Are You Being Colonized by Liberalism?

File:Bill Maher by David Shankbone.jpg

Photo: David Shankbone

Bill Maher and Ben Affleck got into a heated exchange this weekend that is actually really helpful for understanding a key issue that is important to religious persons: To what extent can liberalism critique religious ethics and theology?

The crux of their argument sounded like this: Maher claimed that liberals are unwilling to speak out against practices of Muslims that are considered violent or destructive for fear of being labeled as racist and Islamophobic. To be a true liberal, according to Maher, you need to criticize those communities that do not adhere to liberal values. If a Muslim nation doesn’t permit persons to practice the religion of their choice or doesn’t permit women to drive a car, then they should be criticized says Maher. Affleck responded by saying that Maher was being a racist, exactly the response that Maher predicted. A true liberal, according to Affleck, cannot impose their own liberal values as the standard to which Muslims must adhere. Over the course of the argument he seems to shift his position a bit, suggesting that the problem with Maher’s position is not the criticism of violent actions but rather criticizing Islam as a religion rather than only criticizing ISIS and other similar terrorist organizations.

While it may not be immediately clear because of the complex ways that the term “liberal” gets used, Maher seems to be using the term to refer to political liberalism. In that sense, its not only those that sit on the left side of the aisle in American Congress and those that vote for them. All Americans are political liberals in that the language of rights and individual freedoms are central to political discourse. A good summary of liberalism in this sense can be found at the Wikipedia article on Liberalism.

I’m not sure that Affleck understood everything that was being said in the argument and that may be due to the slippage of the use of “liberal” in these conversations. But the argument clearly made him angry. I think it did so because the modern liberal is taught that they must recognize the autonomy and freedom of the individual as a mark of liberal tolerance. He is acting as a good liberal should and making space for a divergent practice and belief to act freely, the freedom of religion. The entire exchange is worth a listen.

What seems to get lost in the conversation is the internal conflict that is inherent to liberalism. Neither Maher nor Affleck are able to name it, however. If they understood the dilemma, they don’t let on that they do. Let me illustrate the point with a concrete example:

Let’s imagine a random Muslim nation (or a “Christian” one if a such a thing existed in the modern era). Let’s imagine that a near universal interpretation of Quran led that nation to conclude that gay and lesbian sex had a negative effect on society, culture, and religion. Forgetting arguments about marriage for a moment, even the most moderate liberal would agree that gay and lesbian sex should not be illegal as an aspect of freedom. But this hypothetical Muslim nation has determined that these sex acts are bad for even those that don’t participate in them.

If this hypothetical nation makes an act illegal that most of the community agrees is detrimental to society/health/etc, then how can the modern liberal critique such a decision based upon its own logic? To require that the community permit sexual acts which are considered a threat to religious holiness is to ignore religious freedom. Obviously, making the sexual act illegal is an imposition on the freedom of the gay and lesbian persons.

I think this is an interesting example because the U.S. dealt with a similar clash of values with a religious community within our own borders. In 2008, the FBI and the state of Texas invaded the ranch of Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) because some young girls were married to much older men. Most Mormons believe that marriage has a central role in the salvation economy. For this group, marriage of these young girls enabled both them and their husbands to enter into the highest realm of heaven when they died. So here we have the perfect example of a sincere religious teaching that is extremely offensive to the principals of liberalism because these young girls should have the freedom to marry whom they want and when they want. Even the ACLU, not known for defending conservative religious believers, found the Texas Child Protective Services to be in violation of these persons’ religious freedoms.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither arguing for religious justification of pedophilia or the criminalizing of gay and lesbian sex. It’s just never clear to me how liberalism can avoid becoming the totalizing narrative that it purports to critique. Liberalism is an ethical system just like the religious ones that it presumes to make space for in the name of freedom of religion. Inevitably, the liberal ideals will conflict with commitments of various religious communities from time to time.

