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‘Don’t Impose Your Values’ Argument Is Bigotry in Disguise

November 21, 2004

I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them. Of course if everybody already shares them, no imposition would be necessary.

Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.” But as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh writes, “That’s what most lawmaking is — trying to turn one’s opinions on moral or pragmatic subjects into law.”

Those who think Christians should keep their moral views to themselves, it seems to me, are logically bound to deplore many praiseworthy causes, including the abolition movement, which was mostly the work of the evangelical churches courageously applying Christian ideas of equality to the entrenched institution of slavery. The slaveowners, by the way, frequently used “don’t impose your values” arguments, contending that whether they owned blacks or not was a personal and private decision and therefore nobody else’s business. The civil rights movement, though an alliance of Christians, Jews and nonbelievers, was primarily the work of the black churches arguing from explicitly Christian principles.

The “don’t impose” people make little effort to be consistent, deploring, for example, Catholics who act on their church’s beliefs on abortion and stem cells, but not Catholics who follow the pope’s insistence that rich nations share their wealth with poor nations, or his opposition to the death penalty and the invasion of Iraq.

If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss, not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings. Nat Hentoff, a passionate opponent of abortion, isn’t accused of imposing his opinions because he is an atheist. The same arguments and activity by a Christian activist would likely be seen as a violation of some sort.

Consistency would also require the “don’t impose” supporters to speak up about coercive schemes intended to force believers to violate their own principles: anti-abortion doctors and nurses who are required in some jurisdictions to study abortion techniques; Catholic agencies forced to carry contraceptive coverage in health plans; evangelical college groups who believe homosexuality is a sin defunded or disbanded for not allowing gays to become officers in their groups; the pressure from the ACLU and others to force the Boy Scouts to admit gays, despite a Supreme Court ruling that the Scouts are entitled to go their own way.

Then there is the current case of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian Christian Democrat who was named to be justice and home affairs commissioner of the European Union, then rejected for having an opinion that secular liberals find repugnant: He believes homosexuality is a sin. The Times of London attacked the hounding of Buttiglione “for holding personal beliefs that are at odds with the prevailing social orthodoxy … despite a categorical statement that he would not let those beliefs intrude upon policy decisions.” The Times said this is a clear attempt by Buttiglione’s opponents to impose their views. No word of protest yet from “don’t impose” proponents.

Sometimes the “don’t impose” argument pops up in an odd form, as when John Kerry tried to define the stem-cell argument as science vs. ideology. But the stem-cell debate in fact featured ideology vs. ideology: the belief that the chance to eliminate many diseases outweighs the killing of infinitesimal embryos vs. the belief that killing embryos for research is a moral violation and a dangerous precedent. Both arguments are serious moral ones.

Those who resent religiously based arguments often present themselves as rational and scientific, whereas people of faith are dogmatic and emotional. This won’t do. As professor Volokh argues, “All of our opinions are ultimately based on unproven and unprovable moral premises.” No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

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