Symposium Introduction

In 2004, the Princeton scholar of religion Jeffrey Stout published, to great acclaim, Democracy and Tradition. Stout’s book was motivated by the attempt to overcome what he considered to be the anti-democratic elements of two dominant academic trends: one in political theory and the other in theology. Stout first criticized the political liberalism of John Rawls for being too restrictive towards religious reasoning and the public sphere. In particular, he believed Rawls’s liberalism to be undemocratic insofar as it unfairly burdened religious citizens to bracket their religious convictions from public discourse unless they could be mediated by what Rawls counted for legitimate public reason. It was conceptions of public reason such as Rawls, Stout argued, that, in part, paved the way for a theological backlash known as post-liberalism. With Rawls in mind, Stout showed why the leading US post-liberal theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, believed that liberalism trivialized religious faith and practice, which Hauerwas believed to be unavoidably public and political. Likewise, Stout explained that the prioritizing of secularism and liberalism above Christian faith is what gave rise to the Radical Orthodoxy movement in the UK led by John Milbank, who condemned secularism as a nihilistic heresy that Christians should reject. Stout’s book sought to overcome Rawls’ requirements of universal reasonableness by instead focusing on discursive sensibilities facilitated by a common democratic tradition, a tradition in which he believed post-liberal theology shared plenty in common.

Now what does all of this have to do with Cécile Laborde’s excellent new book, Liberalism’s Religion? Stout offered a powerful critique of the limitations of Rawls on religion and public reason; many liberal theorists today seeking to accommodate religion, now espouse a qualified unmediated view of religious reasoning and the public sphere with the exception that public statesmen and law makers do not appeal to such reasons. He furthermore disarmed Hauerwas and Milbank by showing that their own theologies touted democratic virtues that were compatible with secular ones. In short, Stout brought post-liberals into contact with the very group they despised. Radical Orthodoxy would soon disband as a cohesive theological movement, and Hauerwas’s towering influence on US post-liberal theology also began to fade—he was forced to concede to much of Stout’s critique.

Laborde aims to achieve something similar bydisaggregating religion” for the purposes of treating “religious and non-religious individuals and groups on the same terms, as expressions of ethical and social pluralism.” This entails a rejection of descriptive or semantic notions of religion which establish in advance strict understandings of the nature or function of religion. Instead disaggregating religion pinpoints the multiple values that particular dimensions of religion realize. In this way Laborde is able to argue that religion is not unique: whatever treatment religion receives from the law, it receives because of features that it shares with nonreligious belief, conceptions, and identifies.

The disaggregate approach to religion allows Laborde to point out the limitations of two schools of thought that share much in common with Stout’s nemeses from the early 2000s: what she describes as the critical school of religion and liberal egalitarian theorists of justice; two groups often hostile to each other’s arguments, but who Laborde thinks should be brought into conversation for improving the weak spots of liberalism. What she describes as the critical school of religion could partially be understood as the interesting influence that post-liberal theology has had, especially since 9/11, on a number of very influential anthropologists, political scientists, scholars of religion, etc. Leading figures here include Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, William Cavanaugh, Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd, and numerous other thinkers that Laborde mentions. In a nutshell, the critical school argues that the liberal attempt to define the just bounds between the state and religion is impossible since there is no way to determine what counts for the religious, and as such, judges and lawmakers rely on biased understandings that favor certain religious groups over others.

Laborde points out the different variants of this critique: The realist critique argues that liberalism is metaphysical and comprehensive and therefore not neutral; the Protestant critique states that liberalism relies on an ethnocentric and, specifically, Protestant European notion of religion that focuses on faith or belief rather than law and practice; and the semantic critique says it’s impossible to adjudicate what is religious and nonreligious. By disaggregating religion, she gets around their attacks by demonstrating that the realist critique does not hold for a conception of liberalism that is not metaphysical and comprehensive; around the Protestant critique by emphasizing that what matters is not religion but comprehensive understandings of the good which can include both practices and belief; and around the semantic critique by showing that religion does not need to be defined since what matters is that the state is neutral towards conception of the good whether they are religious or not.

Laborde’s book, though, is ecumenical in spirit. She shows that the critical school of religion gets something right about the limitations of liberal egalitarian theories of justice, and specifically Rawls, insofar as they rely on vague concepts of both religion and conceptions of the good. Laborde, for instance, agrees with what she calls the ethical salience critique, which challenges the liberal claim to neutrality by pointing out that liberalism assumes an “ethnical evaluation of the salience of different conceptions, beliefs, and commitments.” Likewise, Laborde agrees with a milder version of the critical school of religion’s juridical boundary challenge, which she believes rightly points out that the liberal state ultimately determines the boundary between the religious and the nonreligious, the public and the private, the just and the unjust, etc.

Laborde argues that progressives need to take serious the depth of disagreement about liberal justice itself, meaning that justice is much more indeterminate than liberal neutralists have claimed. To what extent though can such contestation be stretched within the bounds of liberalism? Here Laborde puts forward the idea of minimal secularism—how much state-religion separation is necessary to secure liberal-democratic ideals—which is underpinned by four liberal democratic ideals: the justifiable state, the inclusive state, the limited state, and the democratic state. The justifiable state presents a non-mediating view of religious discourse and the public sphere by suggesting that only state officials net to justify their actions by appeal to public, accessible reasons.

There are a lot of moving parts to the argument, but the upshot seems very clear and also reminiscent of what Stout tried to pull off in Democracy and Tradition. Laborde has successfully reworked liberal theory to “illuminate the common ground,” as she describes it, between philosophical traditions over liberalism’s religion.

Syndicate Theology is thrilled to host this symposium devoted Liberalism’s Religion and honored to have such an esteemed group of participants.

In her comment, the political theorist Teresa Bejan pushes Laborde on the relationship between liberalism and its parochial early modern European origins, specifically given its general scope of application in Liberalism’s Religion. In particular, Bejan, wonders if Laborde is operating with a romanticized view of certain liberal concepts, like the idea of dissent, that “has little to say about what the institutionalization of dissent demands from others in order to be workable on the scale of society.” What might this look like, Bejan wonders, especially given early modern “assumptions about what counts as a righteous (or justifiable) life, or the parochial establishments that make dissent possible, and tolerable.”

The noted law and religion scholar Winnifred Sullivan raises the question of whether Laborde’s assumption that political justice on this earth is best served by the exclusive sovereignty of the modern state actually rings true in reality. “The benefits of such exclusive sovereignty,” she observes, “is belied by the multiple failures of modern states today, to effectively feed, clothe and provide healthcare to those in their care, to monopolize violence, to maintain their borders, to address climate change or to successfully tax their richest citizens, corporate and otherwise.”

The renown literary critic Stanley Fish bluntly sees “disaggregating religion” as a kind of scandal that leaches out of religion its “informing spirit” by eliding the truth claims of theistic religion into constituent parts that can be discussed in relationship to secular practices. Disaggregating religion, then, for Fish is unfair to religious believers. “All I ask,” says Fish, “and it is a request Laborde has already granted, is that those who insist on the subordination of the religious spirit to the Rodney King spirit of “why can’t we just get along” acknowledge what they are doing, and acknowledge specifically that in their pluralist zeal they are not being fair to religion, but cutting religion out of the picture altogether.”

Finally, the historian Faisal Devji brings his immense knowledge of India, Islam, and Hindusim to enrich and complicate Laborde’s discussion of secularism, liberalism, and religion. He agrees with her attempt to move beyond US-centric approaches to religion as a set of theological beliefs, and also rejects the typical narrative of there being a “crisis of secularism” and “return to religion.” He does so, in part, since such notions do not map well onto a place like India, where many debates over secularism there “do not presume the existence of something called ‘the theological’ and so repudiate any qualitative distinction between it and ‘the secular.’” “Isn’t this the presumption,” he asks, “that animates Laborde’s book?”

Laborde offers a rich response to her critics that does much to illuminate the main lines of argumentation in Liberalism’s Religion.



Liberalism’s Parish

Important books are not always (or often) good ones; rarer still are they pleasures to read. Yet Liberalism’s Religion is all of these. In it, Cecile Laborde shows that the shape of the debate about religion in analytic political philosophy since the 1990s is no longer tenable and charts a more plausible path forward. Laborde succeeds because she has the temerity not simply to talk to—but sympathetically engage—theorists of critical religion, postcolonial and conservative, who have become some of liberalism’s staunchest critics.

