Need for a Source of Moral Authority

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a radio program on which they debated stem cell research. Of course, you’re probably aware that President Bush recently vetoed a bill proposed by congress to publicly fund embryonic stem cell research. He did so on the moral grounds that destroying an embryo (for any reason) is killing a human being … or at the very least, a “potential” human being. Protesters went crazy, saying that he’s cow-towing to religious fanatics in doing so, and were outraged that Bush would bring to bear his faith as a Christian as some kind of moral authority to veto a bill that could help so many people.

Could stem cell research help a lot of people with very serious and horrible diseases / conditions? Yes.
Can stem cells be retrieved from something other than embryos? Maybe.
Is this question a complicated one? Absolutely.

But I don’t want to debate the issue at the moment. Instead, I want to focus on this question of “moral authority”. There are so many people upset about Bush’s use of the Bible / his Christian faith as a moral authority. They want to make sure that there’s a strict “separation of church and state” … between decisions made based on faith and decisions made based on … what?

That’s my question. If the Bible isn’t our souce of moral authority as Americans, then what is? I think the debate to this point has been somewhat fallacious and misleading, because the secular folks neither cite- nor in my opinion understand that they too are arguing from a source of moral authority. Is it the constitution? Is it “science”? Is it atheism? What is it? Because here’s the rub … it can’t be nothing.

There are only two kinds of decisions — preference decisions and moral decisions. It is not possible to argue anything significant from no source of moral authority. If it’s not choosing which shirt I’m going to wear today or what I want for dinner, then it’s a moral decision. Every decision, every judgment, every belief has to come from somewhere. And anyone who tells you that they are making decisions based solely on fact, they’re either lying or they just don’t get it. Were you there? Did you do all the research yourself? ‘Cause if you weren’t or if you didn’t, then you’re basing your decision on belief .. trust … etc. And that means that the belief you’re basing your decision on has to come from somewhere.

President Bush claims his belief comes from the Bible. I can’t speak for his beliefs, but mine absolutely come from the Bible. Of course, I know many others for whom this is also true. It could be Buddha, or Islam, or the constitution, or myself (that’s a big, very dangerous one — because it basically means I’m god — and the human nature loves to be god). But it has to be something.

Wherever you get your moral authority, that’s your right. That’s what pluralism is, and I support your right to believe whatever you want. But there are a couple things we need to be honest about…

  1. Not all authorities are equal. Sorry, but the Bible is a superior source of moral authority to the US constitution. I know many don’t want to hear that, but every single person who WROTE the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would agree, so…..
  2. It’s dishonest to claim that having an opinion informed by the Bible is invalid in public discourse. If it’s not possible to have NO source of authority by which I make a statement in a debate, then honest debate seems to demand that we permit people to just have their opinions based on their beliefs. Very legitimate. But in the final analysis — and here’s the clincher — we lend more weight to the most credible sources for that moral authority. So, we return to rule #1.

So let’s stop pounding on Bush for being a Christian. Let’s stop saying that because someone openly admits their source for moral authority that it makes them a religious fanatic. If that’s true, then each of the people making that accusation are also religious fanatics — it’s just a different religion.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
This entry was posted in News, Politics and Culture, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Need for a Source of Moral Authority

  1. Neva says:

    Hey Jeff, got your email to check this out, so here I am. You’ve definitely got some interesting thoughts here, but I’m going to have to toss out a few of my own on this one. This is just an initial reaction, so it may not be terribly eloquent, but I hope it gets my point across.

    I’m going to have to take issue with one specific thing you say in this post. You claim that you support a person’s right to believe whatever they want, and then you immediately turn around and state as if it’s fact that the Bible is superior to the constitution. In your decision-making hierarchy, that’s obviously the case, and I don’t have a problem with that. But don’t suggest that should be true for everyone in all circumstances. I just found this statement particularly jarring as it felt to me that it completely contradicted the claim you’d made of tolerating other viewpoints as valid.

