Somewhere between personal and public morality there is a line that often enables us to focus on the one and be negligent of the other.
But the sometimes awkward dance of personal beliefs and public policies can and does move us toward a more wholesome future.
The relationship of covenant faith is accompanied by beliefs that give it specific expression. As any relationship grows and matures, the beliefs that accompany it often change, giving deeper expression to the relationship’s meaning.
In the plural side of life, in communities of faith as well as society in general, frameworks, institutions and systems emerge that formalize various levels of belief.
In the past, for example, certain beliefs about racial differences were formalized into a slavery system, Jim Crow laws and patterns of social interaction that were quite rigidly enforced – structural expressions of those racial beliefs.
Good and moral people lived in the midst of those systems, often without sensing the disconnect between the beliefs that sustained those structures and the faith relationship they had embraced on a personal level.
With time and the influence of experience, beliefs and the larger structures that sanction them change.
Sometimes personal beliefs change and bring pressure to modify structures that represent earlier ways of thinking. Sometimes it works the other way around: Structures and accepted patterns change in ways that provide a context for personal change to emerge.
Most of the time, it seems, we see such a process as healthy progress, for us personally and for our life as a community.
Would anyone wish for a pre-Emancipation Proclamation culture, or a pre-Civil Rights legislation society?
In both cases, perspectives at odds with a prevailing system led to structural change; and in both cases the structural change created contexts in which personal beliefs were encouraged to change, and did change, as well.
“You can’t legislate morality,” they used to say. “You can’t pass laws to make people love their neighbors.”
True, said Martin Luther King and others, but you can pass laws to control the expression of people’s lack of love for neighbor, and thus weaken the forces that work against love.
On the whole, such structural changes have prompted many to exchange beliefs that once supported injustice for beliefs that nourish a better society.
It is a long, slow and awkward process. Beliefs left unchallenged can develop deep roots in our thinking and commitments.
Ideas that accompany a relationship, even the relationship of faith, can become confused with the relationship itself; and shedding the skin of a comfortable and secure way of thinking and believing for a new one is never easy.
The recent mini-drama involving Chick-fil-A is a handy and current illustration of this process.
Company chief Dan Cathy, known and widely respected for his company’s clear commitment to Christian principles in business, spoke publicly of his belief in “biblical marriage.” (One might wonder whose: Jacob’s? Solomon’s? Or Paul’s concept of it being better to marry than to burn with uncontrollable passion?)
He meant, of course, marriage as between one man and one woman, and he was doing so as an honest and sincere response to the issue of same-gender marriage.
The public response provided a highly visible skirmish in the culture/values war, as supporters gave the company its highest sales day in history on a “loyalty day,” and objectors provided their response the next day.
An interesting discovery of the media attention was that the company had made significant contributions to organizations that are active in their discrimination and opposition to certain rights for LGBT persons.
News reports soon revealed conciliatory discussions and an “internal memo” that affirmed the company’s commitment to fairness and non-discriminatory practices toward all people.
It was also reported that the company would no longer give corporate support to groups identified with discriminatory policies and practices.
These steps were welcomed by those who had earlier expressed concern, even as Cathy reassured his supporters that “nothing had changed” in his belief about marriage.
What evidently had changed was the company’s corporate support of organizations that discriminate against those with a different belief. It is one thing to hold a personal belief; it is another to use what power one has to discriminate against those who hold a different one.
Cathy is certainly free to hold his personal belief about marriage. All of us value that freedom.
But his company is also wise to withhold the significant leverage of its support, economic and moral, to those who would deny rights to those who hold a different view.
He is also free to change this or any of his beliefs if and when his journey of faith brings him to a place where he needs to. Those of us who have lived a long time through many of our society’s changes value that freedom, too.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.