Alas, it is necessary to return once again to the question of religion’s role — or if not religion, then the nature and role of core values, of “articles of faith” — in the public, political sphere. What follows will make more sense if you will take a look (or a new look, if you’re a loyal long-time reader) at what I’ve already written on this matter here, here, and here.
This necessity is prompted by one of Kerry’s responses in the last debate that has received some attention, but not enough, as well as some excellent recent commentary on his remarkable return-terrorism-to-a-nuisance interview in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, especially the columns by David Brooks and Hugo Restall (Wall St Journal, Oct. 11,p. A19).
Brooks nicely elucidates the difference between Bush and Kerry as “a conflict of visions,” with Kerry’s vision based on a fundamental commitment to alliances and multilateral co-operation. Keep this in mind. Restall seems to be speaking about something else (but I will argue that these issue are closely related) when he emphasizes Kerry’s answers in the second debate to questions about abortion and stem cell research:
In both cases, he pushed moral considerations to the background and favored using the government’s taxation powers to support practices that are deeply controversial and repugnant to many Americans. Moreover, in the case of abortion he suggested that he himself believes in the sanctity of life, even though he favors using public resources to promote abortion.
Here’s what Kerry said in what I agree with Restall is a very revealing response:
First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today.
But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith…
Unless I’m mistaken, Kerry is saying here that he agrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church — and the belief of the questioner — about when life begins, that in fact that shared belief is an “article of faith” with him. Nevertheless, like Mario Cuomo and Joseph Califano whom I discussed in the posts cited above, he points with pride to his refusal to let this “article of faith” influence his stance on abortion and presumably other issues because we live in a pluralistic society that comprises many faiths. Kerry, in fact, seems even less troubled by the conflict between his personal “article of faith” and his political behavior than either Cuomo or even Califano, neither of whom, after all, were as identified with NARAL and pro-choice politics as Kerry. Indeed, one of the things that’s so unsettling about Kerry, at least to his critics and I suspect even to some of his supporters, is that he is such an active and avid supporter of policies that run directly counter to what he says is an “article of faith” with him.
Although Kerry’s support for abortion despite his “article of faith” about life beginning at conception has been relatively consistent, it nevertheless reinforces his reputation as an empty suit with no core principles. This may not be altogether fair, since we can assume that Kerry agrees with what Cuomo did after all present as a principled argument — that arguments based on faith or even morality have no place in a pluralistic society unless they are widely shared.
And this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, back to the David Brooks column today about “vision” linked above. Here’s one of his comments about Kerry’s guiding vision:
When Kerry talks about the world he hopes to create, he talks first about alliances and multilateral cooperation….
The optimism built into this vision is that nations will sometimes be able to set aside their rivalries and narrow self-interests and work cooperatively to thwart the sorts of global threats posed by Saddam Hussein, or genocides like the one in Sudan. Kerryesque liberals are concerned by the possibility that some nations will go off and behave individualistically or, as they say, unilaterally.
The more I listen to Kerry complain about Bush’s “arrogance” and “unilateralism” and “insensitivity” to our allies etc., the more it seems to me that in some deep sense he regards the place and role of American national interests in the world community as analogous to the place and role of his “article of faith” in our own pluralistic, multicultural country. Insisting on one’s own values/interests is arrogant, unilateral, insensitive, whether at home or abroad. Just as he thinks it inappropriate for him to impose, even through legislation that must command something approaching majority support, his own values on people who don’t share them, he similarly regards it as inappropriate for the United States to act on its own values and interests in a world where not only our enemies but many of our allies disapprove. His guiding principle, in short, is not a principle but almost an ethic of not acting on one’s principles at home or interests abroad.
George Bush’s vision of the proper role of both articles of personal faith and the national interest is quite different.