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.