    As for the main topic you’re proposing here, I can’t speak to the reasons for everyone who’s upset with the president’s actions, but I can at least explain to you why the president’s reliance on the Bible in matters of policy bothers me.
    I fully support your right to use the Bible as a moral authority for your actions and decisions. I even admire your dedication to doing so. Likewise, I support the president’s right to use his faith as a moral authority for his actions and decisions in his personal life. And that’s where we run into a problem for me; veto power and public policy are not his personal life. In his capacity as president, he is sworn to be guided by the constitution and, I would hope, the best interests of the American people. That’s where I draw the distinction.
    In his personal life, George Bush is free to use the Bible as his moral authority. In his professional life, President Bush should draw moral authority from what he believes is best for the welfare of the American people. All of them, not just the ones who agree with his personal morals.
    Vetoing something with the potential to advance medical knowledge and aid thousands of people because he personally believes it is immoral rather than because he believes it is not in the best interests of the American public disturbs and upsets me because I feel that it is use of the wrong moral authority for the situation.

    I don’t know how clear this has been, and I don’t claim to speak for all Americans upset by the president’s use of his first veto. Those are just my thoughts on the questions you’ve raised about moral authority. Since you don’t want to discuss the actual stem cell issue here, I’ve tried to refrain from doing so as much as possible.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to distill my thoughts a bit.
    Take care,
    Neva

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  2. Jeff Block says:

    Neva… Glad you found me and shared your thoughts.

    Couple things…

    1) Re: the president… If he can’t use his personal belief system to make decisions, what should he use? When you say “what’s best for the country”, doesn’t that imply “… according to his personal belief system”? What else does he have to go on? Your belief system may lead you to different conclusions, but you don’t have anything else to go on either. I think you’re saying that he made his decisions based on what a certain group of people wanted to hear (whether he actually believes the same as they do or not). If that’s true (and it very well may be), then it’s a totally different problem, and not the focus of my comments.

    2) Re: conflicting statements about people believing what they want to believe… I don’t see a conflict. Anyone can believe anything they want. But the truth is that not all beliefs are equally valid. Just because I believe something doesn’t proclude me from the possibility of being wrong. If a guy says the moon is made of green cheese, then he’s just wrong, no matter how strongly he believes it.

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  3. Neva says:

    Hey Jeff,
    Like I said, I wasn’t sure I was going to be that clear speaking off the top of my head, so let me try to clarify where I think I didn’t convey my meaning that well.

    1. As I tried (and apparently failed) to state earlier, he should use the constitution as his guiding principle in matters related to governing the country since that’s what it was designed for. What I meant by making decisions based on what’s best for the American public rather than his personal belief system… The reasons I’ve heard the president give for his veto is that he personally believes stem cell research is wrong. Not that he believes that allowing it is not in the interests of the American public, but that he personally feels it’s immoral. And that’s what I have a problem with: him making this decision for the whole country based solely on his morals since not everyone shares them.
    I also do think his decisions are politically motivated, but I agree that’s a totally separate issue and a ubiquitous problem among politicians.

    2. In terms of the idea that not all beliefs are valid, I think perhaps we need to define the term belief, because I think we mean different things by it, which is where the confusion is arising. To me, in this context, a belief is something that cannot be proven; that’s the whole point of faith and the distinction between belief and fact. I should perhaps also add that, to me, valid is a measure of accuracy or, in this case, degree of rightness.
    So, given that, all beliefs are people’s personal decisions of what to have faith in, so all of them have to be equally valid as they cannot be proven or disproven, right or wrong.
    If you meant the term belief as a potentially falsifiable opinion (as indicated by your example of a cheesemoon), then we’re not talking about the same thing, so that would explain why your statement bothered me and why my comment didn’t make sense to you.

    Hope that clarifies things.
    Neva

    PS-This also managed to start a rather interesting political discussion in my lab, so kudos on at least getting people with different viewpoints talking to each other.

