12/04/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 12/04/2017 03:57 SAST

About Liberalism And Religion In The Age Of Trump

We have seen people killed, countries conquered and territories occupied in the name of religion. Love it or hate it, religion is not to be taken lightly.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ Reuters

The United States presidency has everyone talking, more than usual. With Donald Trump signing one unbelievable executive order after the other, people from across the globe have been responding with a myriad of op-eds, probably not too different from this one. However, while these reactions are quite different depending on the location or media outlet, one thing is for certain – there is a resurgence of radical political views that have been lurking under the surface for a long time, with a global tendency towards conservative nationalism and 'de-globalisation'. To many of us, it raises the fundamental question – where do I fall on the political spectrum?

And make no mistake; regardless of what politicians or the media try to tell us, there is indeed a spectrum of political theories and principles. With social media increasingly playing a role in what we regard as the truth, people are often forced to associate with the one extreme or the other, due to the polarisation that is also often supported or even driven by political actors. We are told that our own principles and beliefs will be protected, if we buy into an entire category of beliefs and principles (that often do not necessarily align with our own true convictions), and moreover – that this is a small price to pay. And many pay it, gladly.

The apparent clash of ideologies that is playing out in the public in the USA is a reflection of many other situations currently in the world – we see a rise of conservative nationalism in France, the Netherlands, Australia, and the United Kingdom to name a few. Countries that were, at least over the past twenty years or so, seen as '(neo-) liberal democracies', societies that supported principles like globalisation and working towards a common understanding of human rights. With this in mind, and as many have pointed out, it is not too far fetched to say that neo-liberalism (or perhaps liberalism more broadly) has lost touch with a very large group of people.

As Jon Stewart repeatedly noted in the aftermath of the US elections, we should be very careful to think of an electorate, or even support-base, as a monolith.

Since I probably fall closer to the liberal end of the political spectrum than the conservative end, I was forced to do the much-needed introspection to try and understand where it all went wrong. While this piece is definitely not an attempt to analyse and solve all the problems we are currently experiencing, I will focus on one particular issue – the freedom of religion. As Jon Stewart repeatedly noted in the aftermath of the US elections, we should be very careful to think of an electorate, or even support-base, as a monolith. He said this while telling how people close to him, people that he loved and respected, voted for Trump in what appeared to be completely flying in the face of everything one would imagine he stands for.

Nonetheless, I started noticing how people that I love and respect, people that call themselves 'socially liberal', well... act very socially conservative. And with the possible exception of one or two, one point that came up on several occasions, was the issue of religion. I don't need to elaborate on the importance of religion. We have seen wars waged, people killed, countries conquered and territories occupied in the name of religion. Summarily – love it or hate it, religion is not something to be taken lightly, regardless of your own personal beliefs (or non-beliefs). People kept telling me that they supported everything, or almost everything, that liberal parties and movements stand for, except that these people very often attack (or mock) their religion – I should mention that most of the people I have had this conversation with are from a Protestant Christian background.

Of course my initial reaction was to say that the idea is to support freedom of religion, and that the practice of religion to the exclusion of other religions were the problem, not the religion itself. But as I started paying attention, I noticed that outspoken liberals often criticise or mock religion, specifically the Christian denominations, to the extent that I could completely understand why religious people would feel ostracised. I am sure there are many plausible reasons for why liberals tend to criticise the Christian faith (and ironically, defend Islam and other religions in the interest of freedom of religion). Maybe it is because of the fact that, for centuries, Western culture has been synonymous with the Christian faith, while other religions often belong to minority groups – those that liberals feel need protection. Maybe it is because Christianity is often used to justify discrimination and exploitation, essentially a violation of principles that many liberals see as important as religion itself.

Whatever the reason, my sense is that the public image of liberal movements is moving towards a perception that it doesn't support (or even respect) the practice of religion, and perhaps Christianity more specifically. The set of liberal principles that I support, based on ideas of liberty and equality, does not discriminate against religion. It acknowledges that not all Christians are male chauvinistic racists, just as it acknowledges that not all Muslims are terrorists. Yet, some of the best critical pieces against the very obvious shortcomings of conservative nationalism contain blatantly discriminatory attacks on religion, and Christianity more specifically, while conservative politicians continuously advocate for the protection thereof. It surely does not help my case, or any other liberal-ish person trying to convince others of the dangers of conservative nationalism, that commentators often attack or mock the one thing that would be a deal-breaker.

It is perhaps also worth bearing in mind that roughly 30 percent of the global population will probably be offended in the process. It is hard to defend a majority. Because truth is, they probably don't need people defending them. But if we are interested in keeping the idea of the liberal democracy alive, it is important to ensure that we keep ourselves in check, and act on the basis of principles, rather than prejudices. In my mind Christianity, or religion more broadly, does not necessarily fit into the same political categorisation as racism, chauvinism, exclusion and sexism (principles often wrongfully labeled as being 'conservative' by some liberals), just as atheism does not fit into the 'liberal' category, as some conservatives would have us believe. What is included in the idea of a liberal democracy, is the freedom to practice the religion of your choice, without prohibiting others to do the same.

So when advocating in the name of liberalism, remember that all religions should be respected, regardless of your own background or convictions. Otherwise we'll see more and more people move away from the idea of liberal democratic principles, as a reaction to what I consider a totally unnecessary misunderstanding.