Tag Archives: democracy

Religious Tolerance and Limited State Bureaucracy

December 2017 Feature Article

Religious tolerance is a tenuous legacy of democracy as state bureaucracy instinctively extends its power to regulate all aspects of the life of its citizens. As such, a moral citizenry needs to be motivated by cogent arguments in order that it may press for institutional safeguards which would prevent state bureaucracy from encroaching on religious freedom. In this regard, John Locke is a towering figure in providing philosophical foundations for a limited state bureaucracy that respects the independence of religious institutions and promotes religious tolerance.

For Locke, man needs protection for his life, liberty and property. It is essential that every man enjoys natural rights to these goods in order that he may serve society. These rights are claimed on the basis of natural law, that is, God’s law prescribed to all men at creation. Since these rights are natural, they are inherent to every individual. As inalienable, they cannot be transferred or forfeited. Locke emphasizes that these rights are pre-political; they are not given by the state, nor can the state take them away.

The necessity for collective protection of private property and adjudication of social conflict requires a ‘social contract’ to form a civil government. Locke emphasizes in his Second Treatise on Civil Government that only state authority, exemplified by the magistrate, had its origins in the social contract. Furthermore, only part of a person’s rights is surrendered to the state in the contract.

The logic of Locke’s argument for a limited state leading to relative political and religious freedom is encapsulated in his classic work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The Letter provides a framework for peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the destructive Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Locke was also fully aware of the struggle of the church against the state after the Restoration of the monarchy. Erastianism was then the accepted ideology for the state which wanted control over ecclesiastical matters where the crown controls the cross, and the church is merely a handmaiden of the state.

State bureaucratic control has proven to be destructive for the church when the paternalistic authority of the crown emasculates the power of the clergy and suffocates spiritual initiative from the laity. Furthermore, violence is brought to bear upon any nonconformist or dissenter to royal patronage. They could be fined, have their property seized and even be thrown into prison.

Locke’s Letter was an exercise to defend freedom for the church to manage its internal affairs and to fulfill its spiritual vocation. Since the debate was directed at state religious bureaucracy, Locke naturally argued from premises that were informed by Christian faith. Locke gives four reasons for religious tolerance:

First, Locke challenges traditional alliance between the crown and church where common believers and the clergy submits to the crown with its implicit claim to infallibility. However, this hierarchy is unacceptable to Locke on grounds that if human knowledge remains uncertain, it is wrong for the authorities to enforce fallible truth claims and beliefs. Locke’s caution springs from his awareness that human intellectual capacity and moral discernment is vulnerable to corruption because of vested interests.

Second, Locke argues for toleration as this was the example set by the Apostles. He emphasizes in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love…gathering them [the nations] into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.”[1]

Religious compulsion enforced through ecclesiastical decrees which are no more than human responses to mediated revelation is inappropriate. Locke looked to public truth arrived at through reason and logic instead of religious authority founded on dogma to provide a secure and sufficient foundation for social order. He argues that the state rightly exercises its authority in protection of life and property, but as a fallible human institution it should refrain from imposing religious beliefs.

Third, Locke appeals for religious toleration for pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, the recent history of England has demonstrated that coercion to compulsory uniformity only leads to social unrest. On the other hand, toleration promotes peace and prosperity.

In a lengthy passage he argues that matters of faith are beyond the authority of the magistrate and that compulsion towards outward conformity only undermines sincerity which is essential for genuine faith, “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.”[2]

Fourth, Locke argues for tolerance based on the rights of conscience. It was evident to him that genuine faith must be sincere. “It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.” That is to say, sincerity rather than truth itself is the effective criterion for salvation.

Locke therefore asserts that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[3] Locke stresses the state should respect the church as a voluntary society of men “joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God…No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church then is a society of members voluntarily uniting to this end.”[4]

A caveat is here in order – the Lockean argument for freedom of conscience should not be taken as an excuse for unfettered individualism. On the contrary, Locke’s argument for freedom is a premise for responsible freedom that was already an essential element of human relationships before the social contract. Obedience to one’s conscience is not an act of withdrawal from society so much as an act of freedom that empowers the believer to take the initiative to serve society.