Laborde traces the book’s origins to a sabbatical year spent at Princeton in the company of several leading lights of the critical religion school, including the late Saba Mahmood (Liberalism’s Religion, 323). Thus, she demonstrates that liberal egalitarians have little to lose and much to gain from serious engagement with their opponents. The book itself stands as a gentle rebuke to both sides for avoiding it for so long. The disinclination to do so hitherto stems, I think, from liberal theorists’ fears that the critics may be right: that is, that if one were to confront seriously liberalism’s historical and conceptual origins, one must recognize it as both a product and instrument of Western hegemony, imperialism, and Protestant mission. And thus, for all of our talk about justice, equality, and justification, liberals remain (at best) unwitting handmaidens of global injustice and oppression.

Laborde quickly dispenses with the more trivial versions of this critique as instances of the genetic fallacy (16–17). Furthermore, she notes that critical religionists continue to rely on principles of justice, fairness, equality, and individual liberty for the normative force of their critiques—that is, precisely the “liberal” principles the universal authority of which they seek to deny. Liberalism may well be a civilizing and/or Protestantizing discourse of power. Still, not all civilizing discourses are created equal. Laborde argues that the onus remains on critics to suggest alternative arrangements that would be less, or at least not more, vulnerable to their critique than liberal egalitarianism.

Still, Laborde concedes that in their more sophisticated versions, the “realist” and “Protestant” critics of liberalism’s religion are basically right. For too long liberal political theorists have gotten away with the self-congratulatory conceit that the liberal egalitarian perspective stands somehow “above” or apart from others as uniquely transcendent or neutral, and thus not itself party to the disputes it proposes to resolve, always magnanimously, on its own terms. This conceit—skewered memorably by Stanley Fish, among others1—has always been as fanciful as it is frustrating, and Laborde argues persuasively that liberals cannot and should not avoid taking a stand on the issues of ethical salience and meta-jurisdictional authority on which critics like Fish and Winnifred Sullivan have pressed them. Liberalism’s Religion specifies several concrete ways how this might be done.

Underlying all of Laborde’s suggestions, however, is a more fundamental counsel to epistemic humility. Liberal egalitarian or no, she urges fellow political theorists to recognize the inevitable partiality of their own perspective—not as a prelude to rejection, but to further reflection and robust reformulation. On this view, the purpose of critique is to acknowledge the parochialism of one’s own commitments so as to become a more persuasive evangelist for them.

I agree with her conclusions. Of course, the provocatively religious language of parochialism and evangelism is mine, not Laborde’s. Still, I think it is the right language, and in what follows I will reflect briefly as a historian of political thought on the theme of parochialism in political theory as it arises in her wonderful book: pointing to the places where Laborde effectively recognizes it in her own liberal egalitarianism, and to highlight one place where it seems to me she does not.

From Province to Parish

For most theorists, who consider themselves a broad-minded bunch, to call someone “parochial” is to imply that they are somehow narrow or backward—that they “fail to see beyond the smoke of their own Chimneys,” as John Locke put it, and so mistake their own local horizon for that of human possibility.2 For Locke, problems arise when one’s limited perspective and natural partiality combine, leading her to mistake the prejudices of a particular place or parish for “innate ideas” or the universal consensus of mankind. (Laborde suggests that some more glib appeals to liberal neutrality are guilty of this mistake.)

But like the adjective “provincial,” “parochial” has a descriptive, as well as a pejorative sense, meaning simply “of or belonging to the parish” as a unit of local governance.3 Indeed, what distinguishes the parish from other locales—and makes it particularly relevant to Laborde’s book—is its status as a unit of civil, as well as ecclesiastical, government, and that the latter character proceeded the former in historically revealing ways. Parishes developed in England in the seventh and eighth centuries as large territorial units overseen by a single secular minister (“secular” here meaning a member of the Christian clergy not confined to a monastery or a particular order). Over time, these larger units were broken down into smaller ones focused around a single church, giving parishes a well-defined places both geographically and administratively, within the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy. With such well-organized units of pastoral care in place, the state soon took advantage. At the Reformation, the centralizing Tudor monarchy began to use the parish as the smallest unit of local government, above all in the administration of the Poor Law and the “registration” of individuals, a system that remained intact until further reforms in the 1830s.

To call liberal egalitarianism or any political theory “parochial,” then, need not be controversial. If all governance is local, at some point theory must meet practice, which is inevitably the practice of some particular place. Laborde reminds liberal egalitarians of the variety of practices to which their theories can be (and have been) accommodated through her contrast between “Secularia” and “Divinitia.” Both societies, she argues, meet the liberal egalitarian criteria of justifiability, inclusion, and liberty; hence, “both are legitimate liberal states . . . [and] in practice, liberal democratic states exhibit features of both” (152). Liberal objections to the latter are thus not principled but parochial, less a matter of argument than a lack of imagination about the practices that our theories might actually entail.

But practice informs theory, too; thus parochialism intervenes at the level of a theory’s conceptual inputs as well as its outputs. As Laborde acknowledges in passing, one sees this in the rise of liberal egalitarianism itself, which was led by two New Englanders, Rawls and Dworkin, who came of age intellectually in the 1960s and tended to view the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren as the telos of liberal democracy (28). To point to this context is not to debunk their theories—it is, however, to suggest that experiences of that particular local context shaped both the formulation of the political problem, as well as its imagined solutions.

We might thus think of the theorist’s parish as the historically specific practical-institutional context that supplies the unacknowledged constraints of the obvious (to us) and the basic assumptions or fundamenta upon which we construct our solutions. As Locke pointed out, it is one’s experience of the parish that shapes what principles one takes to be intuitive. In analytic political philosophy, such intuitions or judgments are not determinative; nevertheless, they exercise an important steering function in the inquiry. Recognizing this fact is particularly important in debates about religion, given the consistent liberal egalitarian maneuver, described by Laborde, of trying to resolve the argument by appealing to some more fundamental (and presumptively noncontroversial) principle. (Take, for example, Rawls’s reduction of religious toleration to a liberty of conscience, or Dworkin’s peculiarly American resort to freedom of expression.)

More particularly, discussions of religion in analytic political philosophy tend to wear their early modern English origins on their sleeve. Laborde’s substantive engagement with historians like Benjamin Kaplan highlights how consistently this history is reflected in theorists’ technical language. Take, for example, theorists’ preference for the early modern coinage “toleration” (as opposed to “tolerance”), or our discussions of “disestablishment,” “conscience,” and “nonconformity.” Theorists debate how much “latitude” (a good, early modern word you don’t hear much outside of debates in analytic political philosophy) should be afforded to “dissent”—and disagree about whether claims of conscience should extend to “indifferent” differences or only “fundamental” ones.

One might object here that the early modern resonances of theorists’ technical vocabulary simply reflect the fact that modern English is largely a product of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and analytic political philosophy remains a persistently Anglophone pursuit. Fair enough. But words carry their histories with them, and in this case, it is a history of an established national church (the Church of England) that has, for centuries, debated just how much religious difference it could accommodate both within and without, and how to treat dissenting (literally, “disagreeing”) members whom they were determined to keep within the fold.

While others may emphasize the (French) republican strands of her argument, I think that Laborde’s preference for the term “nonestablishment” over “disestablishment” reflects her sensitivity to the parochialism of theorists’ language, which continues to purvey the power of concepts generated in the statist-confessional English ecclesiastical context. Still, that context continues to shape how theorists (including Laborde) understand the problem of toleration itself: namely, as a matter of accommodating individual or small-scale associational dissent from within an established church. Thus, characterizing religious difference as “dissent” in the first place presupposes (theoretically and practically) a secure, recognizable, and national ethico-political establishment to which—and within which—individuals who cannot consent may choose to conform or not.4

Elsewhere, I have argued that the “basic” liberties to which liberal egalitarians appeal—that is, the particular constellation of free exercise, association, and speech, along with the demand for church-state separation—is itself the product of a particular history and theology.5 Specifically, it reflects the ecclesiology of radical Protestant separatists (that is disestablishmentarian sectarians) and evangelical Christians like Roger Williams of Rhode Island, who began as and strongly identified originally as “puritan” dissenters within a “polluted” national church.

Critical religion theorists like Mahmood never tired of pointing out what they saw as the implicit “Protestantism” of liberal political theory’s concept of religion, as a highly individual and voluntarist matter of conscientious belief, often tracing this back to liberalism’s presumptive “origins” in John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. Laborde rightly points out the limitations of this critique, especially as a characterization of Locke’s views—and Protestantism is, after all, a very various phenomenon. Still, I think a deeper critical point remains. To point out the particularity and parochialism of liberal egalitarianism’s fundamenta is not to commit the genetic fallacy, or to mistake one’s historical critique for a philosophical one. Rather, it is to use genealogy as a counsel to humility, to remind the theorist that she remains a particular person theorizing from and within a particular place and time, and so not to mistake her own horizon for the limits of the possible.

