Vinoth Ramachandra

Whose Bias? Which Rights?

Posted on: July 8, 2014

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

These words of Thomas Jefferson, extracted from a letter to George Washington in 1786, are carved in the interior wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Jefferson himself was no orthodox Christian, but he was heir to a Christian heritage, and deeply influenced by the English philosopher John Locke who was a committed member of the Church of England.

I recalled these words when a friend drew my attention to various controversies in the U.S which revolve around the decision of some public universities to exclude those religious groups who have strict conditions of membership. Sometimes the exclusion is couched in the language of “non-discrimination” against people who identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”, at other times it targets any kind of “discrimination” that is based on specifically religious arguments, and (in the most bizarre cases) it is directed against any membership requirements at all.

This is the stuff of high farce. And we need a Swift or a Chesterton to do it justice. In a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” on its banknotes and “one nation under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, some universities and law courts are declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life. It seems that those who make these declarations are unfamiliar with the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence; the specifically theological origins of notions such as “equality”, “inherent human dignity”, “human rights”; and even the founding charters of the most famous universities in the U.S.

For those who do not subscribe to the “political correctness” ideology that has overtaken large swathes of American cultural life, the comparison with totalitarian regimes is pretty clear. It seems that while Americans are free to believe whatever they want, their freedom to manifest that belief in individual and collective practices is severely restricted.

The late Czech President Vaclav Havel shrewdly observed that under communist repression individuals were not required to have certain beliefs, but just behave publicly as though they did, keeping silent about what they themselves thought. He wrote: “For this reason they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”

Respecting people is not the same as respecting their beliefs. A blanket respect for all beliefs is meaningless. Moreover, when all beliefs are said to be equally respected, all are equally ignored. What remains are the social and political practices of the dominant majority to which others must now conform. That spells the end of a free society.

It also spells the death of the university. Universities are institutions which should be giving the lead to the rest of society in how to engage in civil argument on controversial issues (e.g. whether sexual orientation is given and unchanging; whether “equality” should always trump “freedom”; whether “faith” and “reason” are necessarily opposed; whether “sexual identity” is a cultural construct, and so on). Rather than excluding groups who hold contrary views to the majority, universities committed to truth-seeking should be encouraging students and professors to debate the taken-for-granted assumptions of a society, even to the extent of critiquing the laws of the country. If this is what we expect in, say, Africa, why not in the USA?

It would also be interesting to hear what PC advocates understand by a “religious argument” and how it differs structurally from a “secular argument”. Postmodern philosophy in recent decades has excavated the hidden (and, therefore, all the more powerful) biases built in to the public discourse of “neutrality” and even “equality”. Secularist thinkers may not have sacred texts. But they do have their creedal Statements of Faith: “the autonomy of the individual”, the “sovereign will of the People”, “evolution is atheistic”, “no judgment beyond death”, and so on.

If a Republican student society were to refuse to let socialists sit on its committee, would it be considered “sociophobic”? Would Christians and Muslims be welcome in Atheist/Humanist societies? (If so, what would be the point of such a society?) Are college authorities banning all Sororities and Fraternities, and any ethnic-based student societies? Are the authorities planning to open the college doors to all who desire an education and not just those who have the money and the academic ability? These are some questions on which I seek enlightenment.

No institution or organization that eschewed clear standards of belief and practice would last very long. Without criteria of membership, and distinctive activities, they would soon cease to exist. They would have no character worth preserving. Sociological studies indicate that those institutions that make no demands on their members soon wither and die. It is what has happened to many mainstream churches in North America. It is probably what the militant secularists on American college campuses are hoping for- but the sword cuts both ways.

However, the exclusion of Christian groups may be a blessing in disguise. It can force Christians to stop “playing church” on campus (which is what the majority simply do); and instead to permeate all societies and academic conversations, bringing to these (humbly, yet boldly) a well-thought-through Christian mind and voice. No one can suppress that right.

[See, too, my Blog post of 16 July 2010: The Death of Argument?]

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9 Responses to "Whose Bias? Which Rights?"

I have been following your blog for over a year now. I’ve found your posts interesting and thought provoking. Thank you very much.

“In a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” on its banknotes and “one nation under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, some universities and law courts are declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life.”

Some universities and law courts in the U.S. may in fact be declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life, but mark my words religious opinion is alive and well in the U.S. — just look at the power the Tea Party has in Congress for example. America is a deeply religious society — probably more so than any other developed nation.

