Principle vs. Pragmatism

Posted: Dec 13, 2009 12:01 AM
Principle vs. Pragmatism

"There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

-Jim Hightower, Texas commentator and humorist

As the political seas continue to churn over issues such as abortion, healthcare, cap-and-trade, bailouts, the war, and Climategate, the ideological divisions between the two major parties appear to run deeper than ever before. On top of this, it's become clear that both the Democrat and the Republican parties are experiencing an internal identity crisis - a problem that makes it difficult for either group to articulate a clear and unified agenda.

Desperate to find a way forward, politicians and pundits are stressing the need for Americans everywhere to set aside the "hot button" issues in favor of working together to find common ground. Focusing on what unites, rather than divides, us - so the thinking goes -- would enable "productive dialog," which would lay the groundwork for unity, understanding, and healing.

The middle ground, after all, is where the moderates live; and that's where the majority of Americans hang their ideological hats -- or so we are told. It's the "extremists" that are the problem. The muckrakers of the liberal Left and the fundamentalists of the religious Right -- they are the ones destroying any chance for America to regain the national spirit that made this country great. If someone could muzzle the fringe, America could make real progress once again.

This proposed solution overlooks several serious questions: Where is this mythical common ground, what does it look like, and what kind of person lives there? What foundational moral, ethical, and philosophical principles guide the "common-grounders?" (Or does the embrace of political pragmatism foreclose consideration of the stultifying dictates of principle?) Where, for example, can one find the common ground between a person who believes that abortion is a fundamental human right and one who believes that all human life is sacred? How does the body politic meet in the middle when some believe that marriage is an institution ordained by God involving the union of only one man and one woman, and others believe marriage is a civil right to be exercised in whatever form or fashion the participants deem fit?

The truth of the matter is that when it comes to the most fundamental questions about human society, culture, and government, the middle ground is not a sensible place to occupy. When it comes down to the fundamentals, things are either right or they are wrong; to suggest that they may be right for me and wrong for you is nonsense. Moral relativism comes into conflict with the Law of Non-Contradiction when operating at the level of fundamental values.

There are, as our forefathers recognized, certain universal and self-evident truths. Human beings - for example - have been endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to life. It is, therefore, wrong to murder an innocent human being, regardless of whether they are in the womb or in a nursing home. The act of murder is wrong regardless of who makes the decision to carry it out (mother, doctor, family) or how it is denominated (abortion, mercy killing, euthanasia). The character of an act is not changed by the rhetoric that accompanies it or the person who performs it. Such an act cannot be both right and wrong -- right for you and wrong for me. It is either right or wrong -- period.

There are certain principles that define the world view of Christian conservatives, principles that we are unwilling to budge on.

Here's just one example: We believe that this earth and everything in it bears the signature of a divine Creator, who so loved the world that he sent His only Son to die on a cross for the sins of humankind. Human beings are created in his image and because of the sacrifice made to redeem them, every individual is of infinite worth, value, and dignity. Therefore, all persons - rich or poor, black or white, whole or handicapped, born or unborn - have a God given right to life. That right should be protected by law and respected by society, no matter how "unwanted" or "inconvenient" it may be to others. Government should protect innocent life from the moment of conception until natural death. No public program that uses tax dollars to fund abortion or promote euthanasia should ever be foisted on the American taxpayer.

There are other principles that guide our thinking on marriage, freedom, and the role of government in a free and open society. These principles warrant discussion and debate and critical analysis. But rest assured, we will not yield on these principles no matter how much we are vilified, cajoled, or threatened - and regardless of whether leaders in the House and Senate pitch a hissy fit and the pundits rant and rave until they turn blue. And if we lose in the short term, we will continue to advance these principles in the long term. There are, after all, some hills worth dying on.

In short, there are certain issues in life that are non-negotiable, no matter how seductively the siren song of "compromise" may beckon. We understand that the way of Washington, particularly in the game of politics, is to "go along to get along." However, at some point a line must be drawn, lest you find yourself slicing and dicing away at your core beliefs until you are left with nothing to believe in. As the songwriter says, "you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything." Truer words were never spoken.