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  4. Jeff Block says:

    1) Complication comes in when it’s time to interpret either the Bible or the constitution. Nothing in there about stem cell research, so it falls to lawmakers (or law proposers in Bush’s case) to interpret / act in the spirit of these documents. The principles of universal human dignity and protection for the defenseless and innocent are threaded through the constitution because of the Judeo-Christian influence on its writing, and that’s what Bush is (theoretically) basing his decision on. But that assumes the *belief* (which takes us to point 2) that a blob of cells has a soul; that life doesn’t begin when the embelical cord is cut. If you don’t believe that (a belief that can’t come from the constitution, but it has to come from somewhere), then you’d sign the bill. If you do, then the bill makes you nervous (slippery slope / where will all the cells come from once it’s an industry? / etc), and you don’t sign it. But like I said, this takes us to point 2…

    2) VERY few aspects of everyday life are provable in a test-tube. The green cheese moon thing is, but even then, I haven’t been there. Have you? You have to take someone’s word for it. For almost no events in history or books that I’ve read can I actually prove anything. Wasn’t there. Don’t really know. I take WAY more things on faith in the average day than proof. And once you leave your lab (I know you’re a scientist), so do you. So, it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as you make it sound. We have to walk by belief, far more than proof, all day long.

    3) I’m really glad you all are debating in your lab. That was the whole point of my starting this blog.

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  5. Neva says:

    I feel like we’ve veered a good ways from some of my original points here, but it’s an interesting conversation nontheless.

    1. I think you’ve gotten to my basic problem with the president’s veto (from a philosophical standpoint rather than my scientific objections). The president is imposing upon the entire country his belief that a blob of cells has a soul. This is actually the “slippery slope” that concerns me: how far can a president go in tailoring legislation/policy to his moral and religious beliefs?
    Some Christians believe that alcohol and gambling are immoral; do we return to prohibition and remove all of the riverboats? If a Jewish president who keeps kosher is elected, is he justified in vetoing agricultural bills that support hog farming because he believes that eating pork is immoral so the rest of the country shouldn’t do it either? To move beyond religion, if an animal rights activist is elected president, is he right to veto all agricultural bills that support ranching because eating meat and wearing leather are immoral in his view? How far is a president allowed to go in imposing his personal, moral views on the nation?
    This is what I mean by the distinction between personal, moral views and the good of the country. For example, shutting down the ranching industry would be the right thing for an animal activist to do according to his personal views on the rights of all animals as beings, but it would have a tremendous negative impact on the economy and many people’s livelihoods. In this case, I believe that a president should not put his personal views on what is right ahead of the welfare of the citizens he is sworn to protect. This is the point I was originally trying to make on this issue; I hope I’ve illustrated it more clearly now.

    2. If we’re going to go as far as refusing to accept anything as fact beyond that which we individually perceive, why even accept that? After all, hallucinations are possible, so perhaps our senses can’t be trusted either and we have to take our observations on faith also.
    If we’re going to declare things that basic to be beliefs, then yes, I believe the evidence of my senses, and I believe in the scientific process and its results. I choose to accept those things as fact; I suppose you could consider that an act of faith and belief.
    Regardless, that really isn’t what I was talking about in terms of the validity of beliefs. But again, if that’s what you’re including in the term belief, I understand your original statement better now, so thanks for that explanation.

    I think I may be meandering off topic now, but it’s been a long day in lab and I have a long drive along lovely I-55 to look forward to for this weekend, so any distraction is welcome.

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  6. jeffblock says:

    The vast majority of our decisions are driven by faith based on experience and evidence, not on fact. In the same way this applies to almost everything else, it applies to decisions about stem cell research. Viewing embryonic cells as a life with a soul can’t be proven. It’s faith based on evidence. Viewing the same cells as a soulless blob of chemicals (no soul, no spirit) also cannot be proven. It’s also faith, based on other evidence. No way to determine who’s right in a test tube. The conclusion is philosophy not science.

    Bush made his decision based on “what’s right” in his mind. Obviously, he has to be thinking what’s right for everyone, not just for him (but there’s no way to know that for sure either). My entire point is that he used his moral compass to make his decisions, just like you use your moral compass to make yours. His is not invalid just because it can be called “religious”. It’s based on philosophy, just like others’ belief that those cells have no soul and destroying them doesn’t matter is also based on philosophy. So it comes down to choosing a source for your moral authority to make that, or any other, decision.

    Great discussion. Have a great weekend. 🙂

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