On this view, liberal egalitarians like Laborde are not so much “rootless” but emphatically rooted cosmopolitans, whose parish is not bounded geographically, but rather intellectually and institutionally through shared sacred texts (both the American Bill of Rights and the ECHR), elite (often Anglophone) academic institutions which credential the young people who populate those international institutions, and preach the virtues of an individualistic ethos that valorizes conscientious dissent. That these parochial institutions function as inputs as well as outputs in our theories is to be expected. What frustrates liberalism’s critics, then, is our apparent obliviousness to that fact, and the carelessness with which we sometimes turn political theory into itself an established form of disestablishmentarian Protestantism.

Evangelism and Integrity

But are we really so oblivious? Here, I agree with Laborde. The appropriate response to critics’ frustrations and charges of liberal parochialism is not denial or recourse to neutrality. Rather, liberal theorists would do better to recognize the parochialism of our commitments and then decide whether or not to defend them—not as neutral, but as better and truer than the alternatives. To put it provocatively (and in terms Laborde would reject): we should become evangelists for our received faith to its critics and enemies.

Laborde derives her own preferred arrangements from her self-conscious sense of belonging to an imagined cosmopolitan community of Western secular democracies, in which the fundamenta are civil supremacy, democratic sovereignty, and individual rights. Yet, while Liberalism’s Religion fruitfully exhibits and challenges the parochialism of liberal egalitarianism by turns, she resists the evangelical implication. Indeed, the point of her book is to argue that, by dispensing with the concept of religion in the way she prescribes, liberal egalitarianism can assuage critics’ fears that “liberalism, far from being a potentially universal framework for the democratic and fair resolution of conflicts about religion, is in fact the sectarian, comprehensive ideology of Western progressives—[i.e.,] the religion of liberals” (242).

This is inspiring. Yet there are moments in her argument where Laborde appears as an evangelist for the “religion of liberals,” after all. Consider the concept of “integrity” that she (following Dworkin) seeks to elevate as one of the ultimate values that liberalism seeks to protect in accommodating religious difference, “where integrity is defined as congruence between one’s perceptions of one’s duties and one’s actual actions” (64). The conclusion that in a tolerant society, one’s outsides should be an accurate reflection of one’s insides is one Locke himself came to in his Letter (1689). After demonizing so-called “fanatics” in his early anti-toleration Tracts on Government (c. 1660–62), Locke would later argue that dissenters were often better citizens and more trustworthy than conformists, because they demonstrated their integrity by their willingness to suffer for their beliefs. (“Insincere” Catholics and atheists were another matter.)

Yet Laborde’s suggestion that integrity is a value that liberals and non-liberals, religious and secular, citizens can agree on is itself the product of a particular history, suggesting that we have not quite escaped the parish after all. The word is another early modern English coinage, derived from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness, completeness, or purity.6 Its first recorded use was in 1533 by none other than Thomas More, who martyred himself so that he (as one younger contemporary put it) “might reserve the integritie of a good conscience.”7

Interestingly, the dawn of liberal egalitarianism in political theory coincided with Robert Bolt’s portrayal of More in A Man for All Seasons (1966), a play that had reimagined More a decade earlier as a hero for agnostics in a nuclear age. As a model of the conscientious objector as a man of integrity, it is no accident that the film swept the Oscars in 1966 as the debate over conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam was at its peak. Muhammad Ali would be convicted of dodging the draft that same year, a conviction overturned unanimously by the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren in 1967.

The assumption that the “integrity” of the conscientious objector should be viewed as universally admirable, let alone acceptable—as well as the idea that it is readily secularizable, as it was not in the Ali case—seems to be very much a product of this particular historical moment. But as Roger Williams and other early modern disestablishmentarian defenders of toleration remind us, the success of a tolerant society hinges in no small part on the willingness of the vast majority of its members to be hypocrites, and to lack integrity—that is, not to act on their inward spiritual convictions—when it came to sharing a civil society with those they regarded as culpably erroneous and impure.

In valorizing integrity and the emblem of the heroic dissenter, liberal theorists like Laborde continue to work with a romanticized view of dissent that risks forgetting the hard-won early modern insight that tolerant societies demand divided selves, and that in our daily encounters with difference we must continue to hold two thoughts at once: I hate these people and yet I have to live with them. There will always be something paradoxical about liberal efforts to establish an ethic, let alone a politics, of dissent; yet liberal egalitarianism, even in Laborde’s much improved form, still has little to say about what the institutionalization of dissent demands from others in order to be workable on the scale of society.

And so, while I agree with Laborde that liberalism is not a religion, I do think it has functioned—and will continue to function—as an established church. Within this establishment, dissent can be admirable as well as permissible, so long as it knows its place. Thus I suspect that disaggregating religion, as Laborde advises, will not suffice to free us from the theological—or more precisely, the ecclesiological and soteriological—assumptions about what counts as a righteous (or justifiable) life, or the parochial establishments that make dissent possible, and tolerable.

Let me end, then, on an appropriately parochial note: when More, that paradigmatic man of integrity, coined the term in English, he was not speaking of the integrity or wholeness of the body and soul of man, but of the divine and material natures of Christ in the sacrament of communion.8 How fitting would it be to find that we members of Liberalism’s parish have been arguing about the Eucharist all along!

  1. Stanley Fish, “Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Bounds between Church and State,” Columbia Law Review 97 (1997) 2255–333.

  2. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.2.

  3. Oxford English Dictionary (online), s.v. “parochial.”

  4. Jacob Levy identifies the valorization of dissent as foundational to modern liberal political theory. Jacob T. Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  5. Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

  6. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “integrity.” An earlier English gloss c. 1450 puts the Latin integrity as “maidenhood,” reflecting the “purity” of chastity.

  7. From Life of Thomas More (ca. 1599), in Christopher Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography (1810). Quoted in ibid.

  8. From Thomas More, The answere to the fyrst parte of the poysened booke . . . named the souper of the lorde (1533). Quoted in Oxford English Dictionary (online), s.v. “integrity.”

  • Avatar

    Cécile Laborde


    Response to Teresa Bejan

    In the course of her erudite commentary, Teresa Bejan offers us profound reflections about language, history, and political theory. She goes to the heart of one of the most difficult questions of political theory. Given the parochial origins of all forms of human thinking, what authority can they ever claim on differently situated others?

    Bejan is a generous and conscientious reader—of the kind that every writer would be fortunate to have. She brings to light the lineages of Liberalism’s Religion and the ways in which contemporary liberals are deeply indebted to early-modern English notions of toleration, conscience, latitude, and integrity. She is tactful in her appreciation of how many of those debts a nonprofessional historian such as myself can fully acknowledge, or simply register. In line with her own important work on early-modern toleration and civility, she enriches our picture of the Protestant view of religion that Saba Mahmood and others have made central to liberalism. She shows how Thomas Moore, who first lay claim to “the integritie of a good conscience,” became a hero for agnostic dissenters during the Vietnam War. She is suspicious of liberal claims to ethical neutrality, and joins my counsel of epistemic humility in liberal advocacy. And she wholeheartedly agrees—albeit en passant—that we still have good reasons to be evangelists for liberalism.

    However broad-minded, however, Bejan’s is an intensely parochial reading of Liberalism’s Religion. This is no criticism. As she eloquently writes, we are all, necessarily, parochial. Bejan reads Liberalism’s Religion with her early-modern historian’s spectacles on. But as a result, she loses sight of the broader theoretical canvass on which my book is situated.

    The broader liberal tradition that I sketch is not merely an update of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates. In the course of its development from the eighteenth century onwards, the capacious liberalism I consider has absorbed the Enlightenment concern for the rational justification of political rule; the distinctive Millian concern for personal development and individuality; the revolutionary and republican defense of democratic self-rule and equal civic status; and the Marxian and feminist focus on radical social critique. Bejan thinks that liberalism is centrally about toleration. Yet the concept of toleration is rarely mentioned in Liberalism’s Religion. The book traces the arc of liberalism, from toleration to state neutrality, and then to its next stage in an age of pluralism: the disaggregation of religion. The notion of integrity is only one dimension of disaggregated religion: it is only relevant in a limited range of cases. Contra Bejan, I do not think that integrity is “universally admirable.” It is only a pro tanto value, as philosophers say. I use it to explain our intuitive sense that, even in a pluralist age, some actions (e.g., wearing a Muslim hijab) are more respect-worthy than others (e.g., wearing a fashion hat). But integrity does not trump the demands of social cooperation or the rights of others. I explicitly write, for example, that conscientious objectors should bear some consequences of their beliefs and shoulder their fair share of the burdens of social cooperation (see Liberalism’s Religion, 225). In addition, religion is not centrally, or mostly, about integrity. In Liberalism’s Religion, a more complex phenomenology of religion is explored: “religion” can denote social markers of identity functionally equivalent to race, nationality or ethnicity; the public accessibility of certain modes of reasoning; the scope of liberty in personal ethics, such as sexuality and family matters. Furthermore, the modern ideal of separation of church and state is not primarily derived from the value of religious freedom and integrity. It is about the protection of distinctively democratic and egalitarian values. From the perspective of these values, “religion” looks very different from early-modern disestablishmentarian Protestantism. In sum, the genealogy of the liberalism I uncover is more complex and multilayered than Bejan’s reading suggests.

