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Tyranny of rationalism

Truth is the most powerful gatekeeper

Issue: "2004 Election: Clinch time," Oct. 30, 2004

Political groups are strategizing ways to bypass the gatekeepers to influence the election. The most powerful gatekeeper, however, is not a group of people. It's the dominant definition of truth: If a position does not fit the accepted definition of a genuine truth claim, then it will be simply filtered out of the debate.

We've seen several examples in this election. At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan characterized opposition to embryonic stem-cell research as nothing but "an article of faith." People "are entitled to it," he said, but their "theology" should not be allowed to guide scientific research.

Notice that people are invited to believe whatever they want-so long as they are willing to hold it as a subjective "article of faith," not as objective truth relevant to public policy. Mr. Reagan is assuming the modernist definition of knowledge, which says that religion and morality are not a matter of genuine truth (as traditionally thought) but merely personal values.

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This is often called the fact/value split. The assumption is that science gives us facts that are objective, rational, and value-free. The term "values" has been redefined to mean literally whatever I value-my personal preferences. They may be personally meaningful or culturally traditional, but they do not give actual knowledge about the world.

This provides a vital conceptual tool to decode today's campaign rhetoric. In the second presidential debate, when challenged on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, John Kerry said, "I really respect your-the feeling that's in your question . . . I respect it enormously . . . I truly respect it." But he also restated his support for policies permitting both practices.

What's the underlying strategy here? First you placate religious conservatives by telling them how much you "respect" their feelings-but then you say that of course mere feelings are not something we can impose on others through government policy.

The late Christopher Reeve was particularly blunt. Talking about stem-cell research, he said: "When matters of public policy are debated, no religions should have a seat at the table."

To get a handle on the fact/value split, imagine you are presenting your position on some issue and the other person responds, "That's just science, that's just facts, don't impose it on me." Obviously, no one says that. But they do say, "That's just your religion, don't impose it on me." Why the difference? Because science is thought to be public truth, binding on everyone, while religion is a private value relevant only to those who believe it.

This explains why Eleanor Clift, in Newsweek, criticized President Bush for allowing religious principles to inform public policy, but praised Sen. Kerry, writing, "He's not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country" but will govern by "rational decision-making." The implication, clearly, is that religion is not rational. The article was actually titled "Faith versus Reason." Notice the sleight of hand whereby secularism is passed off as merely "rational."

The upshot is that Christians make a serious mistake when they talk about defending "traditional values" or "Christian values." Once we allow religiously based positions to be labeled values, then the fact/value division will function as a gatekeeper to filter them out of the public debate.

-Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth (Crossway, 2004). This article is adapted from a presentation given at the Heritage Foundation, Oct. 19, 2004

Nancy R. Pearcey
Nancy R. Pearcey

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