Religion & Liberal Democracy

Thick Ideals Without Idealization

By Professor Terence Cuneo (University of Vermont).

January 7, 2016          Picture: Jean Baptiste Roux/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

There is an important sense in which, in the face of a tragedy such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015, theory must remain silent. The tragedy is not a failure of theorizing. No amount of theorizing could have prevented it. And no amount of theorizing could establish that the blood shed is justified or redeemable.

There is another sense, however, in which theory should not remain silent in the face of deep conflict between liberal democracy, which prizes free speech, and religion, which often does not cherish such freedoms. In the face of such tragedy, those engaged in the project of theorizing need to ask afresh whether the conflict between the principles of liberal democracy and religion is deep enough that we need to re-think the relationship between liberal democracy and religion. Does liberal democracy need to bend to accommodate the convictions and practices of religion? Or is the reverse true?

Nearly all who theorize on this topic maintain that conflict between the principles of liberal democracy and religion is real. And when addressing the conflict, the dominant answer among political philosophers has been that it is religion that needs to change. John Dewey, Philip Kitcher, John Hick, and Jacques Derrida, for example, propose that religions need to divest themselves of their own particular “thick” commitments, which might include claims about God, sin, and redemption. According to Dewey and Kitcher, what remains after the divestment is only a civil religion amenable to all citizens of a liberal democracy. According to Hick, what religions must divest themselves of is not their thick commitments but any claim to exclusivity. They must recognize that of the various ways to think of God and the good, none is closer to the truth than the other. All are getting at the truth in different, more or less equally adequate ways.

There are other, somewhat less drastic proposals. Richard Rorty and John Rawls (and the many who follow Rawls) propose not to excise content from religion but to marginalize religion. Rorty proposes to privatize religion: when it comes to the public political domain, religion should have no voice. It is fine for people to practice their religions in the privacy of their own homes, churches, synagogues, and mosques, but that is where religion must stay. Rawls’s proposal is more subtle. According to Rawls, when deliberating about fundamental issues regarding the common good and justice, citizens of a well-ordered liberal democracy must not simply appeal to their religious convictions. Instead, they should appeal to “public reason” – this being (roughly) a fund of abstract principles regarding justice and the common good present in the political culture of a liberal democracy that is available to any “reasonable” citizen of such a democracy. While Rorty’s and Rawls’s proposals are importantly different, they have this much in common: they both maintain that religion should play only a very limited role in a liberal democracy.

The proposals I have just sketched have been influential in the academy, especially the Rawlsian one. I find them neither helpful, perceptive, nor fair. As a practical matter, I see no prospect of persuading the religious to excise from their traditions their thick commitments and claims to exclusivity. To suggest otherwise appears to me utopian. In addition, the price of excising content from religion or privatizing religious commitment strikes me as high. Religion is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can be and is a force for violence. But its power to engage the hearts and minds for the good is considerable. When a theory is insensitive to this power, which is manifest in large-scale social movements such as the civil rights movement, that is not to its credit. Finally, I see no way to square liberal democracy’s commitment to religious freedom with an injunction to privatize or marginalize religious voices. Recommendations for how religious citizens should conduct themselves in a liberal democracy should not be in deep tension with liberal democracy’s deepest commitments to freedom of expression and to pursue one’s life as one sees fit. Nor, among the variety of convictions that citizens have, should religious convictions be singled out as deserving to be privatized or marginalized. I will return to this topic at the end of this discussion.

“Religion is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can be and is a force for violence. But its power to engage the hearts and minds for the good is considerable”

In voicing these reservations, am I proposing that it is not religion but liberal democracy that needs to change? Not exactly. When it comes to religion, liberal democracy commits itself to two fundamental claims. First, church and state must be distinct social institutions. The distinctness primarily consists in the fact that church, synagogue, mosque, and the like have rights against the state to exercise their autonomy and vice-versa. For example, these religious institutions have the prima facie right to determine where their members will assemble to worship and who can assume leadership roles within them. Conversely, the state has the prima facie right to determine how it will distribute benefits and burdens and who can assume leadership positions within it. Second, all citizens have equal voice and rights under the law no matter what their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). When it comes to one’s legal standing, one’s religious commitments (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.

These two commitments of liberal democracy seem to me both correct and salutary, the product of sound theoretical and practical deliberation. They require no alteration. But none of the proposals we’ve canvassed, it should be noted, is simply an application or outgrowth of a commitment to these principles. These proposals go far beyond these principles and some appear to be in tension with them. The conclusion that I draw is not that the fundamental commitments of liberal democracy must change but that our theorizing about liberal democracy must change, at least as this theorizing takes shape in much of mainstream political philosophy. Our theorizing needs to change because it fails to help us to understand the character of liberal democracy’s most fundamental principles.

