April 09, 2007

In Essentials Liberty, In Non-Essentials Unity, In All Things Respect

by PG

Mediocre Fred finds the true meaning of Easter in the placemats at a family restaurant:

The place mats are an amalgam of ads for local businesses. ... Underneath the ads is the cheery admonition, "These advertisers are your friends and neighbors. Please use their services." And even though I don't live there, I felt wrapped in the warm embrace of friendly neighborliness. And my BLT hadn't even come yet. * * *
This one was for the Covenant Moravian Church. I wondered briefly why a church would take out advertising on a place mat, and then I saw their slogan.
"In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Love"
It blew me away. Think about it for a second: Isn't that a great organizing philosophy for a church? For that matter, on a very general level, isn't it a great organizing philosophy for a society? Stand together on the things that matter, let everyone go their own way on things that don't, and always, always treat one another with love. It would work at least as well as anything else we've come up with, wouldn't it? I don't know if that slogan is unique to that church, or to their religion, but it's brilliant. If it did not entail a two-hour drive on a weekly basis, I think I'd have to give that church a try. It certainly put me in the right frame of mind to celebrate the Resurrection; I think Jesus would surely have approved of the church's slogan.
"These advertisers are your friends and neighbors." Yes.

I can see how St. Augustine's words are a great organizing philosophy for a church or religious movement, and so they are quoted by Joe Carter of the Family Research Council in distinguishing between the things of this world and those of the next with regard to political issues.

Those of us on the religious right should adopt a similar principle and clearly define the boundaries between what is essential and what is non-essential in matters of policy and politics. Protecting the sanctity of innocent human life and defending the traditional definition of marriage are clearly essentials. Those matters are based on principles that can be clearly derived from the Bible. Other issues, however, are less opaque. For example, can someone truly be on the "religious right" and not support the war in Iraq?
The fact that question can even be asked shows how we've muddied the waters. While I personally think that, on the whole, the war was morally justified and a necessary humanitarian intervention, I can respect those who disagree. Their view may be as rooted in Biblical and conservative principles as, I believe, is my position. We should be careful where we draw the lines of political heresy.
However, I do not think that this is a good motto for a society, at least not one as diverse as ours (or Europe's, or India's...). I'm troubled by the idea that liberty attaches most to the things that don't matter. For example, I imagine that Carter would say that religion matters tremendously, yet would want to have equally tremendous liberty in that area. Similarly, he probably thinks that the exact score one must receive on an exam to become a physician, or on which side of the road one drives, is of little import, yet it is in matters like that that our government or quasi-governmental private entities are most enabled to regulate.

My view on this might be rather too strongly shaped by having studied constitutional law, which nowadays seems to come down to: liberty for the matters closest to conscience; regulation for matters of the market. The government cannot force you to pledge allegiance to the flag, or have to sit in a classroom during a teacher-led prayer, or restrict your sex life to people of the opposite sex, but it can decide whether you may consume your own wheat or your neighbor's marijuana.

The closer you are to people, the more St. Augustine's motto applies, and so it is an excellent one for any couple getting married: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love -- with the caveat that you work out early on what constitutes an "essential" for each of you. I've never been a formal member of a church or religious group, so I don't know how well it works in that larger setting; presumably within the bounds of the things for which one joins a church, i.e. some common or overlapping set of beliefs, it is useful and even necessary. For our society, however, I offer the title of this post as a more apt organizing philosophy. We must be unified in non-essentials for an orderly, functional society, one in which people submit to properly constituted authority about most of the practicalities of daily life. We must be at liberty in essentials for a freely and fully human society, one in which people make their own decisions about what they think and believe and how they manifest their consciences. And we must respect the inevitable differences of opinion about what is essential, what non-essential, and where we should unify on the latter. Giving the last word to Carter:

As a matter of political liberty I believe it is important that we support such issues as prayer in schools and public displays of religious symbols. But I can't imagine that on the Day of Judgment I'll hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant--you have faithfully fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse." More likely we'll all be asked why we didn't spend more time concerned about our neighbors in Darfur or fighting the pandemic of AIDS. Perhaps we should rethink our priorities and put the first things first.

April 9, 2007 10:25 PM | TrackBack

Your point is a very valid one (and I also respect Mr. Carter, who seems like a wise fellow even though he and I disagree strongly on matters political), and I did think of it as I was writing my post.

I think we agree more than we disagree on this, actually: I think we've just got different ideas of what consitutes "essential" and "non-essential" for a society. I think it's essential, for the sake of a properly functioning society, that we all drive on the same side of the road, whereas the Pledge of Allegiance is, to my mind, a non-essential. Or take same-sex marriage: allowing people of the same sex to marry each other does not imperil the functioning of a society, and as such, liberty in that area is appropriate. (I realize that many religious folks - probably including Mr. Carter - would disagree with me on that, but I have yet to hear a cogent reason why they disagree.)

P.S.: Though the quote in question is commonly attributed to Augustine, there's considerable reason to doubt that he actually said it. See http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine/quote.html

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at April 12, 2007 03:08 PM
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