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Religion and the Liberal State

  • Sunday, November 21 2010 @ 10:31 AM CET
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Stanley Fish recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on "Religion and the Liberal State - Once Again".While he may make some interesting points, there seems to me to be a serious problem in his understanding of what a liberal state requires, and therefore also its relation to religious belief.

Fish begins reasonably enough.

Liberalism is the name of an enlightenment theory of government characterized by an emphasis on procedural rather than substantive rights: the law protects individual free choice and is not skewed in the direction of some choices or biased against others; the laws framed by the liberal state are, or should be, neutral between competing visions of the good and the good life; the state intervenes aggressively only when the adherents of one vision claim the right to act in ways that impinge upon the rights of others to make their own choices.
Unfortunately, he quickly takes a wrong turn.
The key distinction underlying classical liberalism is the distinction between the private and the public. This distinction allows the sphere of political deliberation to be insulated from the intractable oppositions that immediately surface when religious viewpoints are put on the table. Liberalism tells us that religious viewpoints should be confined to the home, the heart, the place of worship and the personal relationship between oneself and one’s God.

When the liberal citizen exits the private realm and enters the public square, he or she is supposed to leave religious commitments behind and function as a stripped-down entity, as an abstract-not-full personage, who makes political decisions not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as what political scientist Michael Sandel calls an “unencumbered self,” a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities.

Regardless of what Michael Sandel might think (or how Fish might choose to interpret Sandel), this final sentence is absurd on its face, which ought to be a warning that something has gone seriously wrong with the argument. The "unencumbered self" is term of art used by John Rawls in a thought experiment to evaluate what kind of society one might choose. It is evident by inspection, I submit that no actual liberal citizen might be supposed to enter the public square as such a "stripped-down entity"; every actual person is has beliefs, commitments, etc. I submit therefore that no sane person ("liberal" or not) would actually assert what Fish writes above.

Instead, the liberal state recognizes that different citizens have different beliefs and commitments, and -- as Fish himself notes a few paragraphs earlier -- "competing visions of the good and the good life", and therefore that no liberal citizen (or group thereof) may impose its views on the others. This, it should be noted, is more or less precisely the opposite of the suggestion that the (actual) liberal citizen is "a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities."

It is only this mistaken understanding of liberalism that enables Fish to claim that

...liberalism’s inability to regard strong religious claims — claims that spill out into public life — as anything but a mistake and a transgression is not something liberalism can correct or get beyond...
Which claim is not true. The liberal state certainly can regard strong religious claims, and does so in exactly the same way that it regards any strong belief claims. That is, the liberal state can recognize that the Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu, or any other "religious" believer has strong beliefs, but without granting those beliefs any special privilege or authority over any other strong beliefs. Nor is this restricted to religion; and Objectivist or an animal rights activist may have beliefs that are equally strong and deeply held (if not more so) than religious believers.

Thus, far from demanding that believers discard their beliefs, the liberal state accepts that citizens enter the public sphere with their beliefs intact. Indeed, they are free to bring their beliefs with them, and to advocate for those beliefs. Such advocacy can be seen in every actually-existing liberal state. What religious believers may not do is claim privileged civil status for their beliefs, any more than any other citizen may do for his or her beliefs. But this is very far from the claim that the liberal state requires non-belief.


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