Where, though, does that leave religion? Must religion simply put up with liberal democracy’s fundamental commitments to expansive freedoms and lack of commitment to any “thick” conception of the good? As theorists as diverse as the novelist Marilynne Robinson and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff have emphasized, the answer to this last question is no. The religiously committed should embrace liberal democracy, for by both recognizing and affirming the freedom-rights of its citizens, liberal democracy thereby recognizes and affirms the worth of human persons. A commitment to the worth of persons, however, lies at the core of religious traditions at their best. Indeed, some of these traditions purport to offer an explanation of why human persons have this worth. It is because we bear the divine image or are the objects of God’s love – or so claim some of these traditions – that we have such worth. Our task as ethical agents is to treat one another in ways that befit this worth. (These are the thick ideals to which my title adverts.) A central task for political philosophers, as theorists such as Robinson and Wolterstorff see it, is both to explore and to carefully explain why the fundamental commitments of religious traditions to the worth of persons grounds and justifies liberal democracy’s commitment to its fundamental freedom-rights. It should be added that, in pressing these points, both Robinson and Wolterstorff are responding to important trends within religious communities that would say the opposite, claiming that liberal democracy and religion are fundamentally at odds. If Robinson and Wolterstorff are right – and I think they are – the problem is not so much with religion’s most fundamental thick commitments but with the understanding that so many seem to have of them. It is important for religious traditions to recognize their deepest commitments and how they can profitably receive expression in our political systems.

“The problem is not so much with religion’s most fundamental thick commitments but with the understanding that so many seem to have of them”

The claims I have just made require qualification. Whether in their thought or practice, not all religions affirm the fundamental worth of persons or that this worth grounds extensive freedom-rights. Because they do not, theorists face additional challenges. Among the most pressing is to mine these traditions themselves, searching for and locating commitments within them to the worth of persons, and articulating in terms these traditions understand, why this affirmation grounds the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. I say this is a challenge. We should have no illusions about whether such an endeavor will meet with success. And we should have no illusions about whether if successful it would be heard and received by adherents to these religious traditions. Still, it is a challenge whose worth we should recognize and whose success in which we should be heavily invested. Both liberal democracy and religion may be much the better for it.

And what if the project fails? What if these religious traditions do not affirm the worth of persons, or deny that such worth grounds the standard schedule of freedom-rights, or refuse to listen to a powerfully crafted case that these claims about worth and freedoms are correct? My own view is that coercion is the only answer. But before I say more about whether coercing citizens by implementing policies and laws with which they deeply disagree can be legitimate, I want to protect against a possible misunderstanding. I don’t want to give you the impression that the dominant tradition of political theorizing – namely, the Rawlsian one – has been concerned to devise arguments addressed to the illiberal, including those who belong to religious traditions that reject the standard schedule of freedom-rights that lie at the heart of liberal democracy. It hasn’t. The Rawlsian tradition has simply designated those who do not share liberal commitments as not “reasonable,” directing everything it has to say about coercion to the “reasonable,” these being the citizens of a “well-ordered” liberal democracy. I am not the first to observe that there is irony here. Given liberalism’s commitment to respect for persons no matter who they are or what their commitments might be, it is ironic that, in their theorizing, Rawlsian approaches treat these people as having views that are beneath consideration for all theoretical and practical purposes [See Edmundson for what to do in cases of obstinate incivility in a liberal democracy].

In my view, a more adequate approach must address the question of whether it is legitimate to coerce those who fail to share liberalism’s fundamental commitments. Moreover, such an approach needs to say something about what makes such coercion legitimate. As I’ve already indicated, I believe such coercion often is legitimate. I say this in full knowledge that at the heart of the Rawlsian program is deep aversion to allowing coercion to play a role in promoting cooperation. The aversion is understandable. Coercion typically requires justification. What the Rawlsian tradition has claimed is that coercion is legitimate or justified only if the reasons for coercion are acceptable to all (“reasonable”) citizens of liberal democracies or to all citizens when suitably idealized. (The idealization to which I refer can take different forms but it typically involves imagining what ordinary citizens would be like if we were to eliminate incoherences from their views, increase their rational powers, and so on.) Even when addressed to the “reasonable,” this strikes me as more utopian political theorizing. By this standard, either no coercive policies would be justified, since there will be reasonable citizens who reject them, or we have no reason to believe they would be justified, since we don’t know what agents would affirm when suitably idealized.

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The conclusion to draw, I believe, is that the Rawlsian tradition has operated with inadequate accounts of what it would be for coercive policies to be legitimate, even when those being coerced are among the “reasonable.” For a coercive law or policy to be legitimate it cannot be the case that it must be justifiable to all citizens, either as they are or as they would be if idealized.

