Making Room for God

Private Collection/Christie’s/Bridgeman Images/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels
James Ensor: The Vile Vivisectors, 1925

The standard story that liberalism has told about religion since the Enlightenment is that they are sibling rivals—frères ennemis—battling each other for control of the modern world. In this view, liberalism’s central ideas—the freedom of the individual, the sovereignty of conscience, and the need to create a space for secular politics—were all forged in the crucible of implacable opposition from religious faith. The religious have battled to keep God in politics while liberals have fought to take Him out, convinced that religion makes citizens superstitious and fanatical and that relegating faith to the private sphere is the key to keeping politics peaceful. The faithful have never been happy with this solution. Some denominations—including Episcopalianism and Reform Judaism—have made peace with liberal secularism, while others—conservative Catholicism and Islamic fundamentalism, for example—do not want to be relegated to the private sphere and are reluctant to surrender their position as arbiters of public questions.

The standard account of liberalism and religion as sibling rivals is not wrong, Cécile Laborde argues in Liberalism’s Religion, her important and illuminating though difficult book, but it needs substantial revision. Laborde is a professor of political theory at Oxford, and what she means by her title is “the conception of religion that liberal theory relies on.” Her book concentrates mainly on the conceptual world of liberal political theory since John Rawls, while Andrew Copson’s Secularism presents a concise and usefully nonpolemical summary of the wide variety of liberal secularisms around the world.

Both Laborde and Copson agree that liberalism has never had a consistent relation to religion. There are liberal states that disestablish religion altogether, others that allow an established church, and some, like France, that enforce a Jacobin version of secularism known as laïcité. Liberalism and religion are rivals, but liberal states have defined their accommodation with religion in very different ways. Some aspire to neutrality, while others use public funds to support a range of religions. In some democracies, like Israel, the battle between secularism and religion is constant, waged, for instance, over marriage laws and public holidays. Within religions themselves, most evidently within Islam, there are violent disagreements about what accommodation to seek from liberal constitutions.

Laborde’s most interesting argument is that liberals make a mistake, ironically, by according religion too much respect. They view religion as shaping a person’s entire life and thus as a particularly important test of the liberal belief that the political order exists to shelter and protect many different, even opposed ways of life. Laborde contends, against this view, that religious commitments are not intrinsically different from secular ones, like environmentalism or veganism, which likewise direct a person’s attitudes and conduct as a whole. A free society should respect all “integrity-protecting commitments” in the same way, she argues, rather than…

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