There are times when we SHOULD impose secular views on religious bodies

By March 20, 2017Current

TL;DR – If it hurts society or any group of people in society, then maybe we should. 

Beauty and the Beast is a Disney classic. The original animated movie released in 1991 was the first animated movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Disney remade the 1991 classic into a live action movie starring Emma Watson (*swoons*). Given its story of true love and looking past appearances, it should be a show that parents will want to bring their children to watch.

Except it won’t be. At least not for some parents.

There is a scene in this version of Beauty and the Beast where a minor character, LeFou, had a “gay moment”. This came when LeFou, one of Gaston’s sidekicks, was singing the line “”You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on!” The wink that LeFou gave as he sang that line suggested that he’s homosexual.

It didn’t help that the director Bill Condon said this of LeFou:

“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings.”

This is the first time ever that a Disney movie portrayed a character that is gay. This has prompted some groups to issue responses against the movie. Amongst those that were against the movie because of the “gay moment” is the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). In their statement, they said this:

“NCCS would therefore encourage pastors and church leaders to urge members of their congregations – especially parents – to exercise discretion in guiding young children concerning viewing this movie.”

As expected, this statement attracted criticisms online. In response to these criticisms, a certain David Fong wrote a letter to Straits Times Forum saying that:

“We should not impose our secular views and opinions upon any religious body or organisation, out of respect for its religious belief and also out of respect for our Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.”

Sounds reasonable, right?

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Maybe not. If you really think about it, it’s not as reasonable as it sounds. Donald Low, Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, explained why in a Facebook Post:

He said:

“Consider what society’s response should be if churches in Singapore were to condemn publicly the teaching of evolution in our schools and to ask for the right to teach creationism to their children? Or if a religious group were to say that its believers should have a right to deny their children critical medical care or vaccinations and to rely instead on faith healers in their religion? Or if an imam were to tell Muslims not to socialize with non-believers in non-halal environments? Or if a religious group told its followers to proselytize widely and aggressively as this is what the religion commands?

Should secular society leave these religious advisories – all of which are aimed at their own believers – alone? I don’t think so. Why? Because they lead us down the road of intolerance, dogmatism and ignorance. All of society is worse off when that happens, not just that particular religious body. While religious bodies should indeed have a right to teach their believers the tenets of their faith, this right cannot be an unfettered one that is not subject to the interests and even scrutiny of secular society.”

Do you think that the sort of religious advisories that Donald Low raised are purely hypothetical?

Consider this. During the 1850s in USA, a pastor from New York named Josiah Priest taught congregations that the very thought of interracial marriage was disgusting and sinful. That is an advisory by leader of a religious organisation. Should we allow it? Should we not impose our secular views upon that religious organisation and insist that there is nothing wrong with interracial marriage?

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Thankfully, USA had shown that they were able to impose secular views on religious organisations. And because of that, there is far less stigma on interracial marriages now than in the 1850s. However, in recent times, we see that many evangelical churches in USA been more active politically.

This “creeping politicization and overreach” of the evangelical churches have, according to Donald Low, “undermined the foundations of secularism in the US. They have also contributed to the rise of an ethno-nationalism and populism that are at the heart of the Trump phenomenon. ” And that is a problem that could get out of control.

How do we prevent this problem from getting out of control here in Singapore while respecting the diverse practices and beliefs of different religions?

Perhaps a useful guiding principle would be whether any practice, teachings, or advisories would hurt society or any group of people in our society in any way. If there any religious leaders advocates for practices, preaches teachings, or issues advisories that would hurt society or any group of people in society, then society and the government has a duty to impose our secular views upon them in the strongest way possible.

If we don’t, then that is when the situation could truly get out of control.


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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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