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Public Attacks on "Personal Beliefs" | Carl E. Olson | June 20, 2005

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I was recently talking to a Canadian and somehow the issue of "gay marriage" came up.

"I really respect our prime minister, Paul Martin," he said, "for how he’s handled that issue."

"How so?" I inquired. All I could recall at that moment was that Martin, a professing Catholic, had been strongly criticized by a bishop for his support of "gay marriage."

"Well, he said that although he personally is opposed to gay marriage, he’s going to support it because it would be wrong to force his beliefs on other people. I admire that."

I immediately thought of Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, who had articulated the same general approach to abortion (albeit in a lengthy and nuanced manner).

"So are you saying that you admire a man who says he believes something is true and right, but isn’t willing to stand up for it in public?" I asked.

As you might imagine, the resulting conversation was rather interesting. Later, I read up on Martin’s statements about "gay marriage," and it turns out that he doesn’t even personally oppose it anymore, although he once did. In fact, in a February 16, 2005 address in the House of Commons, the Canadian prime minister stated:

"Four years ago, I stood in this House and voted to support the traditional definition of marriage. Many of us did. My misgivings about extending the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples were a function of my faith, my perspective on the world around us.

"But much has changed since that day. We’ve heard from courts across the country, including the Supreme Court. We’ve come to the realization that instituting civil unions — adopting a 'separate but equal' approach — would violate the equality provisions of the Charter. We’ve confirmed that extending the right of civil marriage to gays and lesbians will not in any way infringe on religious freedoms."

Much could be said about these and other remarks and the various arguments used to support "gay marriage." Thankfully, Archbishop Frederick Henry of Calgary (and many others) has been tirelessly working to both defend the sanctity of marriage and to explain why there can be no such thing as "gay marriage."

My interest here, however, is in the disturbing and increasingly popular notion that a person’s "personal beliefs" shouldn’t affect their public stances or actions. If this is so, some difficult questions must be asked.

First, is it possible to truly believe something personally (which is often understood to mean "privately") and then set it aside when making public decisions? I find it strange that many political and social liberals have no problem saying, "I must follow my heart" and "I have to do what I feel is right," but often condemn those people (whether politicians or otherwise) who admit their decisions are based on religious principles and beliefs. Could it be that what is so offensive isn’t that a Christian believes in God, but that he believes in God more than he believe in himself? Or that he trusts God more than newly anointed "experts" and "progressive" thinkers? That he thinks he must ultimately answer to someone higher than the court, the press, or the pundit?

Secondly, if the so-called "private beliefs" of individuals shouldn’t affect public decisions, do any beliefs exist that can used to make such decisions? Put another way, why is that religious beliefs end up being called "personal beliefs," but beliefs based on, say, relativism and false pluralism and radical feminism are deemed fit (even necessary) for wholesale public consumption?

The idea of "personal beliefs" is itself problematic since all belief is clearly personal in a most basic way: a person accepts a belief and holds to it. Trees, cars, and airplanes don’t have personal beliefs; likewise, "personal beliefs" and "public beliefs" are artificial constructs. Everyone holds to a system of morality, even if they don’t think about it or it makes no logical sense. That system of morality – again, whether acknowledged or not – guides our private and public actions. For a politician to say that he wouldn’t force his "personal beliefs" on anyone else is not only a misunderstanding of the democratic process, but also suggests that hypocrisy or indifference is one of his guiding ethical and moral principles.

Finally, did my Canadian interlocutor really admire Martin for the reason he gave – or because Martin agrees with him about "gay marriage"? I think the answer to this important question could have be had quite easily, if only I had thought to make this inquiry: "If Martin had said that he is personal opposed to pedophilia, but he must support those who want it legalized because he must not force his personal beliefs on others, would you still respect him?"

If he replied that this is a nonsensical question since everyone knows that pedophilia is a vile and horrific thing, I would show him this quote:

"Today, we rightly see discrimination based on sexual orientation as arbitrary, inappropriate and unfair. Looking back, we can hardly believe that such rights were ever a matter for debate. It is my hope that we will ultimately see the current debate in a similar light; realizing that nothing has been lost or sacrificed by the majority in extending full rights to the minority."

It comes, of course, from Martin’s speech before the House of Commons. Yes, he is speaking of homosexuality, but we cannot think for a moment that there aren’t groups today actively seeking the legalization of sex with minors (they exist and they aren’t going away). Nor can we scoff at the thought that such groups, in twenty years, might be what active homosexuals are today: a minority whose actions are not only accepted, but often specially supported and promoted. As difficult as it is to consider, the same goes for groups that tout polygamy and — far more depraved but also real — bestiality (also known as "zoosexuality").

Perhaps the answer is given that "decent, normal people know that pedophilia is wrong." Fair enough, but what is that belief based upon? After all, the overwhelming majority of cultures today and throughout history believed that homosexual acts are wrong and undermine the moral fabric of a society. Yet the prime minister of Canada has a response to this fact, even if my Canadian acquaintance did not:

"Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and our laws evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as we understand it today."

Which begs more questions: Is this Martin’s "personal belief"? Or is the belief of the Canadian courts? If so, does that reflect the "personal belief" of the judges in those courts? Or of the plaintiffs before the courts? Surely this confident belief that "we evolved" and "we grew" comes from some one. From who? And how?

More importantly, how do know that this belief in inevitable moral progress is true? Most importantly, is there any Truth?

What Martin says, ever so carefully, is that there is no solid, unmoving ground to base beliefs upon. Things are always evolving, changing, shifting, and (we are assured) improving. The only absolute is that there is never any absolute. This is, in the striking words of Pope Benedict XVI, the "dictatorship of relativism." Or, as he writes in Truth and Tolerance: "Truth is replaced by the decision of the majority . . . precisely because [it is believed] there can be no truth, in the sense of a binding and generally accessible entity for man."

And so we end up admiring men whose sole virtue is that they don’t believe in anything except not inflicting "personal beliefs" on others. These are the hollow men described so vividly by T.S. Eliot: "Our dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless … Shape without form, shade without colour/Paralysed force, gesture without motion."

Is there really such a thing as a "personal belief"? No, not if you really believe. And I’m happy to say so publicly.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com .

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