Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On Grassley's Position on Religious Argument

In the LA Times, Robert Scheer had an interesting editorial about the bankruptcy reform bill recently passed by the Senate. In his piece, Scheer sees incongruence in the reasoning Senator Grassley uses for this law and other positions he has taken:
A key sponsor of the bill, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), actively opposes abortion and same-sex marriage on biblical grounds yet believes the Good Book's clear definition and condemnation of usury is irrelevant. The Old Testament, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, mandates debt forgiveness after seven years, as was pointed out earlier this month by an organization of Christian lawyers in a letter to Grassley.

"I can't listen to Christian lawyers," said the senator, "because I would be imposing the Bible on a diverse population."
Unfortunately, I can't read any of these statements or place them in their appropriate contexts. How do I know it's not the case that senator Grassley just opposes abortion or same-sex marriage laws on biblical grounds but argues against them from secular ones? What does this "actively oppose" business mean? Rather than deal with all of that, I choose to avoid commenting on the hypocrisy side of Scheer's critique. Besides, it seems hard to imagine any politician not dabbling in this kind of incongruity every now and then.

What seems worth looking at, however, is Grassley's explanation for why he cannot listen to the Christian lawyers. Grassley seems fairly categorical in his declaration here: he can't listen to Christian lawyers, and presumably, their arguments, because that would be "imposing the Bible on a diverse population." Surely, Grassley's objection cannot be with imposition, since laws are basically impositions on the whole country to begin with. No, it seem that the real crux is the Bible and the diverse population parts.

Now, from the look of things, it seems that Grassley hails from the great state of Iowa which makes me wonder what population Grassley is speaking about. As a Senator from Iowa, voting on a domestic issue as likely to influence his constituents as any farm subsidy bill or agriculture exemption would be, isn't there a sense that Grassley can just claim to be representing his constituents? If this is the case, and if 90% or more of Iowans classify themselves as Christian, can Grassley be all that worried about a "diverse population"?

I don't really like that argument, it seems a little too majority-rule-at-the-expense-of-the-minority for me, but I don't know if that's any reason to toss it out, since it relies on some notion of representation that fits nicely enough into our conception of how democratic-majority governance works. Doesn't any law create a minority oppossed to it?

Still, maybe an even stronger case can be made if you choose to grapple more with the notion of "imposition." This, of course, is the the *big* issue: what constitutes imposition? Is the reasoning we use enough to impose a particular religion or worldview on a society? If Grassley gets to policy A by reading the Bible and Grassley's atheistic constituent can get to the same policy by relying on other reasonable means, I wonder if there is any reason that either Grassley or his constituent should care. In a policy situation, where compromise, concession, and finite resources tend to blur or ignore principles and values in favor of practicalities, do we need to get worked up about the how so much, just so long as we have a policy? I don't know.

What I am willing to say, however, is that I don't see a huge distinction between religious argument and any other system of reasoning. If how we reason is significant, what distinguishes religious reasoning from ultiltarian, humanitarian, or any other perspective an arguer argues and reasons from? When Alan Greenspan talks and argues about supply, demand, and interest rates, I don't understand what he is talking about, nor am I altogether certain that economics is the best well from which to gather evidence. But, I don't think that I walk away from listening to Greenspan an economist any more than I expect a Unitarian to walk away from Grassley's religious reasoning a 7th Day Adventist.


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