Is it a preference or a conviction? Although some may not think about the difference, it is profound. That's because the contrast between preference and conviction goes to the very heart of what someone is. At rock bottom, a society or a person is not accurately measured by what they own or what they prefer, but by what they have convictions about. The point where preference meets conviction is where identity is found.
Preferences are like the weather - they often change and can go through seasons. When millions of Americans got up this morning they chose their first meal of the day on the basis of what they preferred. Some preferred eggs and bacon, others chose cereal. Still others might have opted for toast and coffee. The preference was a consideration that they each made as an evaluation of options. Choosing to wear a blue shirt rather than brown or gray illustrates the same point. Most of the day-to-day decisions we make are like this. Which state we live in, where we get groceries and what we do to make a living are each a function of preference. Generally speaking, there is nothing moral about preference. It is an ethically neutral thing that concerns itself with how something makes us feel, and whether the possible consequence might be beneficial or otherwise.
Conviction is not like this. Conviction is about character. Unlike preference, conviction has a moral dimension. Preferences, by definition, are soft and subject to change. Conviction is firm and unwavering. That is not to say that it is stubbornness. It is not. Stubbornness has to do with being closed-minded and inconsiderate. It is rooted in selfishness and insecurity.
Conviction is a reflection of virtue and the consideration of right and wrong. It is an inner barrier, or boundary, that compels a person to do or not to do certain things. Conviction is what a person really is when the chips are down or when lies, bullies, and falsehood are confronted. It is what a person really is when you get beneath the surface.
The genuine and unfeigned strength of a person or a nation is not found in muscles, body chemistry, or even armies. Nor is it found in the mind, despite the fact that mental discipline can be and is a benefit. Throughout history, great men and great women have not always been those who have been stronger, smarter, faster, or wiser. Some have been weak, challenged with infirmity, or disadvantaged in some other way. The quality that drove them was a set of convictions or guidelines that had been seared on their consciousness -- principles of truth, right and wrong that literally held on to their hearts and defined their lives. The birthing of great nations and great things have been presided over by such people. People of conviction are always present at such events.
The challenge that we face at the end of the 20th century is that there are a growing number of citizens who are taking the principle of preference and applying it to public policy and public morality. It means that societal boundaries are losing the sense of conviction that once defined them. Conviction is being exchanged for preference. The result is a slow disintegration of the core values that give stability to individuals, families and society. At the same time, this switch is presenting a confusing scenario to children and young teens. The message they are getting is that principle can be side-stepped when it is convenient.
The idea that character in political leaders is disconnected from national greatness and sound public processes is absurd. It is true if the barometer used to measure such things is lacking conviction. After all, it is conviction - and only conviction -- that asks the hard questions and demands the tough answers.
That's why only people of substantive character are able to submit to the principles that conviction demands.