April 2015 Feature Article
Democratic governments assert the moral legitimacy to exercise power over their citizens on the ground that they command the support of the majority of the electorate. Consent from the electorate is secured with the assurance that there is less likelihood of abuse of power in democracy compared to ancient aristocracy and modern totalitarianism.
However, modern democracy exacts a price from religious communities. There is an unwritten rule that religion must be kept out of the public arena. Presumably, public debate of these sensitive matters is not only divisive; it can degenerate into violent conflict. Demagogues may exploit religious sentiments to gain political power, and in turn look after the sectarian interest of their religious power base. Democracy is effectively undermined when it becomes a tool for the tyranny of the majority community.
Censorship as a Tolerated Evil
Understandably, some democratic governments impose censorship of religious dialogue and debate in public. But one wonders if censorship may not end up depriving the electorate of the very tool that could help overcome ignorance and prejudice between religious communities. Perhaps it is time to examine the rationale and rules for censorship so that genuine dialogue may be encouraged to promote mutual understanding through clarification of wrongly perceived religious belief and practice.
Social constraint like censorship can be justified only if it results in an evident increase of democratic freedom in other aspects of social life. As social freedoms may be likened to a seamless cloth of interlocking rights, social constraint and state intervention should be minimal and legal restriction must be justified by the imperative of moral concerns shared across different communities. Religious censorship should be limited and applied in a principled manner and only if it clearly works for the common good.
However, enforcement of censorship is inevitably subjective and arbitrary, as evident from anomalies in censorship laws. Censors and would-be censors believe they are immune to corruption arising from arbitrary use of power, but experience often proves otherwise. As such, censorship laws, if any, should be regarded as a tolerated evil best kept to the barest minimum.
What could be the main provisions within this framework of limited and principled censorship?
1) Every voluntary society (and the word voluntary should be stressed here) has the right to define the terms of belief and practice of its membership. The moral and religious education of its members is a matter of internal affairs of the society. By this token, censorship laws may not control the substantive beliefs of religious communities.
2) In a plural society no single group (whether majority or otherwise) has the right to demand that government imposes a general censorship affecting all citizens upon any medium of communication just because the group considers certain matters undesirable according to the distinctive standards held by that group.
3) All social groups should be given unrestricted participation in forging shared public morality by means of peaceful and rational persuasion.
4) Conversely, no single group may impose its own religious or moral views onto other groups through use of force and intimidation.
5) Censorship may ensure proper procedures for interfaith relations. For example, censorship should ensure that there is no misrepresentation or derogation of any religious beliefs and religious discourse should be conducted in a respectful manner.
Dialogue Positively Encouraged
There is wisdom in the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” When the freedom and limits of dialogue are appropriately defined, interfaith dialogue should be encouraged to build bridges across community divides.
First, democracy assures people that there are checks and balance as power is distributed to various institutions with non-discriminatory policies and procedures. However, public officials can ignore these procedures and choose instead to promote the ideological interests of the dominant community. The ability to refrain from such abuse presupposes officials are imbibed with democratic virtues that respect the wishes of the majority without sacrificing the vital interests of minority communities. Such an inclusive mindset is nurtured through habits of social interaction and dialogue with people from other communities.
Second, dialogue is the foundation of social relations and the democratic way of life. As the famous Catholic social thinker John Courtney Murray writes, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” The expectation is that men of good-will in rational discourse are capable of discovering valid principles about the common good and shared moral values.
Johannes Althusius observes in his book Politica that “Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them…The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which the symbiotes [those who live together] pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” In this regard, genuine interfaith dialogue nurtures good virtues of social tolerance, mutual respect and regard for the welfare of people of other faiths. That is to say, the democratic virtues cultivated through interfaith dialogue are fundamental for building social consensus.
Third, nation building is a historical project shared by all communities in a plural society. The success and prosperity of the nation is ensured when citizens of diverse communities and faiths are rallied and held together by common values and mutual interests. Cicero eloquently declared that a true commonwealth is not just any association but a people juris consensus et utilitatis communion sociatus – a people united by agreement about law and rights and by a desire for mutual (not just selfish) interests.
Modern societies are made up of diverse communities (reality of plurality). It is unavoidable that different communities have different conceptions of the sacred order that underpins both religious and social life (reality of pluralism). It is granted that historically, human society has never arrived at a final resolution in the debate of pluralism (a question of epistemology rather than ontology). It is possible that the dominant religion may be tempted to impose its beliefs onto others. As such, the public goals of interfaith dialogue should not be a contest of supremacy but a mutual appreciation of different “articles of faith”. Such mutual appreciation allows religious interlocutors to define “articles of peace”, that is, rules for social relations that enable people of different faiths to live and work together for the common good. For this purpose, it is the challenge for different communities to demonstrate and make available the ethical resources from their respective religious traditions to nurture a moral citizenry that values mutual respect and acceptance amidst diversity.
The government may provide a supportive but not the defining role in interfaith relations. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the government should not arrogate for itself the responsibility of taking care of the sacred order of religious life. Instead, the duty of the government is to limit its care to ensure freedom of religion. We are mindful that often times, the government, by virtue of its overwhelming power, is tempted to control the life and practices of religious communities. Indeed, one of the paramount goals of interfaith dialogue is to define how the existence of transcendent reality, however differently conceived within each religious tradition, legitimizes but limits to the power of government.
In the final analysis, genuine inter-faith dialogue promotes a culture of openness and cooperation. The awesome task of working for the common good demands great courage and vision from all religious leaders and the ability to transcend the limited interests of their respective communities and work together to build a just and harmonious democracy.
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.