    There is another sense in which Bejan’s reading is parochial: not a temporal but a disciplinary sense. As an intellectual historian, she excels at illuminating the thick texture of the concepts we have inherited. Yet we may wonder how the historical enterprise of excavation relates to the philosophical enterprise of critique or justification. What does it mean, for example, to suggest that liberal political philosophy is “an established form of disestablishmentarian Protestantism”? It is a strikingly evocative metaphor. But insofar as it is offered as a critique of liberalism, what kind of critique is it? If we analytically disaggregate the metaphor, so to say, we get three distinct ideas. First, liberalism is in some way “Protestant.” Once the dust of the critical religion challenge has settled, we are left with one truth, I think. Liberalism is individualist in one sense: ultimately, the political order must be justified to individuals (not to collective or impersonal entities such as God, churches, nations, or traditions) as the chief source of (politically relevant) moral claims. Whatever its origins, this is not today a particularly Protestant idea—it has become a basic tenet of modern political morality—and it is compatible with a multiplicity of religious allegiances and cultural traditions. Critics of liberalism should target this basic moral individualism directly, instead of blaming it on an ethnocentric religious “Protestant” bias.

    Second, Bejan claims that liberalism itself is a non-establishment doctrine, in the sense that it does not enforce any orthodoxy and tolerates disagreement. The paradox, she further implies, is that liberalism only tolerates dissent within the bounds of “established” liberalism itself. Bejan evokes the established Anglican Church as the historical model for this mixture of tolerance and repression. But this seems to me far-fetched. Any political order has to decide how much liberty to grant its enemies and adversaries (this question preoccupied Chinese as much as Ottoman rulers); and it is a structural feature of any normative political theory that it defines its own principles and identifies the condition of its stability and legitimacy.

    Third, Bejan implies that liberalism holds “established” power in its privileged parish, that of Anglophone academic institutions. Whether liberals have such power may or may not be true: we live in an age where liberal institutions are being structurally and systematically eroded. Be that as it may, the book is not addressed to professional analytical philosophers but to actual liberals. I think of liberalism, not as a technical analytical philosophy, but as a shared political language: that of the New York Times and the Arab Spring, of Chinese dissidents and LGBTQ activists, of French republicans and German trade unionists, of social justice religious reformers and human rights campaigners. It is dangerously reductive (albeit seductive) to say that human rights conventions are merely the “Bible” of academic liberals. Nor is liberalism structurally Anglophone. Minimal secularism, for example, can be easily translated as an immanent critique of French laïcité (cf. Cécile Laborde, “Comment peut-on être laïque?,” Esprit 447 [2018/19]). And it is relevant (I hope) to non-Western, non-Christian contexts, such as India, Israel, or Tunisia.

    How, then, do we go about defending liberalism while remaining aware of its parochial origins? There are two problematic forms of liberal parochialism. The first is the imperialism of context-blind universalism, which mistakes its own prejudices for eternal truths. The second is the narrow-minded contextualism of liberals whose view of liberalism is merely one of interpretation, not of justification: philosophers otherwise as different as Richard Rorty and Jonathan Quong only aim for liberalism to speak to liberals. My preferred view (and, I think, Bejan’s) seeks to steer a course between these two approaches. Advocates of liberalism do not give up on justifying their views to others; yet this justification cannot be an ex cathedra justification (to continue with the religious metaphor). Sensitivity to language—the words we use, the connotations they bring, the moral sensitivities they carry—is key to undertaking the hard work of mutual justification, comprehension and translation, both in space and in time. In Liberalism’s Religion, I try to show that, however parochial the particular European context within which liberalism is imagined to have emerged, its central insights can be retrieved and reformulated in such a way that they need not carry any embarrassingly parochial baggage. And the key to do this is to rethink, both historically and analytically, the moral and political problems (and resources) that “religion” poses to a just and legitimate political order. In the end, we get a thinner, more open-textured, more pluralist political doctrine—one that can be appropriated from a variety of non-Protestant, indeed non-Christian, contexts.




Liberalism’s Law

A Response to Cécile Laborde, Liberalism’s Religion

While political theory is not my own mode of inquiry, I find Cécile Laborde irresistible as an interlocutor. Her generosity is infecting, her comparative modesty of ambition enormously refreshing. She is almost entirely free of condescension towards those with whom she disagrees. These are not small matters. She seeks to sell her brand of liberalism but she does not insist that it is the only game in town. She invites conversation.

What I take to be Cécile’s purpose in this book is to give an account of how political liberalism, in its practices with respect to religion, and in its defense of those practices, might more carefully and competently acknowledge the critique of religion scholars. She does this by way of her particular invention, the political and legal disaggregation of religion. Seeking to revise the defense of political liberalism in the face of those whom she brings together under the heading “critical religion,” she acknowledges that one difficulty with previous accounts of liberalism has been an insufficiently complex description of religion. Disaggregating religion permits her to more carefully fine-tune liberal doctrine to meet its critics. It is fascinating to watch her do this. It does not, however, lead her to cede any ground on the core liberal commitment to moral individualism and voluntarism. Those are nonnegotiable, even while she acknowledges the violence done in their name.

Laborde divides the criticism by the religionists into three types, the semantic, the Protestant, and the realist. Taking each in turn, she acknowledges liberal failings while insisting that matters can be at least partially repaired. They can be repaired insofar as they help liberalism to recognize its own blind spots. Let me underline this point. Laborde’s goal is to fix liberalism, not to give a better account of religion. That is our job.

My own work appears in this introduction as one among a group of critics. While each of us might push back on her readings of our work, in general she is a careful and generous reader. More than most liberal legal thinkers. I have recently had more than one conversation with those in legal studies who write about religion. I have asked, “How did you get interested in religion?” The startled response has been, “I am not interested in religion.” Cécile is. We are flattered. However, while she is interested, she is not persuaded.

It is when she turns to law that hard edges begin to appear. As she underlines in her chapter on associational autonomy, “What [liberal egalitarians] mean by ‘secular’ is that it is a state that has the prerogative to authoritatively determine the respective spheres of the political and the religious—it enjoys meta-jurisdictional sovereignty.” She adds that “liberal egalitarians . . . have not been sufficiently forthcoming about this” (162). It is her intention to be forthcoming. I am grateful for the clarity and honesty of her position but I am not persuaded. I am not persuaded that religion has nothing more fundamental to offer as critique—that liberal sovereignty itself is not properly in need of revision.

Doubling down on the exclusiveness of state sovereignty rests on Laborde’s judgment that the benefit to the individual and to the public welfare of insisting on the state’s exclusive competence at adjudicating its own jurisdiction outstrips the harm done in its name. Associational autonomy is thus necessarily limited by the state’s right to determine the scope of that autonomy. Again Laborde:

The radicalism of liberalism . . . lies in the fact that it assumes state sovereignty: the state’s prerogative to decisively fix and enforce the terms of the social contract. Secular liberalism assumes that reasonable individuals have a higher-order interest in living under political justice on this earth . . . rather than living by the word of God. . . . This is not a trivial assumption. (163)

She takes most of her critics to agree with this (169). The radicalism of religion does not get much of a hearing here.

Yet this position, that political justice on this earth is best served through the exclusive sovereignty of the modern state, and that religion is best understood as an otherworldly project best characterized as “living by the word of God,” is contested in many places today. On the one hand, the benefits of such exclusive sovereignty is belied by the multiple failures of modern states today, to effectively feed, clothe, and provide healthcare to those in their care, to monopolize violence, to maintain their borders, to address climate change or to successfully tax their richest citizens, corporate and otherwise. Local and transnational efforts in all these areas by establishment actors such as multinational corporations and global religious communities, as well as by entrepreneurial start-ups, constantly erode the state’s claims to sovereignty. The efforts of the order of states through their international institutions to enforce their individual sovereignty through collective effort is likewise unimpressive.

These failures are manifest in the work of the religion critics Laborde cites. With respect to religion, what might be termed religious alternatives to liberal law are inadequately described with dismissive references to divine law, to “living by the word of God,” including those from indigenous and other non-theistic communities, as well as those of various persuasions, religious and quasi-religious, including ecocentric ones, finding their primary normative orders elsewhere than civil courts. It is as if the warm welcome she gave us in chapter 1 has dissipated. Religion is once more confined by an earlier liberal tradition that she herself had critiqued as insufficiently attentive to the complexity of religion.

