Neutrality is Nonsense

In my last post, I mentioned how my own upbringing involved being taught that Christians ought to avoid conflating their religious beliefs with political opinions and positions. Although I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, I would also claim that most of the adult believers within my immediate sphere, who had a similar upbringing in my denomination, still cling to this belief: that it is wrong to take political stances or positions that advance explicitly Christian points of view. If it isn’t clear at this point, I now reject this position on the relationship between faith and politics. Not only do I reject it, but I am actively opposed to it. Instead, I am convinced of the opposite perspective. Not only should Christians work to actively resist policies that are opposed to Christian values, they should work to actively implement policies that are consistent with Christian values.

In trying to explain how I arrived at this conclusion, it is hard to know where exactly to begin. This is because there are several important issues involved that span theology, philosophy, and political theory. But to begin, one has to start from somewhere, and the concept of neutrality is a good one since it speaks to theology, philosophy, and politics.

The conceptualization of the public square and political arena that I was taught to idealize is one that is neutral towards issues of religion. At first glance, this seems like a good idea. At least, until somewhat recently, it seemed like a good idea to me. The rationale for thinking this way goes something like this:

  1. Governments maintain neutrality by avoiding taking sides in any religious question.
  2. Because governments are responsible for protecting the rights of all their citizens, regardless of religious position, this means neutrality is a means by which governments can avoid punishing some for their religious beliefs or rewarding others on account of religious beliefs.
  3. This maintenance of neutrality protects religious believers because the government is, in theory, prohibited from judging between opposing religious positions.
  4. Although this means that the public square must allow for the expression of religious perspectives some find repugnant, the inclination to seek truth and the selection of the “marketplace of ideas” will win out over false ideas.

Although many of my teachers and pastors relied on theological reasoning to support this rationale, I am no longer convinced that one can support this line of thought on public neutrality and maintain consistency with their own professed Christian beliefs, insofar as they are derived from Scripture. The problem begins with the concept of neturality itself. In short, I don’t believe that it exists. There is no such thing as neutrality, but even if there were, there is no good reason to think that any human being or human institution could acheive it.

The essence of neutrality is the idea that one can take a perspective or view from nowhere, that given two mutually exclusive propositions with equal amounts of empirical or rhetorical evidence, one can maintain that it is neither possible nor desirable to judge between them. In terms of governance, the concept of neutrality holds that policy and law ought to be formulated or implemented in an environment where the government is neutral and takes no particular side. More often than not, this position of neutrality is taken in cases where values, beliefs, and norms are fundamental to the question. Think, for example, of all the hot-button, in-your-face, culture-war issues that permeate our society and discourse. All of them, to one degree or another, involve questions of values, beliefs, and norms: abortion, sexual ethics, the structure and role of the family, the role and purpose of schools, etc.

The “culture wars” are labeled and categorized in different ways, as being between social conservatives and progressives, as between cultural socialism and cultural liberalism, and in various other ways. But what often gets missed in these attempts at defining who the warring parties are is an understanding of what is being fought about. In the end, these political disputes are–legitimately–about cultural issues, which by definition means that they are largely about values, beliefs and norms. This means that the “culture wars” are fought over issues on which the government is traditionally believed–at least by Christians with backgrounds similar to mine–to be neutral. What should be crystal clear to anyone paying attention over the last 3-5 years is that governments are not neutral on these issues. The reasons why they are not neutral are not as clear, however.

The practice of neutrality, especially in terms of religion, is to in practice default to the non-religious, or non-Christian perspective. In practicing its neutrality, the government is obligated–or so the theory goes–to protect all views equally. This means preventing explicitly religious views from informing the coercive force of government by imposing religiously motivated reasons for preventing certain cultural practices or from shaping the values, beliefs, and norms of those who profess no religion. This is the stated position of the Supreme Court, where they look for whether a law advances an explicitly religious purpose or a secular purpose. This idea is also incorporated in what is probably the most-influential political theory of the 20th century, that of John Rawls. Rawls’ thought on the relationship between religious reasoning and public decision-making has been adopted and adapted in diverse social-scientific fields related to policy and politics. In the end, what they all propose is that there is a form of public reasoning that undergirds a free, liberal, and democratic society. And while religious people who participate in public debate are free to base their opinions on religious reasoning, they cannot and ought not expect others in the debate to accept these reasons. Therefore, to acheive an “overlapping consensus” in the making of public policy, religious citizens ought to engage the neutral public square with neutral “public reasoning.”

