The battle of two selves

"How do you just turn it off?"

That was the question Sen. Charles Schumer of New York dropped on Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft in his first day of confirmation hearings two weeks ago. Schumer, who is pro-choice, was referring to Ashcroft’s vehement opposition to abortion, the laws which he would have to defend if confirmed as attorney general of the United States. Sen. Ted Kennedy set up Schumer with his tirade against Ashcroft’s supposed abuse of "the power of his high office to advance his personal views in spite of the law of the land."

From what they’ve said in hearings, neither senator really has objective evidence that Ashcroft has not enforced the law in his previous positions or will not enforce the law once confirmed. Yet their line of verbal battery brings up an important point that we often overlook because it is so ingrained in us: the degree to which we separate our personal beliefs and our public views.

This dichotomy is probably a side effect of growing up in a constitutional republic where we elevate the rule of law above any elected official’s personal whims. That’s good for civil liberties, but in our zeal to establish that principle throughout the culture we have utterly severed private sentiment from public life and rendered impotent our deep convictions.

Think about it. What personally horrifies us or draws deep revulsion is what we shrug off in a crowd. The abortion question is a perfect example; one of the more common justifications for legalized abortion is, "Personally I would never have an abortion, but I think the decision should be between a woman, her doctor and her God." The first clause of that statement sounds like an apology for the second, as if the speaker is ashamed to espouse that view. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York said as much in 1984 to defend vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who is pro-choice but also Catholic (abortion is anathema to the Catholic Church). Philosopher and author Francis Beckwith countered that Cuomo’s pluralistic reasoning fell short because the point of dispute is the composition of that society itself.

With the election of an outspoken evangelical president, expect to hear plenty of discussion about religion and public life as well. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the former vice presidential candidate and current Orthodox Jew, started the ball rolling several months ago with his habit of praising God and quoting Scripture at every campaign stop. Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) raised a reasonable objection; politicians invoke God’s name a lot around election time, and too often it’s not coincidental or genuine.

But their contention that religion has no place in public life is a sad result of the privatization of faith that has developed in the past several decades. Stemming from a misunderstanding of the establishment clause in the First Amendment and plain hostility, secular and religious groups have reduced religious expression to the significance of mere superstition and the danger of treason. AU and others went nuts when word surfaced of Ashcroft’s quotation of a colonial expression used to rebuff King George’s envoys (given during a university address a few years ago): "We have no king but Jesus." One is reminded of the frenzied and bigoted public stir surrounding John Kennedy’s Catholicism in 1960.

The public and private dichotomy extends into less ideological areas as well. Ask anyone who has run for elected office, and you will hear the frustration of receiving private encouragement from high-profile community or national leaders but no public endorsement. By endorsing candidates, especially those who are controversial or virtually unknown, public figures open themselves up to charges of favoritism or offending their constituency.

Richard Nixon overcame this problem in his 1950 Senate bid when he sought the endorsement of California’s governor, Earl Warren. An immensely popular Republican, Warren had vowed to not endorse anyone and didn’t like Nixon, but Nixon’s campaign tricked his Democratic opponent into publicly endorsing Warren’s challenger in his own bid for re-election. Warren realized Nixon’s ploy and gave him the public support, at least implied, that he wanted. If only we were as resourceful as Tricky Dick–at least until his disgraced resignation–with coaxing the private back into our own lives.

Don’t get me wrong; personal views should be adequately tucked away for the purpose of fairness in matters of business and government, for example, especially in personnel issues. I was the subject of my superiors’ personal disdain in one position I held a while ago, and that fact cost me otherwise certain advancement within the organization. Even the much-maligned Ashcroft has publicly said, "It is against my religion to impose my religion," and he’s following Jesus’ example. But I wonder if Jesus would cop out when it came to defending those who can’t protect themselves or announcing his dependence on his Father. He brushed off disputes on taxes and postmortem marriage but didn’t hesitate to tell people what they needed to hear in favor of the public norm.

The pop psychology term "holistic" gets thrown around a lot, but here would be a good place to make use of it. Let us strive for a holistic, coherent worldview that welcomes cooperation between and close monitoring of our private and public mindsets–or else take our chances with apathetic homogeneity.

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Title: The battle of two selves | Author: Greg Piper | Section: Opinions | Published Date: 2001-01-31 | Internal ID: 1775