The very structure of Laborde’s book mutes the full effect of her critiques of liberalism’s law. As Laborde herself acknowledges in her response to another forum on this book, “the conceptual and genealogical questions I introduce in chapter 1 . . . are overshadowed by the substantive, normative questions I pursue in the rest of the book.” In other words, as her position on state sovereignty reveals, the religion critics of the first chapter are useful primarily as a heuristic. They are not permitted to infect and undermine liberal political theory speak, that is, “the substantive normative questions,” of the rest of the chapters. The many losses catalogued by critics of liberalism are lamented but never seriously considered as ways of life that might be respected as ethical and political choices which address and challenge the substantive normative questions posed by liberal political theory. Over and over again, the lively and visceral objections offered by critics to evoke the alternative religious and political realities of non-liberal forms is translated into the language of liberalism, robbing them of their existential claim. This is one effect, unintended, perhaps, of disaggregation. Dismembered, they are reduced to fighting on like the black knight of Monty Python fame.

Repeatedly, religious claims to communal autonomy are marginalized, reduced to struggling efforts at survival in and amongst the assumed indispensability of liberal institutions—this reduction always made in the name of justice in this world, rather than the next, notwithstanding abundant evidence that these communities do indeed seek justice in this world. Liberalism does not have a monopoly on that project. (See, for example, Jinnealogy, a recent book by anthropologist Anand Taneja showing us religio-legal life among the ruins of Delhi, a life that seeks justice in the face of the failures of the postcolonial state.)

Ruling communal religion illegal does not only have the effect of doing violence to its members. Such rulings in the name of moral individualism and voluntarism arguably fail to recognize the inescapability of communalism. They fail to recognize the communalism of the liberal state itself as well as the privileged forms of sovereignty that flourish in it, including those of the church, the university, and the corporation.

In her new book, Powers of Distinction, philosopher of religion Nancy Levene insists that “all human life takes place in collectivities. The question is how to value them” (103). By “value” I take her to mean at once the need for cherishing and the need for evaluation. She embodies the complexity of this dual task in the story of Abraham, boldly claiming him as the exemplar of the modern:

Modernity is Abram insofar as he leaves his kin and clan, his land for another land. This event makes him Abraham, father of a multitude. The call is not only that he leave his land, it is that he leave his land for another one. In leaving his land, he is going somewhere and not nowhere, not toward an abstraction or toward the empyrean or simply to wander the earth. But then the new land, the promised land, will be no less subject to the original call—that it not become yet another homeland. (100)

“Modernity is a reformation of the collective,” she says. You must leave your family and your home. You must go somewhere. But that place must also be a place you value in both senses. You must evaluate it and you must cherish it. It must not “become yet another homeland” (101).

Reforming the collective is going to take all of us. Ruling out the religious has not proven effective. For all of the reasons the religion critics Laborde cites espouse, semantic, protestant, and realist, separation has proved impossible. Pluralist understandings of law seem to be the only way forward.1 If we turn from religion’s critics to law’s critics, imagining law beyond the sovereignty of the liberal state, a cross-disciplinary alliance might prove fruitful.

  1. See Sullivan, “Sex and the Catholic Church: What Does Law Have to Do with It? Introduction,” at The Immanenet Frame, February 5, 2019,

  • Avatar

    Cécile Laborde


    Response to Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

    I have learnt enormously from Winni Sullivan over many years, both from her seminal scholarship and from spirited discussions over wine in Princeton, London, and Leuven. Sullivan’s witty and sceptical intelligence, combined with her dual disciplinary location—in legal as well as religious studies—has given her a unique perspective on liberalism’s religion. In her evocative book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, she beautifully illustrates how any legal construal of religion necessarily misconstrues religion. It secularises it; it distinguishes “the chaff” from what is “valuable”; and, as a result, it radically distorts the actual experience of being religious. The category of religion is too complex, too comprehensive, too multifaceted to be captured by the bureaucratic straightjacket of secular law. As Blaise Pascal might have said, “religion has its reasons of which the law knows nothing.”

    While Sullivan intends this as a damming indictment of secular law, my own response is, instead: “Thank God for that!” To ask that the law embrace and describe the whole of social reality would be to yearn for a totalitarian law—law as a comprehensive nomos, in Robert Cover’s sense. Yet we shouldn’t ask for the law to capture religion any more than we should want it to capture friendship, marriage, or the arts. Instead, my “disaggregated” approach picks out, from the complex anthropological notion of “religion” that we have inherited, distinct elements and values that the law has good reason to protect or contain. Secular law is only interested in those dimensions of religion that generate rights against others, or against the state. Secular law is not comprehensive: it does not tell you how to live—it only makes it possible for you to live under just terms with those with different gods, or none.

    Sullivan draws attention to the “harms” done to religion by secular law; and to the “violence” performed in its name. Yet it is not clear where she thinks my theory justifies or authorizes such egregious harms. One more precise complaint is that I “exclude communal religion.” Yet I spend quite a bit of time defending the rights of communal religion by identifying relevant collective interests, which I call coherence interests and competence interests (ch. 5). What I do argue, however, is that the rights of communal religion do not extend to denying teachers protection under the Disability Act (Hosanna Tabor), to denying the employees of for-profit faith-based businesses the benefits of the contraception mandate (Hobby Lobby) or to allowing churches to claim full immunity from antidiscrimination legislation. It is not clear whether Sullivan thinks the application of liberal law would be violent in these cases (especially in light of her own scathing critique of the strange appearance of the corporatist ecclesiology of “the church” into US law).

    The chief target of Sullivan’s penetrating critique is a reference I make in chapter 5 to the radicalism of liberalism. There I write that liberals assume that citizens have a higher-order interest in finding terms of political justice on this earth than in living by the will of God. This sentence is no doubt a bit curt, insofar as it misleadingly suggests a contrast between “the will of God” and “justice on this earth.” Yet as the rest of the book hopefully makes clear, I am generally unimpressed by, and do not work with, binary oppositions such as justice vs. religion (or secular vs. religious). There are a couple of distinct ideas hidden in this (admittedly unfortunate) formulation, which should be unpacked. First, the relevant contrast is between “living by the will of God” and “coercing others to live by the will of God.” In a liberal state, I can live by the will of God: preach, proselytise, organise, witness, serve, organise vibrant forms of communal life, work for justice. But what I can’t do is use the formidable power of the state to coerce others to live by the will of (my) God. Contrary to other liberals, I do not think that this “non-imposition norm” justifies a blanket separation between state and religion; and I explain, in chapter 4, the forms of public recognition of religion that are compatible with it. Second, the perhaps more radical idea hidden in my curt formulation is that, when there is radical disagreement about what exactly constitutes religious coercion, the final decision—the ultimate sovereignty—lies with the democratically organised polity, not with churches or religious groups. This “meta-secularism” is, I think, an inescapable, and radical, implication of modern state sovereignty.

    Now, Sullivan reasonably points out that, in the real world, many states do not hold this meta-secular legitimacy: they are ineffective, violent, repressive. And, when states fail, religious (and other) groups step in to provide welfare, protect the environment, serve the poor, run communal services. No doubt this is true. And we could endlessly trade stories where idealized progressive religions are counterposed to real states; or (conversely) where idealized progressive states are counterposed to real religions. Yet the key question, in a world of real (imperfect) states and real (imperfect) religions, is what kind of regulative ideal should inform our critique of actual states of affairs. Sullivan, like other critics of liberalism, thinks of liberalism merely as an ideology legitimizing the status quo and serving the interests of neoliberal, bureaucratic, imperialist and secularized elites. Yet (in my view anyway) liberal political theory is more valuable as a critical than as a legitimacy tool: it identifies the benchmark against which social critique is best deployed. What is “idealized” in liberal theory is not existing society, but the society against which it should be judged.

    From this point of view, I do worry about Sullivan’s anarcho-pluralist proclivities. I am not sure how exactly “pluralist law” and “religious law” could be defended as attractive alternatives to liberal democratic states. This vision is uncomfortably close to the anti-statist, neoliberal, anti-egalitarian ideology that animates the New Right by mobilising civil society (often on religious grounds) against the state. Romantic anti-statism might have been progressive in an age of bureaucratic overreach and majoritarian domination. Yet in an age of pronounced retrenchment of civil rights, gender equality, and social and economic protections, I fear that the pluralist utopia of self-organised religious communities might be dystopian. Sullivan would protest that she has no reason to be bound by the professional responsibility of a political theorist. But here, I think, she is far too modest. Critical religion—to which Sullivan is one of the most brilliant contributors—is political theory through and through. And it is all the more stimulating for it.




