I have been meaning to blog on the recent piece by my fellow MJS community columnist Dean Mundy, known to the blogosphere as the The Thoughtful Conservative. Dean argues that there is a need for greater public discussion of moral values. He suggests that no set of ethical rules and laws will work until those subject to them internalize the values that they represent.
The column intrigues me because I have been discussing the proper role of religion in public life with my students in Law and Theology. There are many philosophers and legal scholars who argue that we ought to have to have a religion-free public square, i.e., that tolerance and the supposed "separation of church and state" require that religion be kept private.
Although Dean quite properly observes that moral values need not be explicitly based upon a religious foundation, I am skeptical that any public discussion of moral values can - or should - proceed without a conversation about the religious premises that - for so many of us - inform those values.
This is true for at least two reasons. First, to have a public conversation about values which allows us to base them on everything except religious foundations is not neutral between religion and irreligion. It "establishes" secularism.
Second, a conversation about values that excludes talk about ultimate things is pretty thin gruel. It winds up being exactly the kind of thing Dean complains of, i.e., a conversation where the ultimate value is tolerance and "treating everyone the same." But that doesn't get us very far in addressing the interesting moral questions. Is it ok for a CEO to earn umpty-million times the lowest paid worker because, in doing so, he has followed all the rules and those rules apply equally to everyone? Is each person free to do whatever he or she wants in his or her "private life" no matter no much social disarray it might cause?
Having said all of this, it is time for me to go to church.