As Robert George explains, religious freedom enables members of society to organize and carry out various welfare works, including health and educational services, which effectively limits the scope of government and the power of the state. “Religion provides authority structures and, where it flourishes and is healthy, is among the key institutions of civil society providing a buffer between the individual and the state.”[5]

For Locke, the right to conscience is the right to do what one judges to be one’s obligations to fellowmen in the light of one’s religious commitment.


[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 215, 217.

[2] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 218-219.

[3] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 232, 219.

[4] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 220-221.

[5] Robert George, Conscience and its Enemies (ISI Books, 2013), p. 114.


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.

Post-Truth Politics?

June 2017 Pulse

Last November, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as the international word for the year 2016. So significant is this expression that Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl even said it could become “one of the defining words of our time”.

“Post-truth”, whose origins can be traced to the early 1990s, is not a new coinage. Yet the remarkable events that took place in the UK in July 2016 and in the USA in September of the same year had made it an ineluctable buzzword.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “post-truth” thus: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The two events mentioned earlier are of course “Brexit” and the extraordinary journey of Mr Donald Trump to the White House.

In the Brexit episode, “Leave” campaigners repeatedly perpetuated untruths in their effort to convince the British public to abandon the EU. The most startling example is the fraudulent claim by Mr Nigel Farage that it costs Britain £55 million (S$99 million) a day to be a member of the EU.

More alarmingly, vast swathes of the British population appeared to have ignored all the fact-based warnings about the perils of leaving the EU sounded by academics and politicians alike.

In the most acrimonious presidential campaign in the history of the USA, then presidential hopeful Trump told so many lies that one reporter said despairingly “it’s hard to know which ones to cite”.

The fact-checking outfit Politifact has found that 70 per cent of Trump’s “factual” statements can be categorised as “mostly false”, “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

Of course politicians have always been known to lie, and some commentators have even said that it is virtually part of their job description – although that would be unduly cynical.

The difference here is that in the past, politicians would try very hard to camouflage their dishonesty, believing that voters would care. In the so-called post-truth era, this assumption is abandoned, and politicians lie blatantly and with impunity.

This shift in paradigm is surely disconcerting not just for the champions of liberal democracies for whom facts are sacred. It must surely also be unnerving for countries like Singapore that have rightly prized objective and rational approaches over visceral ones.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that post-truth politics is made possible by the rise of populist movements evident in some countries and the ubiquity of social media. Together, they have ignited and fanned the flames of this new brand of politics.

Is truth important in politics and for society?

Of course it is, for it is only the truth – not lies or falsehood – that will eventually set us free (John 8:32). Surely even those who do not seem to care very much for the truth know this. They know that a society established on the murky foundation of deceptions will soon fall into ruin.

But perhaps the so-called post-truth politics brings to light a deeper malaise that has been festering in Western societies, namely, the deep and sometimes unarticulated distrust of authority and established institutions.

This brings us to another possible ‘take-home’ from these extraordinary events that is perhaps not given the attention it deserves.

It is not uncommon to read commentaries that condescendingly deride the voters – bamboozled as they were by an ocean of misinformation and lies – for being gullible and undiscerning.

Such caricatures are never fair.

Perhaps those who “vote with their hearts” are not always delusional or irrational. Perhaps it is not the case that these voters have given up on the truth but rather that they do not trust the facts – that is, the facts as dished out by authorities whose trustworthiness they have called into question.

Perhaps they are wary of the way in which “academic and scientific research” is sometimes commandeered to advance the agenda of the political elite, and to taunt those who disagree.

Perhaps the so-called pro-truth brigadiers, who rely slavishly on statistics, are the ones who are naïve. Perhaps they have embraced so narrow and reductionist a view of truth that they foolishly think that numbers, figures and charts tell the whole story.

And perhaps this has blinkered their vision to the point that they miss the truth about the hopes and fears, aspirations and struggles of ordinary people.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Trumpet (TTC).

Morality, Democracy and Marriage

September 2015 Pulse

On 24 May 2015, the citizens of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage, making the predominantly Roman Catholic country the first in the world to do so by popular vote. 1,201,607 or 61% of the voters said ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a landmark referendum, while 734,300 voted against.

