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 by “disaggregating 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.