This is much of what we have argued in the States. Your last paragraph is something I’ve thought of as well. Universities may de-recognize groups, but they cannot de-recognize students. It may be that these measures will both “winnow” student groups and serve as the defining moment leading to renewed engagement, under the grace of God.

Meanwhile me-thinks that you should read the essay on the Immanent Frame website by Ella Wagner titled The Imaginary War On Religion – on how “conservative” religionists are playing the “victim” game as a deliberate political strategy.
An essay which, among other things points out that in the USA culture at large, atheists are much more likely to suffer negative discrimination (and fear of “coming out”) than Christians – by a very large margin. This is especially so in the Bible belt states.

I would also argue that the essentially aggressive intolerant religiosity of the Tea Party influenced GOP is a clear sign as to how sick right-wing so called conservative religion in the USA has become.

John, there are elements of truth in what you say. But the plain fact of the matter is that without provocation 23 InterVarsity groups in California face de-recognition simply because they require their leaders to be Christians, something that for many years was taken for granted under the U.S. First Amendment freedom of speech and association rights. We (I work for this organization) don’t see ourselves as victims and want to find ways to contribute and bring benefit on every campus we are present. But we do not think this is just. And where I work, I’ve seen the forms of “political correctness” have a chilling effect on all sorts of discourse in the university, not simply religious discourse. Everyone walks on eggshells. There is no robust diversity, little vigorous disagreement, except within highly sheltered enclaves.

I happen to live in the city where the US Secular Students Alliance are based and I would concur from conversations with their leaders that in some southern US contexts, atheists do face negative treatment. In this respect, I think Christians need to remember our “Golden Rule” and afford others the treatment we ourselves would wish to receive.

With regard to the Tea Party, the truth is that it is influenced more by the egoist philosophy of Ayn Rand than by Christians and that much of the Christian community in the US is actually critical of the political captivity of those who name Christ and link it to the anti-Christian philosophy of the Tea Party. There is a large constituency of younger Christians as well as Christians from various ethnic and immigrant communities who want no part with this and are advocates for justice for the under-served and under-represented elements in our society. Unfortunately our press tends to cover the extremes, both conservative and liberal and often pays little attention to the quieter but substantive witness and service of these communities.

John, beware of the liberal media’s facile caricatures of “conservative Christians”. Theological conservatism does not neatly translate into political conservatism (cf. Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis). The media love to focus on religious extremists and crack-pots.

Also, as Bob Trube rightly points out, the Tea Party ideologues are more influenced by the atheist Ayn Rand (just as Alan Greenspan was!) than any Biblical or Christian writings.

And beware the fallacious argumemt that goes: if A discriminates against B, then B is justified in discriminating against C.

Nevertheless it´s theological conservatives who are by and large voting for Tea Party candidates. Tea Party ideologues may be heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, but some also consider themselves to be Christian fundamentalists. How are you defining “theological conservatism”? My understanding is that the majority of American conservative evangelicals would most likely consider Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, and Jim Wallis theological liberals rather than theological conservatives. It wasn´t until I left American conservative evangelical circles that I even heard of Jim Wallis, much less about the theological beliefs of MLK and Jimmy Carter. I suppose my bottom line point is, regardless of what the Tea Party believes they still wield a lot of religious influence in America today supporting causes and legislation that benefit conservative Christians mainly.

Stirring article… Tremendously helpful questions… But a “well-thought-through Christian mind and voice” still feels human-centered. Does the Lord ever bestow on anyone a complete, “well-thought-through” package? Or does He engineer the pieces together out of the store of His complete knowledge and understanding as the Community listens to Him, consults with Him, and follows His lead? What is the Lord’s role? Is He in the driver’s seat, or is He just back-up?

Dear Vinoth,
I agree that “[R]especting people is not the same as respecting their beliefs.” Why the debates are turning irrational is because they are often couched in personal terms. Sexual and racial orientations are the lens through which many try to dialogue. I believe latching the issue of sexual orientation onto racial discrimination has not been helpful and may have created an environment of fear and hostility. So much so that in an attempt to appear unbiased the likes of Jim Wallis often speak out of both sides of their mouth – often seeking some “middle ground”. To root those two issues in the Creation story and the teachings of Jesus and his apostles is not necessarily a ‘conservative’ or a ‘liberal’ thing. What is lacking is clear articulation of those beliefs without fear or a feeling of triumphalism.

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