“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
“Hey mister don’t look down on me
For what I believe in…”
There’s this trope. Lots of people say it, on many sides of many cultural divides: liberal and conservative, secular and believer. And it’s come up a lot in the Presidential campaign: especially regarding the now-retired candidate Mitt Romney, with pundits and opinion-makers and the candidate himself decrying how prejudiced it was for people to refuse to vote for Romney because of his Mormon beliefs.
There’s this trope. And it goes like this: It’s not right to judge people for what they believe.
So here’s what I want to know:
What the hell else am I supposed to judge people on?
What basis are we supposed to use to judge people, if not their beliefs?
Yes, their actions, of course. But our actions are shaped and decided by our beliefs. Why shouldn’t people’s beliefs be a relevant factor in guessing what their actions are likely to be? Beliefs shouldn’t be the only thing we judge people on, for sure — but why should we ignore them entirely?
I mean — “the content of their character.” Aren’t our beliefs a huge part of that? How are we supposed to judge people by the content of their character and not judge them on the basis of their beliefs?
If someone believes that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt because homosexuality is a crime against God and humanity, should I really not judge them on their morality? If someone believes that their tax money shouldn’t pay for poor children’s health care because “those people are always looking for a handout,” should I not judge them on their compassion? If someone believes that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago despite human historical records dating well before that, should I not judge them on their good sense? If someone believes that all human beings have been infested by space aliens, should I not judge them on their sanity? If someone believes that they don’t have to reduce their fuel consumption because one person can’t make any difference — or because the Rapture is coming and none of this pollution and global warming stuff will matter — should I not judge them on their social responsibility? And if someone believes that the moon landing didn’t happen because they read it in the Some Guy On The Internet Journal, should I not judge them on their… well, on their judgment, their ability to discern, among other things, what is and is not a good source of information?
I look at these questions, and I get very puzzled. Why, again, is it not appropriate to judge people for what they believe?
Now, if you’re talking about something like employment or housing rights, then the “don’t judge people on their beliefs” concept suddenly makes a lot more sense. A person’s belief in the infinite wisdom and mercy of Ganesh is irrelevant to how good they are at software design; a person’s belief in the Celestial Kingdom is irrelevant to whether they’ll pay their rent or their bank loan on time.
I can think of a few exceptions to this rule — if someone believes that God wants homosexual sex eradicated from the Earth, that would probably disqualify them from an executive position at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But on the whole, personal beliefs, including religious ones, aren’t relevant to questions like housing and employment. And they shouldn’t be.
But for a lot of other questions — ranging from who you vote for to who you marry — personal beliefs are very relevant indeed.
So maybe a better principle would be, “Don’t judge people irrelevantly on the basis of their beliefs.”
And of course I understand that religious prejudice — which is a lot of what people mean when they say, “Don’t judge people for what they believe” — has a long and ugly history, in the U.S. and in the world. I understand the desire to not be bigoted, the will to fight bigotry in yourself and others. I share that desire and that will. Passionately.
But I would argue that much of that ugly prejudice is, and always has been, based on false perceptions of people’s beliefs… not an actual perception of their actual beliefs. Ignorance and vicious lies about people with different beliefs are the foundation of religious prejudice. (Well, one of the foundations…) People hate Jews because they supposedly have plans to take over the world; Catholics because they supposedly grind up babies into communion wafers; Mormons because they supposedly all have six wives on the sly; atheists because we’re supposedly selfish, nihilistic hedonists with no basis for morality. People hate those with different beliefs because of lies they’ve been told about them. They rarely hate those with different beliefs because of what those people actually believe. They often don’t even know what those beliefs are.
And maybe more to the point:
You can’t always judge an individual person’s beliefs simply because of the religious group they belong to.
For most people, religious beliefs are only part of a whole constellation of beliefs, and for many people it’s not a very important part. So even if what you know about the Jewish or Catholic or Mormon faith is more or less accurate, you still won’t necessarily be able to judge any individual Jew or Catholic or Mormon simply because of the religious group they belong to.
Jimmy Carter, for instance. Jimmy Carter is a born-again Baptist, and was when he was President. But he also opposed the death penalty; and supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and opposed the Briggs Initiative which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. I disagree with many of his positions and actions — but if he were the Democratic nominee for President this year, I’d vote for him, and I’d do it reasonably happily. His born-again Baptism isn’t completely irrelevant to me, but it’s obviously only one part of his belief system, and when it comes to the Presidency, the other parts are a lot more relevant.
So maybe we need to modify the principle again. How about this:
“Don’t judge people irrelevantly on the basis of their beliefs — and don’t judge them inaccurately on the basis of what you think their beliefs are.”
But what if my perception of someone’s beliefs is accurate? What if it’s based on things they’ve said — and done — and not just on the group they belong to? And what if their beliefs are relevant to the topic at hand, to whatever question it is that I’m deciding onâŠ whether it’s who I want to vote for or who I want to marry?
Why on Earth shouldn’t I judge them on the basis of their beliefs?
Maybe the problem is with the word “judge.” It’s something of a harsh word, with strongly negative connotations these days. We’re not supposed to be judgmental. It implies, not just the forming of an opinion, but the passing of a sentence.
So okay. Feel free to substitute another word if you like. Instead of “judge,” read “assess.” “Discern.” “Conclude.” “Form an opinion.” “Evaluate.” “Appraise.” “Critique.” If you don’t like the word “judge,” any of these will do.
But when Mitt Romney said that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom… Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone”; when he cited religious scripture to support his opposition to same-sex marriage… then you’re effing well right I’m going to judge him on it. Or critique him, or appraise him, or form an opinion of him.
I never cared very much that he’s a Mormon. Voting against someone just because they’re a Mormon would be just as wrong as voting against someone just because they’re an atheist. If Romney were a Mormon in the way that Jimmy Carter is a born-again Baptist, I wouldn’t have given two figs about his religion. I don’t care about the specific religious group that Romney or Carter, Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama, or any other current or former Presidential candidate, belongs to. But I damn well reserve the right to judge them for the content of their character.
And that includes their beliefs.