Are there better alternatives? There are. In his book Understanding Liberal Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2012), Wolterstorff develops the idea that at the core of liberal democracy is equal right to full political voice within constitutional limits. According to this proposal, every citizen has a political voice: he or she can exercise this voice by advocating for and against candidates for office, advocating for and against ballot initiatives, advocating for and against actions or inactions by governmental officials, and so forth. Importantly, in exercising their political voice, citizens are permitted to articulate and act on whatever reasons seem to them best, whether they be religious or not. Every citizen, moreover, has full political voice: he or she has the right to advocate for or against all candidates for office in his or her political jurisdiction, for or against all ballot initiatives, and so forth. What gives each adult citizen equal right to full political voice is that each citizen has a right to full political voice and that everyone’s vote counts as equal to everyone else’s vote. Unlike the Rawlsian position, no one is shunted to the side as “unreasonable” and, hence, below theoretical and practical consideration.

But full political voice must be exercised within a particular constitutional and legal context. That context is one that places limits on governmental authority. As citizens of liberal democracies, you and I have the right against the government that it not infringe upon the freedom-rights that we enjoy as citizens. We also have legal rights against our fellow citizens that they not infringe upon the right to exercise full political voice. If Wolterstorff is right, there could be no more equitable arrangement than this, for it is as fair to all points of view as any arrangement could be.

The question I’ve been pursuing is whether, in light of religiously motivated violence such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, whether we need to re-think the relationship between liberal democracy and religion. If we see that the separation of church and state and the right to equal political voice, no matter one’s religious affiliation, are what lie at the heart of liberal democracy’s relation to religion, then there is no need to re-think this relation, for these are sound principles. This, however, is not to suggest that there is no re-thinking to be done. There is. But that re-thinking concerns not so much liberal democracy or religion themselves, but how we theorize about them. I’ve claimed that the main lines of theorizing that one finds in contemporary political theorizing, which endeavor in one or another way to marginalize religion, should be rejected. I’ve also suggested that prominent lines of thought within major religious traditions that charge liberal democracy with being fundamentally hostile to religion should also be rejected. Far from being fundamentally hostile toward religion, I’ve claimed, liberal democracy incorporates some of religion’s deepest commitments to the worth of persons. I acknowledge that there will be religious traditions that do not acknowledge this worth or deny that this worth grounds the sorts of freedom-rights at the heart of liberal democracy. In both theory and practice, representatives of these traditions cannot be dismissed as “unreasonable.” They have a full political voice in liberal democracy. But as citizens they will often be coerced into adhering to laws and policies that express the commitments of liberal democracy with which they disagree. But the coercion is not unjustified. For if a liberal democracy lives up to its best principles, the ratification and enactment of these laws and policies will be under conditions that are just. Coercion in political life is unavoidable. What is avoidable are political arrangements in which such coercion is unjust.

In closing, let me introduce a nuance to the discussion that I have to this point ignored. I have said that we must distinguish liberal democracy from theories of (or theorizing about) liberal democracy. The former is a type of governance structure that particular states can instantiate; the latter is not. We should acknowledge, however, that the type liberal democracy can be realized in different ways, and that existing liberal democracies can realize the type with different degrees of success. Consider, for example, a state that permits free speech but only to a rather limited extent. This state might be a version of liberal democracy. But in placing extensive restrictions on free speech, it would fail to realize the type liberal democracy in an important way. Earlier, when I stated that it is not liberal democracy that needs to change but our theorizing about it, I had in mind actual examples of liberal democracy that realize the type to a high degree. My claims are compatible with the observation that there are some instances of liberal democracy that enact policies and laws that are illiberal in the ways that they treat religion.

The point is important given that our topic is whether we need to rethink the relation between liberal democracy and religion in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings. The French policy of laicite states that the practice of one’s religion is to be reserved for one’s private life. There are to be no public expressions of religion: no public prayers, no public use of religious symbols, no public affirmations of faith. The stated justification for implementing laicite offered in the early 20th century was that it is designed to protect religion from the state. Whatever the justifications might be, it is a policy about which those committed to liberal democracy should be deeply skeptical. For by all appearances, laicite is fundamentally illiberal, an unjustified restriction on the rights that liberal democracy recognizes all its citizens to enjoy. If it is, then there is an important sense in which it is not religion but some examples of liberal democracy that need to change.[1]

Footnotes & References

[1] My thanks to Matthew Anderson and Chris Eberle for discussing the issues raised in this essay with me.

Terence Cuneo
Terence Cuneo
Terence Cuneo is Marsh Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the University of Vermont. He is the author of The Normative Web (Oxford, 2007), Speech and Morality (Oxford, 2014), and Ritualized Faith (Oxford, 2016).
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