.
Do you see what he did there? He set up a political decision as being a matter of right and wrong, while relegating religion to “deepest feelings.” Feelings, by definition, aren’t right or wrong. Feelings aren’t matters of public knowledge, either; that is, we can know something about a feeling, or what may be causing a feeling, but the feeling itself isn’t something that’s potentially true or false for anyone but the person who feels it. I don’t have to debate with you whether my foot hurts or my stomach feels full, and you don’t have to convince me to share your feeling that the room is too cold where you are.
“My foot hurts” is true for me but not for you: your foot probably doesn’t hurt, and if it does, it’s not the same hurt. “I’m cold” is true for someone reading this blog but not for me: the room here is quite comfortable, thank you.
What Halperin thinks is that the goodness of this decision is in the realm of public knowledge. It’s an existing truth, something the Administration must make the public understand. It’s true for everyone. Religious objections, meanwhile, are private, merely feelings, true only for the ones who feel them.
He’s partly right: the decision’s goodness is something that can at least potentially be known. That’s because morality is something that can be known. I am quite convinced that he’s wrong on its moral status, but he and I likely agree on this: if he’s right about its morality, he’s really right, and if he’s wrong, he’s really wrong.
He is completely mixed up, however, on religion being a matter of private feelings. It is at least potentially a matter of public knowledge, and it is absolutely a matter of truth or falsehood. If God’s Word is from God, then it is truly from God and not something someone privately feels is of God. If it’s not from God, then it is truly not from God no matter what anyone feels about it.
Now, here’s the kicker: religion is not a private matter. It is not to be relegated to private spaces, it is not irrelevant to public discussion. It belongs, as Neuhaus said, in the public square, along with all other matters of belief, opinion, and knowledge. This is not a case of political or social facts against religious values. It is a matter of debate over what is actually true.
I could go on, but let me recommend a reading list instead, because you really need to study this. There is considerable cultural weight leaning on the side of “religion is about private feelings.” You need to learn to see that for what it is, to understand where it came from, and to know why it’s not true. I recommend three books. Which one is best? Which one should you start with? I don’t know. Read all three at once—they’re all excellent and important—or read them in any order you choose. Just read them.
Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge by Dallas Willard
Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power by J.P. Moreland (the first third is most relevant to this topic)