In the end, the concept of political or governmental neutrality means a privileging of non-religious, non-Christian perspectives over and against Christian ones. It means favoring secular perspectives, values, beliefs, and norms over and against Christian ones. Neutrality is by definition an anti-religion perspective because it biases secular perspectives by defining neutrality as inherently secular. If the meaning of neutrality is to be secular, then any position that is secular (i.e., non-religious) is necessarily neutral. The non-religious and anti-religious perspectives will always win in a state committed to “secular neutrality.” And since much of our political fighting revolves around values, beliefs, and norms, this means that values, beliefs, and norms derived from a non-religious perspective deserve greater political deference (or preference) than religious ones.

The long and short of it: neutrality is nonsense.

But that’s not all.

A closely related concept to that of neutrality is tolerance. We are told that in a neutral, secular democracy we ought to be tolerant of views, perspectives, beliefs, and values that differ from our own. Tolerance is presented, like neutrality, as a value in and of itself. What often goes ignored in these assertions is the recognition that proposing tolerance as a democratic virtue requires some nuanced reasoning. How far, exactly, should tolerance be taken? If tolerance is itself a moral virtue, what is its relationships to other moral virtues? Truth-telling is a moral virtue, so how long should one tolerate a liar? Generosity, patience, courage, and modesty are all virtues. To what extent should we tolerate those who go to the extremes in these cases? The concept of tolerance is useless outside some larger moral framework that guides one on what should and should not be tolerated. This means that it doesn’t make any sense to assert tolerance as a virtue unless one can identify a larger moral framework that can guide it. Tolerance, to the extent that it is a moral virtue at all, must be derivative of other moral virtues.

This also means that tolerance, and its related concept of neutrality, cannot solve the culture wars. At their base, the culture wars are fought over the identification of that larger moral framework that makes concepts like neutrality and tolerance mean something. Without this larger moral framework, these words have no meaning.

It’s also worth noting that, conceived as a moral virtue in and of itself, tolerance is incoherent and inconsistent. It cannot remain consistent with the internal logic necessary to assert it as a moral virtue. This is because extreme, virtuous tolerance must be intolerant of perspectives that it views as intolerant. Tolerance, as a moral virtue, is intolerant of intolerance. But, the next obvious question should be: “By what means does one determine intolerance?” Or: “To what larger moral framework does one turn to define intolerance?” Practically, this means that intolerance comes to be defined merely as “anyone or any system that disagrees with me,” which is a perspective rampant within American progressivism today.

Now, I’ve spent all this time trying to convince you that neutrality, and by extension, tolerance, are nonsensical. I now want to turn to convincing you that this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a circumstance in which neutrality and tolerance can and do mean something–something important. That circumstance is one in which there is broad agreement on and acceptance of basic values, beliefs, and norms.

As an illustration, consider orthodox Christianity, broadly construed. I won’t go in depth on what it means to be orthodox, but for the sake of making the point, let’s say it’s something along the lines of what is affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed. Within the limitations that creed provides, one can establish a point of neutrality: there are many things in the Christian world on which the Apostle’s Creed is neutral. For example, I come from a denominational background where Sabbath-keeping (Friday, sundown, through Saturday, sundown) is important. So a question that the Apostles’ Creed is neutral on is day of worship. I can tolerate those who worship on Sunday and they can tolerate people like me, who worship on Saturday. Other examples include: Should we baptize babies or adults? What is the nature of the eucharist? High church or low church forms of worship? Organ music or guitars and drum sets? Choirs or praise teams? Premilennialism, postmilennialism, or amilennialism? Elders or priests?

Placed into a socio-political context, a general agreement with what we tend to call Judeo-Christian values is what allowed for the liberal neutrality perspective to succeed from the founding of the United States until, roughly, the middle of the 20th century. Americans, broadly construed, shared a comittment to a common set of values, beliefs, and norms that allowed for a true understanding of neutrality and tolerance. It didn’t matter if you were a Deist, a Unitarian, Roman Catholic, or a traditional, orthodox Protestant. Your specific religious means for arriving at the conclusion that certain beliefs and norms were foundational to society did not matter. Americans shared a common vocabulary and conceptualization of what was basically good and virtuous in a free society.

However, in the last 100 years or so, the terms of neutrality and tolerance shifted to mean something nonsensical. Instead of basing neutrality on a common set of basic assumptions, neutrality was redefined to mean something that called for rejecting basic values, beliefs, and norms. Neutrality came to mean making no moral judgments on what is good and virtuous. Tolerance became meaningless because we lost our common vocabulary for drawing the lines of toleration. In so doing, neutrality became nonsense and tolerance became intolerant.