Ireland’s political leaders of every stripe were united in welcoming the decision. Prime Minister Edna Kenny said that the vote ‘disclosed who we are – a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.’ Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton agreed and called it a ‘magical, moving moment’, while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that it was ‘a huge day for equality.’

The Irish referendum has much to teach us about religion, culture, morality and public opinion.

But the one important lesson that stands out is that this incident makes clear that, despite its obvious merits, the democratic process does not guarantee that morality will be upheld and that democracy in and by itself is unable to provide a clear moral compass for society.

One glaringly obvious weakness of the democratic process and indeed of democracy itself is that it is premised on opinions. Voters may feel that they are in control because of their active participation in a process that allows them to determine the outcome by choosing from an array of options and viewpoints. But in reality, it is those who set the agendas – sometimes by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites – that are in control.

In a sense, voting is akin to the capitalist economic system that is often allied to democracy. The producers dictate the agenda, and the consumers are simply taken up in choosing from the different opinions available in the competitive marketplace of ideas.

In addition, the sloganeering that sometimes accompanies the democratic process often obscures and obfuscates important issues even as it impedes rational deliberation on these issues.

For example, supporters of same-sex marriage portray themselves as passionate and uncompromising champions of equality. Same-sex marriage is all about equality, they emphatically declare. It is about allowing two people who love each other to enter into this union called marriage regardless of their sex or gender.

The traditional view of marriage, they insist, violates the principle of equality because it discriminates against same-sex couples who wish to get married. They therefore often compare laws against same-sex marriage with antimiscegenation laws that support the unjust system of white supremacy by prohibiting interracial marriage.

But the analogy to antimiscegenation, and with it the appeal to equality, fails on a fundamental point. Antimiscegenation has to do with whom one is allowed to marry, and not with what marriage is essentially about. The issue with same-sex marriage, however, concerns the essential meaning of marriage.

Put differently, antimiscegenation laws are not put in place to change the fundamental definition of marriage. They are there in order to prevent the possibility of a genuine interracial marriage from being realised or recognised.

The same-sex marriage debate is different. By insisting that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the proponents of same-sex marriage are not simply expanding the pool of people eligible to marry; they are redefining marriage itself.

In using the analogy of antimiscegenation, supporters of same-sex marriage are in fact implying that race and sex are equally relevant to the essence of marriage.

This assertion is simply false! Race is never relevant to the intrinsic nature of marriage. Sex, however, always is.

In addition, if equality is the only basis for determining who can marry whom, then proponents of same-sex marriage must also support open, temporary, polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous and incestuous unions as long as they are between or among consenting adults who love each other.

Rational argument and sound judgement are sometimes submerged under the loud sloganeering, aggressive lobbying and charged emotions that many times accompany the so-called democratic process.

For the Christian, marriage is not a social or legal construct. It is a special covenantal relationship between a man and a woman instituted by God (Genesis 2:22-24). In this union called marriage, the man and the woman are permanently and exclusively committed to one another.

Marriage provides the proper relational context for the man and the woman who have become ‘one flesh’ to bear and rear children. It is not only a union that makes procreation possible, but it also provides the natural social order for children to be raised and nurtured.

The structure of marriage is so basic that it is found universally across cultures and religious traditions. As Robert George has rightly pointed out, ‘the demands of our common human nature have shaped (however imperfectly) all of our religious traditions to recognise this natural institution.’

If this is indeed the case, the question that must be put to modern societies is whether the meaning and structure of marriage can be radically revised by a ballot box? Or, to put the question differently and more generically, can morality be democratized?

The answer must surely be ‘No’. The Christian understanding of human sinfulness suggests that morality must be based on more impeccable foundations than the fleeting views of the majority. Human sexuality, marriage and the structure of the family must be established on the design and purposes of the Creator.

As Robert Kraynak has so perceptively put it in his intriguing and provocative book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: ‘We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.’


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Interfaith Dialogue and Democratic Virtues

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
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.

Is democracy the best system of government, according to the Christian view?