This is where Maher is being more consistent than Affleck. Maher thinks that liberals should become advocates for liberal ideals even when they offend religious communities own sensibilities. For him, it doesn’t matter if you violate Muslim religious commitments as long as you are advocating what is clearly right: liberalism’s understanding of rights and freedoms. I think religious persons that find liberalism contentious toward their traditioned ethics can be thankful that Maher makes explicit what they fear. Liberalism will sometimes claim that religious freedom is not as important as other liberal commitments. Thankfully for religious persons, the federal government has thus far protected religious freedom in some important ways in recent years. The decision to give a contraception exemption to religious nonprofits such as Catholic hospitals and then to Christian business owners in the Hobby Lobby ruling is a good example of such protections.

In principle I understand the value of liberalism as a means for adjudicating difference between various ethical systems (such as religions) in a pluralistic world. Since religious persons from multiple traditions will obviously not agree about ethics, liberalism promises to prevent one religious group from colonizing another by imposing its commitments on all. That’s not such a bad idea. I just don’t trust that I’m not being colonized by liberalism. Maher gives us the gift of being straightforward about those intentions.

Related Post: Remember That You Were Gentiles: Christians, Homosexuality, And Culture Wars


  1. says

    I think you’ve missed the core ethic of liberalism: consent.

    If every single person in a nation consented to the law making gay sex illegal, that would be one thing. However, the fact that there is gay sex to criminalize indicates that’s not true. A liberal could therfore consistently conclude that the law is unethical.

    The point is consent-based ethics is determining the balance between individual freedom, responsibility, and public wellbeing.

    I could want to exercise individual autonomy through murder. However, my victim would not have been consenting, therefore it is unethical. But what about assisted suicide? In that case both would have consented, but would legalizing assisted suicide benefit the public wellbeing?

    In the case of “Muslim nations,” there’s a difference between critiquing a particular Quranic interpretation and critiquing the ethics of whether that interpretation should be enshrined into a nation’s law.

    What Maher and Harris were doing was Islamaphobic because they didn’t seperate their critiques of one interpretation of Islam, the practice of non-fundamentalist Muslims, and the problems with encoding religious teachings into law.

    “Rule by the consent of the governed” is a liberal principal, and that’s what at stake in a limited handful of Muslim nations.

    • says

      Samantha, I know that you written a fair amount about the role of consent in interpersonal relationships and that is an important principle there. And consent of the governed is an important principle of democratic governments. But you can still have a totalitarian or theocratic government and have consent.

      Back to my hypothetical example of a nation that has universally agreed that gay and lesbian sex makes for an immoral society. Even if in this case, liberal principles demand that persons are able to have the liberty to engage in acts which do not infringe upon the liberty of another (which is why a liberal society doesn’t permit the liberty to murder but might permit the liberty for euthanasia). This is what was at stake in the Warren Jeffs case. Whether or not these young girls consented (I know even proposing the possibility brings in lots of issues about consent), liberal ethics demanded that they have the right to not have marriage and sex imposed upon them as children. Liberalism’s theory of rights should be considered a more primary principle than consent. This is the foundation of our Bill of Rights (a thoroughly liberal document) and the reason that judges can overturn something like CA’s Proposition 8 no matter how many voted for it.

  2. Donald Sensing says

    As I recall, “consent” was exactly the issue before the Court in the Hobby Lobby contraception case. Obamacare mandated H-L pay for contraceptives of a certain kind, to which H-L’s owners did not give their consent. The Court sided with H-L. I assume therefore, Samantha, since consent is such a central principle, that you agree with the Hobby Lobby ruling?

  3. Donald Sensing says

    It’s just never clear to me how liberalism can avoid becoming the totalizing narrative that it purports to critique.”

    Inherently, it cannot avoid it. The fundamental thrust of liberalism is totalism. No one gravitates to the Left in order to let others live their lives as they see fit.

