Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
America is considered one of the countries with the most freedom in the world. It is both the flagship and the poster child for the ideals of democracy, and many nations have modeled their own versions of democracy after America’s. The characteristic that most defines America, and the one that most people initially think of, is freedom. The ability for a person to choose whatever path in life and make their own choices without the outside interference of governments or institutions, short of murder or theft.
This is especially applicable when compared to other non-Western countries that are authoritarian, communist, or maintain limited freedom that does not include challenging established royal nobility. Yet, democracy is most often contrasted to today with countries that live under religious law.
Stereotypically, this includes places Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, African and Middle Eastern rebel ideologies, and old Euro-Christian standards over the last millennia. It also can apply to smaller societies within democratic states that still continue to live by their traditional ways, like in rural India and Pakistan.
When comparing ourselves with these places, we Americans often pat ourselves on the back for not being as backward. But is that really true?
Three Fingers Pointing Back at You
The defining trait in a society controlled by religious law is a set of values, both written and unwritten, that the members of that society are held accountable to. For example, Sharia law in Islam maintains its values are both written and based on the Quran, as well as the traditions of Mohammad, its founder. Specific laws, such as men and women being chaste, are written. While others, like how the term hijab is defined traditionally to refer to women only specifically covering their heads, are not written and are taken at face value.
It may surprise you, though, that America has had its own set of laws like this as well—some that continue to this day. Sodomy was illegal in many states for a long time. While officially the country maintained a separation of church and state, it was generally understood that same-sex relationships were immoral, and that understanding came from Christian teachings. Even the term sodomy is derived from the Bible’s story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God destroyed two cities for their wickedness: gay relationships being one of them. And even though it became more of an American cultural norm than a practiced religious teaching, it still remained as an unwritten rule after the law was overturned.
Another point would be that the Ten Commandments still stand in many government buildings. The original commandments are lost to time, but the innumerable copies still remain and, again, were a part of the founding beliefs of the men and women who created America. By no means are all the officials in these buildings religious people, and the specific commandments themselves are not written word for word in civil law. But the essence of many of their points is carried over.
Religious law though does not have to involve a deity though. What is a morally acceptable lifestyle for members is borderline religious, especially when it's tied in relation to religious law. Women dressing modestly was believed to be related to their chastity and virginity. Our concept of the Golden Rule is also rooted in Christian origins, as well as respect for other human beings. Yet these laws are old, and many Americans today don’t consider themselves part of a religious institution or maintaining a religious belief. I believe, however, that they still maintain this mentality, albeit with different ideas enshrined.
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The climate of today's society has been referred to as ‘cancel culture’. The meaning and reasoning for that being that whenever someone—a TV show, song, or movie—explicitly mentions or hints at a value system that is considered prejudiced in some way, certain internet activists will riot online and demand that there be consequences for the perpetrator and they be silenced from speaking publicly.
This is being done in the name of protecting progressive values, which champions itself as protecting victimized groups, standing up for those who cannot defend themselves. Or in other words, prevent a repeat of past crimes against humanity and evolve into a better state of social harmony. People who do not like these reactionaries have referred to them derogatorily as "social justice warriors" or SJW. And it's thrown around frequently on the online battlefields of Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook.
Now, I agree with many progressive values. Many of my friends would call me a liberal. However, the reason I compare these to religious laws like Sharia is that like their opposites, many of these value systems are not written law. But they are held up like traditions that link themselves to a higher law, be it civil law, or universal, human rights laws. Black people are no longer slaves by constitutional law, but you can’t portray Black people as stereotypically stupid either, or worse yet, do a Blackface routine when you are not Black. Women have the right to vote and, in theory, should be getting equal pay and opportunities that men have. Yet many movies must have women portrayed as strong and independent characters doing everything men can do—not submissive, kitchen-bound housewives.
Half of these are in written law, while the rest are unwritten extensions of them, and everyone in society is bound to them, even immigrants. This behavior ironically mirrors the conservative culture America use to have after the 1940s, with threats to its picture-perfect, apple pie idealism attempted to be stamped out. Essentially, any allegiance to a law believed to be higher than humanity crosses over into the quasi-religious/religious realm with their followers mimicking the followers of institutional religion.
"I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong."
— -Mahatma Gandhi
Breaking the Wheel
When viewed from this perspective, there is little difference between America and the countries we consider ourselves morally superior to. Granted, where we are different can be extreme: breaking these laws in some countries can get you killed, whereas here it's just getting cursed out and people trying to ruin your lifestyle short of breaking civil law. But then again, just ask famous comedian and Netflix host Hasan Minaj about the ‘the American tax’ and maybe even those aspects are not as clear cut.
We may not be demanding that women cover their heads, be burned with their husbands after they die, or that all LGBQT people be arrested or killed. But we do demand that their public speech attends to their sensitivities. And if anyone does not, the reaction they might get can be just as visceral as old women shooting rocks at young, Western women walking through their villages with bare ankles (yes, that’s a thing).
For America to be truly different from these other countries, it must embrace real diversity. I know that's a trigger word for a lot of people, conjuring images of those same progressive demands I just mentioned. However, that's not how I define diversity. I am talking about where people are allowed to express differences of opinion, belief, and lifestyle, and not get harassed for it.
Yes, this will mean some people expressing pretty vile ideas and things that most good-natured people would want to shut down. However, those same people will also have the same, equal opportunity to do the same with opposite views they find equally repulsive. The beauty of democracy is its faults: it's designed to balance out the voices of society because it recognizes that it cannot enforce total conformity, and not expect a revolution at some point.
You see, what both sides often fail to recognize about democracy is that expressing dangerous ideas, whatever they may be, is built into the system, going back to its origins in Greece. It is not about the rule of any one morality, except that of the peoples’ right to vote. One side does not rule absolutely and if that does happen, or if a specific moral or political doctrine is declared to be above civil laws, then you will get a society that mirrors the traditional, religious ones that some of us seem to detest.
All sides will declare themselves to be the truly righteous, the side that history will back. When you have millions of people in a community however trying to function and move forward, anointing one of them king—no matter how right they may or may not be, is a luxury that no one has. The worst-case scenario would be that lives become at risk through civil war or the one that rules oppresses all the others, creating that war. Just like what happens in those very traditional and religious societies, which we claim to not be like at all.
© 2019 Jamal Smith