IT IS IMPORTANT to state at the outset that the Christian faith neither provides an ethos for, nor does it have a stake in any form of political ideology or order, including democracy. Christianity is fundamentally concerned with justice and would support any political system that could ensure it. Indeed, the Church has survived and functioned in almost every conceivable political environment in its long history.

The Neros, Hitlers and Stalins of history have not succeeded in obliterating the Church or in putting out the flames of the Gospel. Even the Cultural Revolution did not succeed in wiping out the Church. Once the smoke cleared, the Christians who were driven underground began to emerge in large numbers. Not only has the Church survived these regimes, it has also, in some cases, succeeded in humanising even the worst political conditions.

Although the Church cannot be said to have a stake in democracy, it would broadly endorse the ideals and values it symbolises and promotes. This does not mean that Christianity requires a democracy, as some Christian thinkers like Michael Novak have argued. Neither does it imply that, as a political system, democracy is flawless or infallible. The Church could endorse the values espoused by democracy simply because they are not inimical to the Church’s understanding of human beings, and its broad vision of the State and human society.

For instance, the Christian concept of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is best understood in light of the command God gave to the first humans to take care of creation (Gen 1:28). This implies that human beings are God’s chosen deputies in the governance of the world. In political culture, this understanding further implies that human beings are always both subjects and citizens, and that no human being should be treated only as a subject.

Christians of every stripe and theological persuasion must therefore endorse the statement promulgated by the World Council of Churches in 1948 that human beings “must never be made a mere means for political or economic ends”. “Any tendencies in State and society depriving man of the possibility of acting responsibly”, it continues, “are a denial of God’s intention for man and his work of salvation.”

Democracy is a system of government that, as least in principle, assures opportunity for citizens to assume part of the responsibility for the future of their common lives in society. A democratic government makes it possible for citizens to change the course of the State when there is a collective sense that it is on the wrong track, or help to keep it on the right track.

Of course, Christians have, in the course of history, exercised this responsibility and succeeded in bringing about changes even in non-democratic political systems. But the point to be made here is that democracy provides the most direct opportunity for citizen participation – it is a system that makes it possible for everyone to contribute. Democracy is perhaps the best system of government currently available for human beings to discharge their duties in response to the divine mandate in Genesis.

The positive Christian appraisal of democracy must, however, be qualified by a healthy dose of theological realism. The Christian doctrine of human finitude implies that no human creation is perfect and flawless. In addition, the Christian doctrine of sin insists that no human enterprise or ideology is incorruptible. This simply means that in its recognition that democracy is the best available system of government, the Church must be careful never to make it into an ultimate. In evaluating the merits of democracy, Christians must take heed of Philip Wogaman’s terse but wise assertion: “It [democracy] is a human thing; it is not God.”

It is pertinent to note that democracy does not always guarantee justice. Democracy in essence is the rule of the majority, although in theory the rights of the minority are respected. This means that when the decisive majority of the populace is dominated by greed or mean-spiritedness, democracy will not always ensure that justice or even fairness will prevail. This further implies that the democratic process does not really ensure that policies are directed at the common good, since the definition of the latter is left to the ruling majority.

A realistic assessment of democracy must be cognisant of the sobering fact that in the history of human civilisation, benevolent monarchs and aristocrats have sometimes served their people better than the representatives elected by the people.

ALSO SOBERING IS THE FACT that democracy has sometimes facilitated evil. Historical examples like McCarthyism in the United States and the Nazi period in Germany, where multitudes are mindlessly swept up in tides of hysteria, are stark reminders of the profound flaws inherent in democracy. Democracy and its institutions have not always succeeded in addressing unhealthy competition that destroys the very fabric of society. Neither have they always succeeded in fostering solidarity and cooperation.

It is therefore naïve to think that democracy and its institutions alone are able to ensure justice and the common good. Democracy as a system of government may be superior to other approaches, but it requires a certain kind of society to provide it with the necessary moral ballast. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it so well, “Politics is in largest part the function of culture, and at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

A democratic system that truly serves the common good by acknowledging, respecting and protecting the dignity of every citizen requires the moral compass provided by the great religious traditions, especially Christianity. Secularism on its own cannot provide such support simply because it lacks the multifaceted wisdom and rich moral resources that the great religious traditions can offer.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.