Christians cannot agree with this shift and still honestly refer to themselves as Christians. To go along with the demands for secular neutrality and never-ending tolerance is to place the demands of culture above the commands of Scripture. The culture wars are not a distraction from more important, pressing, policy questions. The culture wars are the bedrock of what it means to concern oneself with policy. If the goal of good governance is advancing the good and creating the conditions necessary for human flourishing, no other policy issues matter much beyond the culture wars because the culture wars address the values, beliefs, and norms on which all those other policy issues are built. To capitulate to the demands of so-called neutrality and tolerance is to capitulate on the ideas that make Christianity Christian.

Few things illustrate this better than a video that is making the rounds on social media. In it, an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, wearing LGBTQ pride-themed vestments, encourages children to celebrate what appears to be a drag-queen or transexual.

That this congregation and “pastor” claim to be the heirs of John Wesley, whose reforms were directed at an English church that had “regressed into a lethargic church of the educated, the cultured, and the wealthy,” is–to say the least–ironic. This congregation reflects American progressive values more faithfully than anything remotely derived from the Bible. This illustrates why Christians must reject the insistence that they abandon what they know to be true in order to placate and appease the dominant forces in our culture and society. They are not only failing to advance the gospel they claim to serve, they are also inviting the judgment of God on both them and their congregants:

But let no one dispute; let no one argue,
for My case is against you priests.
 You will stumble by day;
the prophet will also stumble with you by night.
And I will destroy your mother.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I will reject you from serving as My priest.
Since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I will also forget your sons.

Hosea 4:4-6 HCSB

This is not neutrality. This is nonsense. This is taking the side of culture over Scripture rather than trying to influence culture according to Scripture. This is buying into the lie that secular values are neutral values and neutral values, by some convoluted logic, are consistent with God’s will as it is revealed in Scripture.

This is false.

This is not Christian.

This is not neutral.

And we ought not expect God to be neutral either. In that clip, the “pastor” quotes Paul from his letter to the church in Rome. It is instructive to take a look at some of the context:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

Romans 12:1-2 HCSB

I ask anyone and everyone who reads this to honestly answer the question: is this “pastor,” by allowing the participation of this drag-queen in a forum directed at children, encouraging them to “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Is that drag-queen presenting his body “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Is the presentation of LGBTQ talking points an act of conformity or is it an act of transformation? Everywhere Christians turn, the neutral public square is telling us what to think and believe. Are we faithfully serving God–faithfully representing what he has revealed through Scripture and through Jesus–when we simply agree and take on whatever the culture tells us?

This “pastor” encourages his listeners to adopt a hermeneutic that is culturally dictated. He claims (falsely) that the admonition to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” means that the meaning of Scripture is dictated by culture and it, therefore, shifts with culture. But this is not what the Bible says about itself:

Lord, Your word is forever;
it is firmly fixed in heaven.

Psalm 119:89

But it gets better (or worse, actually). The drag-queen being celebrated in this mockery of Christian worship also claims to be a pastor, and he has some interesting perspectives on the meaning of Scripture:

You see, neutrality is not neutral at all. Neutrality (and its correlate of tolerance) is nothing more than an attempt to abandon and deny the authority of Scripture over all areas of human life. Neutrality is an excuse to expunge the values, beliefs, and norms that make human flourishing possible. Neutrality is an excuse to dishonor and disobey God. Neutrality is the necessary precondition for allowing secular political motives to infect the Church on the premise that it would be intolerant to inject the ethical motives of the Church into politics. This is why I no longer agree with the view that it is unbiblical to “mix politics and religion.”

I know I’ve picked on the LGBTQ movement, particularly its transgender wing, quite a bit in these opening posts. I do so because it is the clearest manifestation of people turning their backs on what they know is true. It has also found its way into almost every sphere of society. It is in our schools. It is (obviously) in our churches. It is in the military. It is in our bureaucratic agencies ostensibly dedicated to the rational management of social resources and national security. In other words, it’s everywhere. And it’s everywhere because so many Christians, myself included, failed to see that the prohibition against thinking theologically on political issues and defending those positions opened the doors to it. It is our fault, at least to some degree, and it is now our responsibility to do something about it.

Neutrality is nonsense. God is not neutral. The Bible is not neutral. Evil is real and it’s our (Christians’) job to call it out. We ought not be neutral on the topics of evil and sin, no matter where it is found.

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