I have yet to hear all the details of Bush’s press conference this morning, but a couple quotes on the subject of same-sex marriage caught my eye. His phrasing is interesting – not in his usual “is our children learning” interesting, but interesting for their implications.

“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and I believe we ought to codify that one way or the other and we have lawyers looking at the best way to do that.”

He could have omitted the words “I believe” for a rhetorically stronger but basically equivalent statement. Instead he frames his comment on marriage as a personal opinion, I guess to avoid the appearance of moralizing. “I believe” is very nonconfrontational compared to other possible phrasings (“I think…” “I would argue…” “I am convinced…”) and in some ways implies that the conclusion is a matter of personal judgement.

What bothers me is that he says “I believe that… and I believe that we should codify that one way or the other.” This would bother me no matter what you put in the ellipses. President Bush, the government is not here to codify your beliefs into law. If you want to codify something you had damn well better have more justification than “I believe that…”

“I think it is important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts. On the other hand, that does not mean that someone like me needs to compromise on the issue of marriage.”

Actually, it means exactly that. It is neither respectful nor welcoming to deny to same-sex couples benefits which are extended to opposite-sex couples. It is discriminatory in the worst sense of the word, and it’s a bit disgusting to hear him talk of “respect” while advocating this shit.

And then there’s this one, which actually preceded the quote above chronologically.

“I am mindful that we’re all sinners and I caution those who may try to take a speck out of the neighbor’s eye when they got a log in their own.

It seems to me that this quote is more about Lawrence v. Texas than same-sex marriage. The clear, intended implication is that he considers homosexuality sinful, but the less clear, possibly unintended implication is that this alone is not sufficient reason to legislate against it. Now, I don’t think (unfortunately) that he’s endorsing this as a general principle, but it’s good to see some acknowledgement that the domain of government does not extend to activities that are sinful but not immoral.

As an aside, my understanding of the distinction between “sinful” and “immoral” is that it is analogous to that between “spiritual” and “material”. In other words, sinful acts are those proscribed by religious edict, whereas immoral acts have some element of harm to society. An exact definition of what is moral is beyond the scope of this entry, but I suspect Plato more or less had it right in Chapter 1 of The Republic when he identified the Golden Rule as the basis of morality. The main point is that morality is not arbitrary, and immoral acts have a real, observable effect on society in the material world. Some sinful acts, on the other hand, may be harmless now but will, according to the priests, be counted against the sinner in the afterlife. Homosexuality is one of these. I think whether someone considers homosexuality immoral is a good test for whether he has a poor grasp of the concept of morality, so I’m actually happy to see Bush use the term “sinful” here as opposed to “immoral”.

The above should also explain exactly why I find it so irksome when guys like Joe Lieberman claim that morality cannot exist without religion. It’s obvious from such a statement that Lieberman has no idea what morality is really about, and he just follows the rules without knowing why. The obvious problem with this in terms of putting him in a leadership position is that if he doesn’t understand where morality comes from, he won’t be able to handle tricky moral situations.

In terms of a political philosophy, an understanding of the distinction between immoral and sinful behavior is absolutely vital. The government has no reason to concern itself with the afterlife prospects of its citizens, but deterring immoral behavior is part of the government’s job in maintaining a functioning society. In the minds of guys like Lieberman, who think morality is dictated by religion, there can be no church-state separation – because they recognize that the government must enforce moral behavior, but they think that the church decides what is moral. I consider this an extremely dangerous mentality for a lawmaker to have.

So, Bush is making the right suggestion here: that it’s not the government’s responsibility to regulate sinful behavior. Now if he’d quit his assaults elsewhere on church-state separation, we might have something…