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Liberalism, The Other, and Religion

Minimal Secularism: A Defense

Illustration by Arbu, 2023.

June 14, 2023

Should the liberal state be secular? Does liberalism demand a strict separation between state and religion? The issue is not merely a theoretical one. Most Western states are secular states and accommodate various forms of religious establishment and arrangements. Yet the great majority of people in the world live under regimes that are either constitutional theocracies – where religion is formally enshrined in the state – or where religious affiliation is a pillar of collective political identity. In countries otherwise as different as Egypt, Israel, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Poland, to mention just a few, politics and religion are interconnected in ways that belie any simplified model of secular separation. Many such states, for example, appeal to religious tradition when making the law, provide material and symbolic advantages to members of the majority religion, and enforce conservative norms in matters of sexuality and the family. Are they ipso facto in breach of liberal legitimacy? Is there a minimal secularism – or separation between state and religion – that is required of liberal legitimacy?

In my book Liberalism’s Religion, I argue that there is such a requirement. Secularism, however, is a more complex political ideal than is commonly realized. I disaggregate the different strands of secularism, and show how they relate to different dimensions of what we (in the West) have come to call religion. Instead of asking the question: Can secularism travel? – which invites answers measuring how well non-Western countries fare in relation to a presumed model of Western secularism – I start from liberal democratic ideals and assume that these are not ethnocentric: human rights, freedom, equality, and democracy are universal aspirations. I then ask how much, and what kind of, separation of state from religion is required to secure these ideals. In brief, I extract the minimal secular core of liberal democracy.

The four liberal–democratic ideals

In my perspective, it is a mistake to assume that liberal democracy requires a strict separation between state and religion along the lines of the French or US model. There is a broader range of permissible secularisms. Four liberal–democratic ideals underpin and justify minimal secularism: the justifiable state, the inclusive state, the limited state and the democratic state. Each picks out a different feature of religion: religion as non-accessible; religion as vulnerable; religion as comprehensive; and religion as theocratic. Let me analyze these in turn.

The justifiable state draws on the idea that state officials should only justify their actions by appeal to public, accessible reasons. In the theory of minimal secularism, only state officials are under the obligation to provide public reasons: secularism is a constraint on state action and justification, not a duty on the part of citizens. State officials should not appeal to the authority of sacred doctrines or to personal revelation to justify legal coercion of citizens. Accessibility defines what citizens need to share, in particular societies, in order for public deliberation about the reasons for laws to be possible at all. Importantly, not only religious ideas are inaccessible, nor all religious ideas are inaccessible: the accessibility condition does not rule out the public presence of religion.

The inclusive state draws on the idea that the state should not associate itself with one religious identity, lest it deny equal civic status to dissenters and non-members. Merely symbolic recognition is wrong if – but only if – it infringes on equal citizenship. The dimension of religion that this picks out is different from the previous one: here religion has nothing to do with personal revelation or inaccessible belief or doctrines. It is, rather, structurally similar to other politically divisive or vulnerable identities, such as race, and sometimes culture or ethnic identity. A liberal state must not be a Christian state or a Hindu state when such identities are – as they are in many states today – factors of political salience and vulnerability. But in societies where religion is not a socially divisive, vulnerable identity, there are fewer grounds for secular separation.

The limited state draws on the idea that a liberal state should not enforce comprehensive ethics of life on its citizens. The dimension of religion that this liberal value picks out is that of religion as comprehensive personal ethics covering education, sexuality, eating codes, work, dress, and so forth. Many liberal rights are the product of hard-won struggles, against the authority of traditional religious authorities, to construct and preserve a sphere of individual liberty. Consider the range of liberal laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as laws concerning marriage and divorce, women’s rights, and sexuality; and contemporary conflicts over abortion and gay rights in Africa and both South and North America. Yet not all religion is about comprehensive personal ethics. Religious traditions also provide collective norms of coordination and cooperation (e.g., holidays) which represent less acute threats to individual liberty.

Finally, a democratic state is necessary as long as citizens profoundly disagree about the boundary between personal and collective ethics, the public and the private, the right and the good. John Locke argued that the state should deal with ‘civil’ interests while leaving ‘spiritual’ matters of the salvation of the soul to individuals in their private lives. But who is to decide what pertains to the civil, and what pertains to the spiritual? In areas such as church autonomy and anti-discrimination laws, the nature of personhood, the family, marriage, bioethics and education, general liberal principles do not generate uniquely determinate and conclusive solutions. In such conflictive cases, the democratic state – as opposed to competing authorities such as churches – has the final sovereign authority. It decides where the boundary lies between the this-worldly and the other-worldly, between the religious and the secular. This, I argue, is what is radical about liberalism’s secularism: it is democratic in that it locates its legitimacy in the will of the people, not in extra-political, divinely ordained or philosophically grounded authority.

Democratic sovereignty

Therefore the most radical challenge posed by liberalism to religion is not that liberalism maintains a wall of separation between state and religion but rather that it assumes democratic sovereignty. Within the bounds of basic liberal legitimacy and human rights, deep reasonable disagreements are to be solved democratically. Of course, democracy is not to be equated with majoritarian tyranny, and must provide for minority representation, separation of powers, and judicial review. This democratic conception of liberal legitimacy allows for more variation in permissible state–religion arrangements than both secular liberals and religiously minded liberals have assumed.

Just as secularized majorities can impose their own conception of the boundary between state and religion, so can religious majorities, provided they honor the other three liberal principles of accessible justification, civic inclusiveness and individual liberty. In secularized societies, state law will naturally reflect and promote the non-religious ethics of the majority; for example, via the dismantling of structures of traditional family and marriage and the expanding reach of norms concerning human rights and non-discrimination. Likewise, in societies where religious citizens are a majority, these citizens can shape the public sphere of their societies, but only within the constraints of what I have called minimal liberal secularism. Beyond that, minimal secularism has no ambition to provide final substantive answers to key questions of political, public, private and sexual morality.

Cécile Laborde, University of Oxford, UK <cecile.laborde@nuffield.ox.ac.uk>

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