A Comment on Liberalism’s Religion

Before commenting directly on Liberalism’s Religion, I want to line up three moments in legal history that will be familiar to all of you. My first exhibit consists of the two conscientious objector cases, United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), and Welsh v. United States, 578 U.S. __ (1970). These cases center on the language of §6(j) of the 1958 Universal Military Training and Service Act. §6(j) identifies those who are eligible for the status of conscientious objector. It says that objectors will be exempt from military service if their objection is based on “religious training and belief,” and religious training and belief are immediately defined: “Religious training and belief means the individual’s belief in relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophic views or a merely personal moral code.” So, according to the act, to qualify for an exemption you must believe in a God whose commands supersede the commands of any earthly authority; and that belief must be acquired in the course of training that is presumably administered by something like a church which comes complete with doctrines, rituals, ecclesiastical hierarchies, criteria for entry and expulsion, and so on.

What the court does in Seeger and Welsh is relax 6(j)’s severe requirement and let in everything that had been excluded. It does this by coming up with a new test for conscientious objection, “namely, does the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of an objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption.” So, in the wake of these two decisions, political, philosophical, and merely personal views count as the possible basis for exemption. Justice Harlan concurs in both Seeger and Welsh, but his concurrence in Welsh is uneasy because, as he says, by dissolving the “distinction between theistic and non-theistic,” the court “has performed a lobotomy and completely transformed the statute.” By lobotomy, Harlan means that the court has cut the essential part of §6(j) out of what he calls “a remarkable feat of judicial surgery.” What has been cut out according to Harlan is the “theistic requirement,” that is, the requirement that the conscientious objector must believe in a God whose commands are superior to the commands of any earthly authority. In the words of an old television commercial, Harlan is complaining “Where’s the beef?”

The same question was posed by Justice Wiley Rutledge in his dissent to the majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947), regarded as the first significant Establishment Clause case. In that case, as you all know, after celebrating in stirring language the wall of separation between church and state and insisting that it never be breached, Justice Black immediately breached it when he concluded that the state of New Jersey was justified in reimbursing Catholic parents for bus fares expended in order to send their children to school. In his Remonstrance and Remembrance, James Madison had famously thundered that not even three pence be spent by the state in support of religious institutions. How does New Jersey get around the three pence rule? The answer is by turning an Establishment Clause case—where the proper question is, does the expenditure by the state aid a religious institution?—into a Free Expression case—where the question is, are the parties being treated equally or evenhandedly? By invoking the criterion of evenhandedness, Black elided the issue that had brought the case to the court’s attention in the first place—the relationship between state monies and the advance of religion. Parents reimbursed for expenses incurred while sending their children to a parochial school were put in the same category as parents reimbursed for expenses incurred while sending their children to public school. The religious identity of the persons was simply ignored and made beside the point. In his dissent, Justice Rutledge complained that “by casting the issue in terms of promoting the general cause of education,” the court “ignores the religious factor, thereby leaving out the only vital element in the case.” What he means is that the case would not have come before the court were it not for the “religious factor,” and eliminating that factor as the basis of consideration leaves open the question of why the case is being considered at all.

So, Rutledge’s complaint that the Everson majority leaves out the only vital element—religion—and Harlan’s complaint that Seeger and Welsh decisions perform a surgical lobotomy when the distinction between theism and non-theism disappears are pretty much equivalent. The same surgical excision was performed by Felix Cohen in his famous and, to my mind, brilliant and delightful essay Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach. In order to illustrate what he means by “the functional approach,” Cohen turns to the topic of religion and writes, “The functional approach has meant a shift of emphasis away from concern with the genesis and evolution of various religions and toward a study of the consequences of various religious beliefs in terms of human motivation and social structure.” He adds that for the functional approach, the significance of religion “is found not in a system of theological propositions but in a mode of human conduct,” of which the functional approach “demands objective description.” Thus, you ask of every aspect of religion, “How does it work? How does it serve to mold men’s lives, to deter from certain avenues of conduct and expression, to sanction accepted patterns of behavior . . . to induce social solidarity?” Answers to these questions will help you make distinctions between the behavior patterns of self-described believers and the behavior patterns of non-believers. They will say nothing, however, about what it means to be a believer or what a believer believes in. The distinction could as well be between beavers and chipmunks. To quote Rutledge again, what has been left out of this account of religious behavior is “the religion factor.” And to return for a moment to Harlan’s concurrence in Welsh, what Cohen has done is perform a lobotomy by studying behavior while excising any reference to what behavior is impelled by. It is as if you observe the behavior patterns of football players apart from the goal that gives the patterns significance and meaning. Two men move five feet to the left and another man dropped back ten feet. Yeah, so?

In Liberalism’s Religion, Cécile Laborde does exactly what Cohen, the Welsh majority opinion, and the majority in Everson do: she considers religion’s relationship to the state, but she begins by bracketing the commitments that account for the fervor of strong believers. She wants to make an argument for including religious reasons in public deliberations. But she excepts from the category of acceptable religious reasons those reasons that have their source in divine authority or “the personal experience of revelation.” So, “reasons of the type ‘God wants us to do X’ or ‘the scriptures tell us to do X’ have no part in public deliberations,” but once you set aside these instances of “religious reasons stricto sensu, religious language is not different from secular language.” True, it is not different, but that is because religious language has been emptied of its religious content. When Laborde rejects religious reasons stricto sensu, strictly speaking, she is rejecting the only reasons religious believers are interested in and committed to. Her conclusion is at once correct and revealing: “Many religiously inspired concerns, stripped of their theological . . . and authority-based claims, survive in the public reason of liberal democratic societies.” Survive as what? Survive because these reasons have been carefully detached from any basic religious claim and can be safely allowed into the area of secular deliberation. One can then argue that there is nothing special about religion because everything that is special has been discounted and bracketed. “Liberal egalitarian philosophers have been able to bypass debates about the category of religion.” Yes, they have, because they have generalized the category of religion to a point where its specificity and its specific claims disappear. The universalism of strong religious assertion has been replaced by a universalism in which no discourse is allowed to be strong.

Laborde calls this basic move of hers “disaggregation.” Disaggregation involves breaking down a whole into its constituent parts. Its advantage (and scandal) is that, detached from the whole, the orphan parts are now without an informing spirit; they could be parts of anything, which is fine with Laborde because it is her intention and desire to focus on pieces of behavior which, because the religion has been leeched out of them, can now be proclaimed as compatible with secular political practices and imperatives. When Laborde says that the chief argument of her book is that “we should disaggregate religion into a plurality of different interpretive dimensions,” she means we should take it apart in a way that removes from it its offending spirituality and removes too the claims that spirituality makes on those animated by it. Disaggregation elides the truth claims of theistic religions (the ones Laborde quarries for examples), and once this disaggregation is performed, religious practices can be discussed in relation to the secular practices they now resemble by subtraction. Religion is broadened “into a maximally inclusive category that comprises preferences, commitments, identities, beliefs, world views and so forth. Religion is not so much analogized with them as dissolved into them” and “when religion does not exhibit the features that make it impermissible as an object of state endorsement, then there is nothing wrong with the state endorsing it.” Yes, because as Justice Rutledge might have said, the religious factor has been exiled and religious discourse has thereby been cleaned up for use in public life.

Fairly late in her book, Laborde acknowledges the force of critique I have just offered. The liberal state, she concedes, that claims to do justice to religion begins by arrogating to itself the authority to say what religion is and what place it has in a democratic society. The liberal state, she declares, “is a sovereign secular state” which “assumes state sovereignty, the state’s prerogative to divisively fix and enforce terms of the social contract.” The liberal state does this, she continues, because of its assumption that “reasonable individuals have a higher order interest in living under political justice on this earth . . . rather than living by the word of God.” As she says, “This is not a trivial assumption.” Indeed, it is the whole ball of wax. In order to be accorded the adjective “reasonable,” religious persons must subordinate their religious commitments to a “higher order interest”; that is, they must trade their religion for liberalism’s religion. “Citizenship trumps religious commitment.” For whom? For religiously committed Rawlsians and other apostles of liberal pluralism, not for strong religious believers.

By emphasizing the phrase “reasonable individuals,” Laborde performs a familiar move in the liberal pluralist repertoire. Those who resist liberalism’s plea go along and get along—don’t insist too strictly on the universal relevance of your particular religious views—are labeled unreasonable or obdurate or just plain crazy. But in fact, there is absolutely no reason for devout persons to accept the disaggregation of their strongly held views and to replace them with the secular scripture of John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas. I’m not saying anything that Laborde doesn’t know. Her point, and it is a good one, shared by legal thinkers as diverse as Antonin Scalia and Robert Post, is that taking the free exercise of religion too seriously and allowing religious imperatives to overwhelm the “higher order interest” in living cooperatively on this earth runs the risk and danger of undoing the liberal state and its commitment to pluralism. Laborde contends that “the onus is on critics of liberalism to explain how any political alternative might be defensible at all.” There is no viable political alternative: if the goal is to bring as many as possible under the umbrella, liberal egalitarianism may be the best we can do. But again, that is liberalism’s goal, not religion’s. All I ask, and it is a request Laborde has already granted, is that those who insist on the subordination of the religious spirit to the Rodney King spirit of “why can’t we just get along” acknowledge what they are doing, and acknowledge specifically that in their pluralist zeal they are not being fair to religion, but cutting religion out of the picture altogether.

