Tag Archives: rights

Liberal Authoritarianism

July 2018 Pulse

In its April 10, 1993 issue The Washington Post reported Dr Ben Carson’s withdrawal as commencement speaker at Johns Hopkins University due to students’ concerns about his view regarding marriage.

In an email to the dean of the medical school, Carson writes: ‘Given all the national media surrounding my statements as to my belief in traditional marriage, I believe it would be in the best interest of the students for me to voluntarily withdraw as your commencement speaker this year’.

More recently, students from Notre Dame University walked out as Vice President Mike Pence gave his commencement speech, while the audience at Bethune-Cookman University booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her speech.

This has led CNN host Fareed Zakaria to decry the ‘anti-intellectualism’ and intolerance of the left. ‘American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity’, he is reported to have said. ‘Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely’.

These incidents are but the tip of the iceberg. They point disconcertingly to the hegemony and authoritarianism of modern liberalism, the coercive politics of the left.

Classical liberalism is an intellectual tradition that invests heavily in the two political ideals of equality and liberty. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom philosophers like Roger Scruton have christened as the first and greatest liberal, believed passionately in both these ideals. The same can be said of the liberal manifesto set out by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

Classical liberals like Rousseau may not have always been successful in giving equal weight to these ‘sacred’ ideals, but they have always scrupulously tried not to favour one at the expense of the other.

With modern liberalism, however, a subtle but significant shift may be discerned. As Scruton points out, ‘the present-day American “liberal” tends to sacrifice liberty for equality when the two conflicts’.

But Scruton has I think put the matter rather too mildly. The truth is that equality has become the central tenet of progressive liberalism, an ideal that trumps freedom. In privileging equality over freedom modern liberalism has not only signalled its ideological departure from the classical expression. It has also inspired a fascistic creed that ridicules the very meaning and essence of liberalism itself.

What, then, is the left’s understanding of equality? Or, as former assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kim R. Holmes puts it even more sharply: ‘What is it about how liberals think of equality that makes them so prone to recommend authoritarian policies to achieve it – confiscatory tax policies, campus speech codes, fining pastors, and the like?’

It appears that the new liberals have favoured a rather skewed concept of equality, one that sanctions and energises its politics of intolerance and coercion. In his book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind (2016) Holmes argues that modern liberals work with the notion of inequality that sees the slightest difference in how certain groups fare in our society as an injustice.

Hence same-sex couples are perceived as victims of unequal treatment (and therefore of injustice) because their unions are not regarded as marriages. A boy suffering from gender dysphoria is seen as a victim of social inequality (and ipso facto of injustice) if the school does not allow him to use the ladies toilet.

In its attempt to actualise its radical egalitarianism in society, the new left believes that it is engaged in nothing short of a political and cultural revolution, and the only way to assure success is to employ aggressive and coercive methods. As Holmes has arrestingly put it, ‘If you want to transform society, as gay activists and even President Obama want to do, then clearly some eggs will have to be broken to make an omelet’.

To be sure, the politics of the new left cannot be said to be a mirror image of the old totalitarianisms. However, as writers like Holmes have pointed out, it is plainly evident that ‘they are willing to dip into the totalitarians’ illiberal tool box’ to achieve their goals.

It goes without saying that leftists are willing to use the powers of the ‘technocratic’ state to push their agendas. In this sense, they display the familial traits of thinkers like Rousseau, who through the mechanism of the social contract, has vested enormous power in the government to ensure that the freedom of citizens are protected, their equality secured and justice is served – regardless the view of the majority.

Modern liberals therefore celebrate state-dictated social engineering programmes like same-sex marriage, affirmative action and open borders – just to name a few.

According to its rhetoric, all these are undertaken in the name of ‘social justice’ and for the sake of the alleged ‘victims’ (defined according to their vision of an egalitarian society). But in reality, these programmes are designed to undermine the kind of social order the left refuses to tolerate.

Christians should be especially wary of the illiberal liberals because they are frequently on the receiving end of much of their intolerance. In his book The Intolerance of Tolerance (2013), D. A. Carson rightly observes that a ‘disproportionate part of the intolerance that masks itself as (the new) tolerance is directed against Christians and Christianity’.

The liberal authoritarians are crusaders against every form of bigotry, except their own.

If bigotry is a negative bias against persons because of their association with a group cast in a negative stereotype, then, as Holmes points out, the ‘progressive liberals have got a problem’. ‘They have developed a bigoted attitude that dare not speak its name – that is, anti-Christianity, or to use a progressive turn of phrase, “Christophobia”’.

Examples of leftist bigotry against Christians are not hard to find.

Christians oppose same-sex marriage because they hold that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But the left insists that Christians reject same-sex marriage because they hate homosexuals. Christians oppose abortion because of their strong view regarding the sanctity of human life. The left, however, accuses them of using pro-life rhetoric to deprive women of their rights.

‘Without the slightest bit of self-awareness, or even irony’, Holmes writes, ‘progressive liberals today regularly make negative stereotypes of Christians that, if they were directed against blacks, would make a white supremacist smile’.

Christians must never be afraid of the authoritarianism of the left or be cowed or paralysed by the venom of its attacks. Christians should stand their ground and continue to courageously speak and embody the truth in obedience to the Word of God.

Christians should take heed of the admonition of Peter to the believers in Asia Minor: ‘… do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’.

‘Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3:14-16).



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.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘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’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


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).

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.


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 March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.