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Christian “principles” are excuses for bigotry

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Discussions about morality are frustrating. One man’s morality is another man’s sin. It’s common for people who preach their particular morality to claim that they’re standing on principle. For instance, Christian homophobes say that the Bible gives them license—indeed, commands them—to be against homosexuality. “My principles forbid it!” they say, fully aware that they risk being accused of bigotry, but believing that their “principles” inoculate them against such accusations, if not in the eyes of man, then in the eyes of God.

Standing up for your principles has always been admired. Joan of Arc did, and paid the supreme price. Nathan Hale, an American hero during the Revolutionary War, put it in its starkest terms: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” were his last words before being hung by the British as a spy. (Of course, Hitler also stood up for his principles—and we don’t admire him. So what does that say about “principle”?)

The ultimate in standing up for principles, for Christians anyway, was Jesus. Christians who claim to be standing up for their principles usually have the model of Jesus in mind.

What is a “principle,” anyway? The standard definition is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior…”. The notion was given emphasis in ancient Greek philosophy, for instance in Plato’s treatise on how to live the good life, The Crito, which recreates a dialogue between Socrates and a friend, Crito. Socrates is in prison, having been condemned to death by the state, Athens. Crito tries to persuade him to escape, an action that could easily be accomplished with the help of wealthy friends.

Socrates refuses. He will not repudiate “the principles which I have hitherto honored and revered,” he declares. What principles are those? After some circumlocutions (a Socratic tendency), Socrates arrives at the principle of “the good life,” which he defines as “a just and honorable one. We must do no wrong,” not even when we feel wronged, he insists. “My first principle,” Socrates declares, “[is] neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right.”

For him to escape, he explains, would be to “wrong those whom I ought least to wrong,” i.e. the state, Athens. It was Athens that “aided and begat” him; it was Athenian law that raised, educated and sustained him. Man has “no right to destroy the state, and his country,” even if the state and country tries unfairly to destroy him. The state is to be “obeyed.” And so Socrates must endure “in silence” his punishment, even if he thinks it unjust. That is the “implied contract” between citizen and state: to do as the state commands. If Socrates stays and allows himself to killed, he will “depart [this world] in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil.” Thus, Socrates implores Crito, “Let me follow the intimations of the will of God” and be put to death.

There’s lots to unpack in The Crito. I don’t particularly agree with the notion that a prisoner, condemned unjustly, doesn’t have the right to escape. The old adage “My country right or wrong, but still my country” is superseded by another: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” But it’s not necessary to agree with Socrates’ argument in order to accept the notion that some “principles” exist and are worth dying for. Indeed, that notion seems to be one of the things that makes us human.

But I began by asking the difference between a “principle” and a “belief.” Surely we can agree that beliefs may be wrong. Wise men once believed that the Earth was flat, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth. They believed these things sincerely, and punished men who said otherwise. We now know they were wrong. Beliefs can be wrong; men, even with the best intentions, may be misguided.

Can “principles” be wrong? Socrates spent his entire life “proving” the correctness of his principles through the sternest, most rigorous logic. Indeed, to this day a “Socratic” argument is one in which the Socratic questioner exposes internal contradictions in the listener’s responses—contradictions so apparent, the listener is forced to change his position.

Yet “principles” too can be wrong. Throughout Western history men accepted the “principle” that the white race was superior to black and brown races. They accepted, too, the notion that Christianity was true, where the religions of other cultures were false. Were these notions truly “principles” in the sense of being “fundamental truths,” or were they merely “beliefs”? It seems to me impossible to find a difference between the two. There are “axioms” that are universally true, such as “If A=B and B=C, then A=C,” but human morality is much more fluid and vague than mathematical logic.

My purpose in raising these notions of beliefs and principles is to puncture the defense of homophobic Christians that their “principles” forbid them from accepting gay people. They may indeed hold something they call “principles” sacred. They may indeed believe their God justifies them. But they cannot claim that those principles have any external or eternal validity. These Christians are simply masking their learned prejudice under the pretense of “principles.” They are, to use Socrates’ word, “evil.”

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