  • Avatar

    Cécile Laborde


    Response to Stanley Fish

    Stanley Fish is one of the most astute and penetrating critics of the liberal ambition to provide a theory of fair management of religious diversity by the state. The starting point of my own reflections in Liberalism’s Religion was his caustic and seminal text entitled “Mission Impossible: Setting the Just Bounds between Church and State”—a damning indictment of John Locke’s ambition “to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” I have drawn important lessons from Fish’s critique of the Lockean project. The first is that there is no such thing as a self-contained, naturalized sphere of human thought and action that is called “religion”—there is no obvious and easy way to distinguish between matters of “the salvation of the soul” and “civil interests.” The second is that the “just bounds” between state and religion can only be determined collectively, through politics and the law—there is no privileged external source of authority. From this, Fish infers that any political determination will unavoidably be arbitrary and intolerant, because it is self-justifying and does not refer to any reality beyond itself. This, I think, is where we disagree.

    To start with, it seems to me that, as an anti-foundationalist thinker, Fish should not lament but rather embrace the non-essentialism and contingency of liberalism’s categories. For it is unclear what it would mean, exactly, for a polity to “take seriously” the truth claims of religion. Fish surely does not mean that the state should endorse or affirm such truths. What the liberal state protects and respects is individuals’ freedom to search for their own path to the truth. And individuals will reasonably come to disagree—profoundly—about the truth. The notion of disagreement about the good and the true does not appear in Fish’s rendering of liberalism, yet it is the starting point of the liberal project of justifying fair terms of social and political cooperation. We disagree about the true and the good, and yet we have to live together. And so we must justify the exercise of state coercion—the formidable collective power we hold together—to one another. The “scandal” of liberalism is that it demands that we tolerate living alongside those who do not believe in the true religion. It forces us to seek fair terms of cooperation on this earth, rather than seeking to convert them to the true faith.

    Fish thinks this is not “fair” to religion. It isn’t, if one’s conception of fairness is that those with strong beliefs and all-encompassing commitments should be given a greater share of state power. But this is not a plausible conception of fairness. On a liberal view, fairness is about mutual justifiability—what we can justify to one another given that we disagree about the best way to live. Now, my own take on liberalism is not the standard interpretation that Fish attributes to me. First, I think that only state officials, not ordinary citizens, should exercise restraint in appealing to religious arguments. Second, I think that many religious claims, and claims about religion, are in fact mutually justifiable (because they do not involve the “scandal” of imposing one’s comprehensive way of life on others). Religious arguments are not always direct appeals to the “will of God” but draw on a stock of accessible ideas about justice, benevolence, charity, equality, and dignity. Some religious accommodations, in turn, can be justified by appeal to the mutually justifiable notion of integrity. Even the nonreligious can appreciate the ethical importance of living a life of integrity—of congruence between what I think is true or good and how I act in this life. Fish thinks that this disaggregation of religion into relevantly analogous claims and commitments involves a scandalous “evisceration” of religion. It “lobotomises” religion by removing its “offending spirituality.” But, again, this misses the point and purpose both of liberal justification and legal regulation. This is not a project of description or validation, via state power, of existing beliefs and conceptions, but a project of mutual justification of coercive rules to all.

    Revealingly, Fish concedes that there is no viable political alternative to the liberal accommodation of pluralism: it might well be, he concludes, “the best we can do.” But he construes it as a mere pragmatic accommodation—a modus vivendi to achieve civil peace. What he challenges is the liberal pretence that this somehow involves principled claims to fairness. Here we get closer to the core of our disagreement. And it is not so much about religion as about liberal political theory itself. Much like Sullivan and other critical theorists, Fish thinks that liberalism’s point is to justify what legal and political authorities are up to. Therefore, the critique of what they are up to is presented as a critique of liberalism—a debunking of liberal claims to fairness or tolerance. My view of liberalism is different. I think of critique itself as a mode of liberal political theory. After all, Fish mobilises moral language to provide us with reasons to think that this or that legal decision is “scandalous.” He is deeply engaged in the vital democratic exercise of exchanging reasons about the justification of the laws that bind us all. And those justifications are not merely pragmatic or prudential. Fish’s complaint is not that it is merely dangerous or ill advised to ignore some religious claims; it is, rather, that it is unfair. One question for Fish is whether he can both hold that fairness is “mission impossible” and coherently criticise the exercise of state power as unfair.



Godless Secularism

Cécile Laborde bases her argument on a paradox: that liberal states founded upon the distinction of religious and secular domains bring them together the more they police this separation. She points out that the privileges of self-governance or conscientious objection initially given to particular churches become precedents for other religious or non-religious groups and practices. Similarly, the rights and protections offered the latter are extended to religious bodies, in a mixing of realms and jurisdictions produced by the universal claims of liberalism itself.

Recognizing the artificial and largely unworkable distinction between religion and non-religion as separate spheres mapped onto the equally ambiguous ones of public and private, Laborde recommends disaggregating the former to deal with its content on its own merits and without recourse to such formulaic categories. By the same token, however, she should call for the disaggregation of the secular or non-religious domain as well, for in both cases this interesting version of “disestablishment” increases the reach of each while at the same time restricting it.

Just as the disestablishment of the church, emancipation of Jews and privatization of religion put them at the heart of capitalism in Marx’s view, so, too, might the disaggregation of religion and the secular as demarcated spheres allow them to join hands in neoliberal societies, where capitalism has already fragmented such distinctions within a global arena governed by market logics. Whether or not it is a good thing, this development allows us to understand the “problem” of religion and the “crisis” of secularism in a new light.

What if we push Laborde’s insight further, to argue that today’s problem of religion and crisis of secularism result from the inability to distinguish between the two categories? That their disaggregation is only possible because argumentation on both sides is already liberal in character? Perhaps what we are seeing in contemporary debates about religion and secularism is a disavowal of religion’s absorption in liberalism, which now struggles to give secularism meaning by searching for a new dividing line in theology.

Laborde points out that the critical theorists of secularism are unable to offer any alternatives to a liberal order, and can only propound an internal critique of liberalism. But the same may be said of the apparently theological disputes over blasphemy, apostasy and the like, which today dominate all discussion of religion and secularism in Europe and increasingly North America as well. Not accidentally, these issues all have to do with Islam, which seems to have taken over the mantle of representing religion or “the theological” in these societies.

Interesting about the arguments made by “illiberal” Muslims to justify veiling women and segregating the sexes, banning images of Muhammad they consider offensive or the instituting sharia courts, is that they all make use of liberal rather than theological reasoning. However disingenuous, this reasoning stresses the importance of men and women’s free choice, the proscription of libelous or hate speech and the right to privacy. The religious terms used, such as blasphemy, are deployed by others, with Muslims referring to them while citing Christian precedents—such as the now-abrogated blasphemy law invoked by protestors against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989.

This is true in Muslim countries as well, where citations of scripture are folded into liberal reasoning by courts. In Pakistan, for instance, the injunction disallowing Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims or their places of worship mosques, takes copyright law as its precedent. Because Islam is the property of Muslims, then, its identifying names, sites, and practices cannot be appropriated by others. Similarly, in Indonesia, the long-standing non-Muslim practice of using the Arabic term “Allah” for God is disputed on the ground of communal ownership.

To understand religion as communal property, of course, is a perfectly liberal and even sacrilegious way of approaching it, with Muslims ostensibly only asking for their particular habits or prejudices to be included within existing juridical conceptions of free and proscribed speech, or privacy and individual choice. This is why the debates that rage over these issues have to do with determining whether or not a sartorial practice is truly free, and if a proscription of media content falls under defamation or violates freedom of expression. Sometimes the question is about intent and at other times about precedent.

The fact that Islam now serves to name all disputes about secularism and the liberal order in the West cannot be attributed to purely sociological or political developments having to do with immigration, crime, racism and terrorism. For Islam names the theological actor long missing from the scene. This is why the secular narrative is so invested in repeating its purported European history, with Islam said to require its own Reformation or Enlightenment. For without the theological element this narrative is superfluous, and the pluralism upon which liberalism is premised falls to the ground.