    Progressivism is at heart totalist. Professor Anna Geifman explains the Totalist political world view:
    … Its devotees — anarchists, Marxists, or Islamists — want to impose a new order based on an “all-or-nothing claim to truth.” They operate within distinctive parameters of a “theology of Armageddon — a final battle between good and evil” – in which the stakes are nothing less than universal salvation. As outlined in Eric Hoffer’s classic, The True Believer, such movements have mastered the art of “religiofication,” that is, converting political grievances into messianic aspirations and “practical purposes into holy causes.”
    Of course there are “Totalists” on the Right, too, but they are uncommon there; most on the Right mainly want to be left alone and are content to leave others alone, too. However, Totalists are practically all that the Left has.

    The beating heart of Totalism in all its forms is power and control over others. This has become the raison d’etre of “progressives” in all their forms.

    • says

      You have a pretty difficult time saying that “totalists” are uncommon on the right. This is clearly the agenda of the Moral Majority, the Tea Party, and any number of other lesser groups.

    • Philip Brooks says


      I consider myself a liberal and don’t consider myself a totalist. I’m not a anarchist, Marxist, or Islamist, nor do I believe one idea or belief system has the potential to “fix” all human problems, though I think some ideas could make things a little better. I don’t know any liberals who fit the description you provided above. In fact the idea of “all or nothing claim to truth” is uncommon among contemporary progressives, many of whom are post-modern in their ideology, meaning among other things they reject the idea of universal truth and celebrate the existence of multiple intellectual and ideological paths. I also would consider Islamists conservative in the sphere of their own culture and religion since they favor a very strict interpretation of Islam, a return to the social norms of distant past, and favoring of hierarchy and traditional power structures to a more egalitarian system. They don’t meet any of the characteristics of Western liberal thought.

      I would agree that most on the right are not totalists either, but would challenge your assertion that they simply want to be “left alone”. They might see themselves that way, but many of them don’t simply want to be just left alone, but rather left alone with power. Conservatism has historically always been the preferred ideology of the powerful. Yes there are people with little power who are conservative and there people with power who are liberal, but if you look at the overall picture of human history and ask the rational question which ideology lends itself more to the status quo, it’s conservatism. Many conservatives have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and thus generally stand opposed to change. They’re chief concern is maintaining the same level of comfort and power they currently occupy. Then you have the reactionary, who favors change, but as a return to an older system in which they would have exercised more power. It would be unfair to say power is only a factor in conservatism. Yes, ultimately liberals are concerned with power too, but liberalism has historically lent itself to either equalizing power more or lifting up the powerless. Every recognized liberal voice or ideologist has had to at least pay lip service to the idea of spreading power more broadly rather than narrowly. Have liberals always stayed true to that philosophy, no. We are only human, but generally this has been the liberal narrative through out history.

      • says

        How sweet! Just like a skunk! NOTHING beats the snuggles and love a skunk can give! Hope this helps to educate people and make them realize how sweet they can be. Too often they are miosednrutsod. Laws NEED to be changed on pet skunks. Long live ALL skunks!!!

  4. Dan Huff says

    Donald Sensing: “The fundamental thrust of liberalism is totalism. No one gravitates to the Left in order to let others live their lives as they see fit.”

    IMHO, nothing could be farther from the truth. Of course they do. The limited democratic process of our republic has been championed by both right and left as the world’s best model for balancing individual freedoms with the common good. Liberals lean left in that balance, while conservatives lean more right. Uncompromising extremists on both sides are useful wake-up calls to intellectualism even as they are often viewed as obstructions to due process. Liberals are less likely to view diversity of thought, values, politics, religion, race, sex, and sexual preference as liabilities, rather than assets, than conservatives. As such, they clearly favor a greater range of individual freedoms than conservatives. The liberal side of “Totalism” lies in the goal of maximizing personal freedoms within that sustainable balance with common good. Conservatives, on the other side, tend to have a narrower view of the common good, thus favoring a balance that limits personal freedoms more than liberalism.

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