There was nothing particularly new about President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast the other day, and most of the opinion makers and shapers who feigned outrage are late to the issue. Not that it’s unimportant. It’s extremely important. But the unfortunate notion that all religions, and indeed all cultures, are morally equivalent has been with us a long time, and it’s very fashionable. It’s now the conventional wisdom, as a matter of fact.
I’m not going to dwell on the silly anachronisms and false parallels in the speech–Governor Jindal did it best, I think, when he told the president to relax about medieval Catholicism and focus his concerns on contemporary Islamism–but rather on what we’re supposed to do when we encounter religious views that offend us, or seem threatening to us. Obama basically said we should just shut up:
…If, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.
These remarks weren’t made in a theoretical debate. They come shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and other barbaric acts in the name of radical Islam. They are part of the doctrine of multiculturalism, which has been well described by two Danish writers. It started as “culturalism,” early in the last century:
(It) is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realize him or herself within it. (It) also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections, even if they violate individual rights at the same time.
It purports to defend all cultures against all alien depredations. Starting in the first half of the 20th century, most famously in the work of celebrated anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, its advocates gushed about the genuineness and beauty of tribal cultures in the Third World, and urged the West, and particularly the United States, to respect their cultural integrity. Indeed, the movement went so far as to enlist an amazing number of philosophers and anthropologists in a campaign against the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was only a short step from cultural relativism to moral relativism, and some anthropologists, philosophers, and politicians took that step very soon after the Second World War The relativists came from both ends of the political spectrum, the main difference being that those on the left talked about “community” and “oppressed peoples,” while those on the right tended to use the language of traditional nationalism, claiming sanctity for national values and traditions. Universal human rights had little living space in these ideologies, and the culturalists adamantly rejected any attempt to criticize any culture from anyone outside that culture.
There’s a lot of this around, especially on college campuses, and it’s got a lot of popular support. More than you might imagine. A recent private poll showed a bare majority–a mere 51% of Americans–believed that media should publish images of Mohammed, including cartoons. Interestingly, that number drops to 43% for Evanglicals, while 55% of Catholics favor it.
Many world leaders, and some countries (Canada and Malaysia, for example) are similarly multiculti. Pope Francis put it in typically colorful language.
Gesturing towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who organises pontifical trips and who was standing next to him on board the plane, he said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch in the nose.”
Throwing a pretend punch, the Pope said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
And then there’s Tony Blair. When prime minister, he proposed legislation that would criminalize any criticism of any religion. He had considerable support, even from the Anglican church. The proposed legislation called for punishment of “abusive” and “insulting” language, even if there were no intent to abuse or insult. Fortunately, there was enough resistance – and Blair himself missed the crucial vote – to defeat the measure, although two years later a somewhat milder version was passed, resulting in a considerable tightening of free speech.
As I was working on this post, a visiting rabbi at our synagogue gave a dazzling commentary on this week’s Torah portion (which includes the Ten Commandments). His main point was that we had to keep challenging our own views of what God expects from us, and he reminded us of all the changes–some ancient, some in course today–in Jewish doctrine. Calling on us to refrain from criticizing religious doctrine, whether our own or others’, prevents us from getting wiser, and getting closer to God.
That the president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain, and the Catholic pope, along with very nearly half of all Americans, have all called for silence about religious content should be very worrisome, especially to people of faith.