On Good Faith

Kevin Williamson, a writer who is quickly ascending on my list of must read pundits, has a terrific piece today on the follies of applying the logic of the Affordable Care Act to other elements of culture. Read the post and be enlightened. But I want to draw attention to a comment left by a reader that I think raises an important point for any and all who engage in dialogue (especially the digital kind):

But what if they are not motivated by altruism? The starting assumption here and from everyone in the Conventional Right is that Progressives are motivated by love for mankind. They just want to build a better world. Their defect is in thinking they can have Utopia on earth. The great wailing from the Right always starts with “Oh, those naive, misguided lefties and their dreams of heaven on earth!”

What if what drives the Left is hatred? What if they really just want to pull the roof of the temple down on all of us? All the evidence points in that direction. Look at Obama. Is there a better explanation for his behavior than spite? It sure looks like that’s what’s driving him.

The first step in turning the tide is accepting the Left for what it is, no matter how unpleasant and difficult it may be to face.

First of all, the reader has a point. I’m sure the Left is driven by a fair amount of hatred. Those on Barack Obama’s side of the ideological spectrum seem to have a great amount of hatred for evangelical religion and most private property. I also have no problem with the thought that some liberals do hate conservatives and would love to marginalize or even use government to railroad them.

The problem I have with the commenter’s suggestion is not that I think it’s detached from reality but that I think it is detached from civility. It simply will not do to conclude that your political opponents actually know that you’re right, know that what you’re saying is true and will work, but are wanting to torch American society because…well, just to watch it burn. Again, I don’t think you can deny that there are people like that out in the public square. Maybe those people are giving lectures, or writing books, or maybe even running the country. Who knows? Here’s the thing: You don’t.  And it is morally wrong to assume so.

Good faith is the idea that, in all phases of civil life, people should assume that their neighbors are behaving honestly and in accordance with what they really believe. Good faith does not mean that we agree on the definition of even very basic words (words like “freedom,” “morality” or even “good faith” itself). It also does not mean that we put our heads in the sand when someone says something obviously evil (“Death to all ________[insert race/religion/group here]). Good faith means that we take a posture of humility, charity and mutual respect in all our dealings with others, especially those with whom we have virtually nothing in common.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how crucial exercising good faith can be in the marketplace of ideas. Take theology. I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus and that anyone who denies a physical resurrection cannot be a true Christian. That’s my interpretation of the Christian scriptures. If a person comes along and says that he is a Christian but does not believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead on the third day, I have to make a choice. I can either believe that this fellow really is convinced in his inmost being that Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead and that he is operating from a posture of authentic pursuit of what is true. Or, I can conclude that he is a most notorious individual who, if I pressed a gun to his head, would probably admit that of course Jesus arose from the dead. “Why were you saying he didn’t?” I would ask. “Because I want to deceive and send to hell as many people as I possibly can, and sleep comfortably at night knowing that lies are being healthily distributed,” he might respond.

Here’s the thing: Only one of those choices actually results in my showing him, as persuasively as possible, why he is wrong. Believing that he is inauthentic and simply out to deceive demands no response from me. Why think he would listen to a presentation of the truth if he really already knows what’s true? Good faith is the friend of vigorous pursuit of the truth. It’s sad to me that many conservatives feel that if they allow for the possibility of truth-seeking wrongness, they have allowed a foothold for relativism. But relativism is the enemy of good faith because, if no one can be genuinely “wrong,” then my being offended at someone’s beliefs must mean that person is speaking wickedly. This explains why so many champions of pluralism and tolerance want more crackdowns on dissent.

The posture of good faith allows ideas to flow by removing the obstruction caused by animosity. Like I said above, good faith does not mean that everyone actually wants the same thing. There are genuinely evil people all across the religious and political spectrum. Yet good faith is the default position for a civilized, charitable culture. The cost of abandoning it would be, in my view, more severe than the cost of being suckered by our ideological enemies. There is no slavery worse than the slavery to self.



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