Unlike the critical theorists, I do not place much importance upon the “secularization” thesis of political theology as described by Carl Schmitt. The problem is not theology’s survival in secular institutions, which, for example, makes both “religion” and “secularism” into Christian categories, so much as its absence among those who are called upon to submit to them. Even the most egregiously violent claims to religious authority made in the name of Islam are unable in my view to escape the narrative of liberalism, and their extremism may even be attributed to the urgency as well as difficulty of doing so.

In any case despite all protestations to the contrary, these violent practices fail to conform to any conventionally liberal definition of religious practice as being “traditional,” existentially “deep” and therefore “meaningful.” Instead they might be transient and “shallow,” more like fashion than faith. This is precisely why they need so much buttressing, among the faithful as well as their critics, by copious references to scripture and history. How can such temporary and “superficial,” if existentially nevertheless weighted forms of religious practice or belief, be accommodated within a liberal framework that tends to define what is religious in terms of tradition? By pursuing the logic of disaggregation further to de-theologize such phenomena.

The “return” of religion and “crisis” of secularism, therefore, are not good ways of describing what is happening in our times. More interesting is the possibility that we are faced not with the increasing visibility and exacerbation of theological differences but rather their diminution. The true crisis is internal to liberalism, manifested by the disintegration of the pluralistic or qualitative distinction between public and private or secular and religious domains upon which it depends. This can even be seen in the displacement of pluralism by diversity as the defining shibboleth of neoliberal societies.

But why is secularism in Europe and North America so wedded to the qualitative distinctions of pluralism? The Indian philosopher Mohammad Iqbal argues early in the last century that such a distinction was itself theological, deriving from the Christian separation of the material and the spiritual, which he claimed was mapped onto the public and private in liberalism. Indian secularism, however, is not characterized by such a distinction, at least in part because its colonial history meant that the state was seen as foreign to a native society whose religious conflicts it was meant to adjudicate.

Instead of placing secularism’s caesura between state and society or public and private, in other words, Indians tend to locate it within interreligious relations that are themselves marked by devotion rather than doubt. There is no qualitative distinction between the public life of the state and the private world of religion, only a requirement of what the political philosopher Rajeev Bhargava calls “principled equidistance,” which means that the state must treat religious groups either with equal intimacy or distance. In such a situation “the theological” loses its specificity and so meaning.

Indian debates about secularism, indeed, do not refer to theology at all, let alone religion, but deploy instead the term “communalism” to describe the problem it addresses. And communalism, of course, is only quantitatively different from its standard opposite, nationalism, and not qualitatively so. Religion, in other words, has been deprived of its theological element in such discussions, and is treated as a problem simply because it is too narrow and so intolerant of others. Since independence, the antonym of communalism has gradually shifted from nationalism to secularism, but this latter still defines a broad and by no means irreligious culture rather than describing a juridical category.

As a vernacular category entrenched in social relations rather than the state, Indian secularism is both a deeply religious category without being a theological one. In fact, it was meant by thinkers like Gandhi to forestall the colonial state’s ability to turn religious communities into liberal interests. For this state had made a virtue out of necessity by interpreting its foreignness for neutrality and thus posing as a third-party arbitrating between India’s conflicting communities. Gandhi thought that in doing so the colonial state turned these groups into liberal interests that could only be mediated by it and so forever held apart and unable to come to any mutual agreement.

Such a liberal solution to the tensions produced by India’s diversity, however, only entrenched and intensified them in Gandhi’s view. And this was the case not least because such interests were derived from notions of private property, which made Hinduism or Islam into the property of their adherents. But the Mahatma recognized that violent as such a conception was, in a poor country like India property had not and could not define social relations as a whole. And he despaired of the violence that the attempt to make religions into liberal forms of property would entail.

Gandhi therefore tried to think about secularism without the liberal state and its politics of interest, thus making for unmediated relations between Indians that retained the religious fire of conviction and ideal. For it was only such ideals, themselves unavailable in liberalism and so always sought by it from the outside, whether in nationalism, populism or dictatorship, that were capable of ennobling people and making them perform great tasks like that of freeing their country from foreign rule. Liberal interests, he claimed, could never accomplish this, but rather prompted Indians to acquiesce to colonial rule in the first place.

For the Mahatma, then, the problem that secularism addressed was how to foster unmediated relations between religious communities while guaranteeing their nonviolent character. This was a genuine question, and one that has not yet received an adequate answer. My point is therefore not to praise Indian secularism over its Western peers, but show that it is possible to think about it in different ways. Crucial for my argument here is that these Indian debates do not presume the existence of something called “the theological” and so repudiate any qualitative distinction between it and “the secular.” And isn’t this the presumption that animates Laborde’s book?

  • Avatar

    Cécile Laborde


    Response to Faisal Devji

    Faisal Devji is a fine scholar of India, and an acute and sophisticated critic of the categories of Western political thought—nationalism, secularism, terrorism, and religion. In contrast to my US critics (Bejan, Sullivan, Fish), Devji does not think that the best or unique way to think about liberalism and religion is via political theology. He takes seriously my claim that, if we are to understand the political import of claims made about “religion” in today’s world, we would do well to move away from the US-centric construal of religion as a set of theological beliefs. And we would do well to reject the broader narrative of the “crisis” of secularism and the “return” of religion.

    This is because, Devji points out, religion has in fact already been absorbed by the categories of secularism and liberalism. Here’s the paradox. On the one hand, the secular imaginary needs (and creates) the religious as an Other—Islam in particular is called upon to play the role of the yet un-Reformed religion. Yet, on the other hand, religious claims—including those made in the name of Islam—are expressed in recognizably secular terms of liberal rights to free choice, property rights, privacy or protection from hate speech. Even the religious beliefs of radical extremists do not exhibit the “depth of commitment” associated with “true faith”: they are often shallow, transient, and free of deep theological anchorage. This observation resonates with authoritative scholarship on Islamism such as Olivier Roy’s. Islamism, on his view, is no revival of traditional faith but rather a movement of “born-again” Muslims, detached from the broader culture(s) of Islam and endorsing a highly idiosyncratic doctrine of salvation and martyrdom. Paradoxically, fundamentalist movements are symptomatic of a deep crisis of religious authority. Traditional Ulema have lost their legitimacy in favor of self-appointed, and often self-taught, religious entrepreneurs. Generally, religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice, ranging from Salafism to any sort of syncretism. To that extent, secular, neoliberal globalisation has produced its own form of religion.

    Devji casts healthy doubts, therefore, on the standard construal of the distinction between “secularism” and “religion,” and urges us to radicalise the project of disaggregation of both. He eloquently demonstrates the inadequacy of the secularism-religion binary in non-Christian contexts, such as India. As the Indian philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal noticed well before independence, the secularist division of the religious and the nonreligious is a metaphysical rather than a functional one, based on a Christian separation of the spiritual and the material. But this bears little resemblance to religion in India. As Devji perspicaciously notes, Indian notions of “communalism” foster no qualitative distinction between the secular and the religions, or between the theological, the cultural and the national. Secularism in India is deeply entangled in the politics of nationalism and is centrally about the status of minorities within the post-colonial nation-building project.

    We could go further, and explore the manifold implications of this non-theological construal of religion. To be a Muslim in post-Partition India is primarily to be connected to Islam as an identity marker—a mostly third-person-assigned identity, which may or may not fit with first-person identification. You may define yourself as a nonpracticing, even nonbelieving, person. Yet in many dimensions of your social and political life, you are a Muslim. You are more likely to be discriminated against or subjected to police arrests. Your language—Urdu—is likely to be repressed. You are quickly suspected of Kashmiri/Pakistani/Al Qaeda sympathies. Gender inequalities in your community—in practice as salient as those among the various Hindu communities—are portrayed as signs of your exceptionally uncivilized, barbaric state of development. You are likely to be as poor as a Hindu lower-caste person, yet affirmative action policies are denied to you to avoid “religious” separatism. This is what it means to be an (ordinary) Muslim in India—and, in all these dimensions, the theological notion of religion as belief-based is of very limited use.

    As for Indian secularism, it also bears little resemblance to US-style “separation” between state and religion. At its best, secularism in its early Congress articulation was an attempt to secure equal civic status for Muslims, as one of the vulnerable and disadvantaged minorities of the newly independent state. At its worst, secularism has been cynically appropriated by the Hindu nationalists of the BJP, to demand the end of differentiated treatment of Muslims, the application of a uniform civil code in matters of personal law, and the supremacy of a culturalized mode of Hinduism (Hindutva). In all cases, secularism signifies the politics of nationalism. Religion here works exactly as other markers of social difference such as race, nationality, gender, or caste. This is not to say that this is what religion is—that it is the one and only social phenomenology of religion that liberal states concern themselves with. But it is one of the dimensions that I explore in Liberalisms’ Religion—and it is the one that has been mostly ignored in US constitutional commentary about religion.