Sunday, August 9, 2015

Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The Enlightenment of the 18th century was akin to the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Its libertarian political theories and advances in knowledge and reason were the forbidden fruit that opened the eyes of humanity to a secular truth that debunked traditional religion.  Since then libertarian democracies in the West have evolved into more secular cultures in which individual rights have been given primacy over the collective obligations of traditional religion. 

            Progressive believers in the libertarian democracies of the West have adapted their faith to advances in knowledge and the libertarian values of the Enlightenment, and they outnumber religious fundamentalists who have resisted any modernization of their religion by insisting on the absolute truth of their ancient scriptures.  Progressive believers are a minority in the Islamic East, where most Muslims are literal fundamentalists who believe the Qur’an is the perfect and immutable word of God and that God is the only lawmaker, so that Islamic law, or shari’a, precludes the man-made law of libertarian democracies.  
            Ancient Jewish and Islamic laws emphasize the collective responsibility of all believers to provide for the common good, especially caring for the poor and needy, but do not mention individual human rights, probably because individual rights were irrelevant in those ancient times.  But today individual rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, are recognized to be as essential to the common good as social welfare programs, and in libertarian democracies religions have made individual rights a matter of faith as well as law.  That is not the case in Islamist regimes where shari’a imposes apostasy and blasphemy laws that deny the freedoms of religion and speech.    

            Reconciling any fundamentalist religion—whether it is Jewish, Christian or Islamic—with individual rights requires that its religious rules are voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws.  Both moral standards and laws are standards of legitimacy that reflect the norms of right and wrong.  Apostasy and blasphemy laws prevent the freedoms of religion and speech, and any meaningful political freedom must begin with those freedoms.  Likewise, true faith requires the freedoms of religion and speech.  Religion cannot be mandated or protected by law.

            Like Jews and Christians, most Muslims in libertarian democracies support individual rights and a secular rule of law and do not seek to impose shari’a on others.  Libertarian values have reformed fundamentalist religions in the West, and they could do the same in Islamic cultures.  Such a libertarian reformation could counter the violence of radical Islamism since its legitimacy depends upon the acquiescence of a silent majority of fundamentalist Muslims.

            But there is a fly in this ointment.  The individual rights of libertarian democracies are invariably associated with ugly excesses of liberty and immorality.  That is the nature of a free society, and it understandably offends devout believers.  Fundamentalist religions make immoral acts like adultery crimes that are often punished by death.  That may prevent immoral acts, but it also prevents any real freedom, and history has shown that the suppression of individual freedom with religious laws has done more harm than good.
            The individual freedoms in libertarian democracies should provide equal opportunity for all to share the privileges of power, but wealth and power in the U.S. has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a privileged few whose unrestrained greed now threatens the political stability of democracy.  The health of any democracy depends on a strong middle class, and the traditionally healthy middle class in the U.S. is now threatened by a particularly aggressive and obnoxious form of neo-libertarian demagoguery exemplified by Donald Trump.      

            Trump’s bombastic politics appeal to neo-libertarians who want to make individual rights absolute and avoid any obligation to provide for the common good.  They are joined by Christian fundamentalists who have sullied the freedom of religion by using it to justify discrimination against those who they consider to be sinners, including homosexuals.  It appears that the altruistic Christian ethic in the U.S. is being superseded by the sanctimonious selfishness of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, now represented by the realty-show politics of Donald Trump. 

            The fabric of American democracy has always depended on a strong middle class to hold together the many diverse threads of its population.  That fabric could become unraveled, as it did in the Civil War, with the decline of a middle class that shares common values.  To ensure a future for American democracy people of faith and reason need to restore a sense of collective responsibility for the common good that is threatened by an emphasis on individual and group rights, and prevent any further erosion of America’s middle class. 

            Neo-libertarian politics that favor special interests, whether defined by wealth, race, political party or religion and that seek to trumpthe collective responsibility to provide for the common good with individual or group rights are morally wrong.  For the U.S. to preserve the fabric of its democracy and represent a model of libertarian democracy for the rest of the world, it must demonstrate that it has the moral strength to balance individual rights with the collective responsibility to provide for the common good; and religion can help in the effort by emphasizing a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor.   

Notes and References to Resources:      

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, March 8, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015.  

The Qur’an provides: Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth stands out clear from Error.  Whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks.  And Allah hears and knows all things.  (Qur’an, Al Baqara 2:256)  All laws enforced by the state are compulsive and coercive.  Shari’a imposes both apostasy and blasphemy laws that deny any freedom of religion or speech, which is compulsion in religion.  Shari’a also imposes other forms of compulsion or coercion that deny equal rights with laws that discriminate against women and non-Muslims. 

In Secrets of the extreme religious right: Inside the frightening world of Christian Reconstructionism, Salon, July 31, 2015, Paul Rosenberg has described how fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionists promote a concept of religious freedom derived from the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision that justifies otherwise unlawful discrimination.  See

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