Religion and the Liberal Public Realm

Randall Stephens

Over at the NYT's Opinionator blog Stanley Fish weighs in on "Religion and the Liberal State Once Again." An excerpt:

The question is what does the liberal state do with those religious believers [fundamentalists and the range of exclusivists]— the popular answer in the comments is “tell them to go back where they came from” — and my contention, and the only one I make (in agreement with John Milbank), is that the liberal state is incapable of doing anything with them except regard them, as many of the posters do, as fanatical, medieval, crazy, dictatorial and downright dangerous. As I point out, 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; it is the inevitable (and blameless) reflection of what liberalism is and must be if it is to sustain its particular, not to say peculiar, brand of universalism, a universalism that operates by reducing persons to formal entities, all of which are, in the essential political respect, exactly the same. (It’s universalism writ small.)

Fighting words, in some quarters. It will be interesting to read the blazing comments on the NYT and elsewhere. Mostly elsewhere.


January said…
How about some examples of "reducing persons to formal entities"? If I understand a possible significance, it sure is not a peculiarity of liberalism.
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I'd think Rawlsian liberalism is a good example of "reducing persons to formal entities."

I honestly think Fish is right. This has been my complaint with all Rawlsian approaches to religion in the public square. They love Reform Jews, the UCC, and other liberal religious communities but they have no way of dealing with groups that reject the private/public split at the heart of (neo)liberalism. They just pat them on the head and kindly ask them to march back to Dayton, Tennessee or Terhan or whatever "premodern" village the waltzed out of. It's fine and dandy to talk about a "common concern" but the universalism inherent in liberalism doesn't match the realities on the ground in the lives of real people.

Pardon the deleted comments. I had some technical problems.
Will said…
My problem with Fish's view is not that liberalism wants some groups to be excluded--or perhaps listened to and then politely ignored and contained.

Theocracy & liberal democracy are mutually exclusive, are they not? Both are universal in their claims in some regard, and such universalism is necessarily exclusive. I'd much rather put up with liberal democracy and its forms of exclusion and inclusion than the terms of theocrats. They are a threat to liberal democracy, at least ideologically and in some contexts politically.

The problem I have with Fish's view is that it's ahistorical. Liberal notions and practices regarding a diverse, secular, and tolerant public sphere evolved slowly and painfully in and out of European-Christian contexts, especially Protestant ones, in places like Britain, the Netherlands, and the US and Canada.

It's only in political theory that the liberal person is an abstract and areligious entity. In practice, in actual existing liberal democracies, pluralism and religious freedom often have been defended in ethnic and religious ways--as the outworking of an English sense of "fair play" or Christian ideals of conscience, equality, and freedom before God. (They've also be criticized from such viewpoints.)

Fish is right that entering the liberal public sphere, on its terms, means entering in a certain way, and bracketing one's own ideals and identity in public in some ways.

But the values behind such an ideal and such practices can be and have been articulated in ethnocultural and religious terms--including explicitly Christian ones.

They're not as incompatible as Fish argues, or inherently secular in the full and abstracted way that he claims--at least they've not been historically.
January said…
Michael, thank you for the reply. I have only studied Rawls in an ethics survey course and where he has been used by some of the authors I have studied. So he is an example where I am largely disabled.

Dunno about your reference to (neo)liberalism which I understand as "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." As I have identified myself as a political, economic, and religious liberal for a long time, I am somewhat defensive when it is critiqued.

My liberalism is passionate, because it is this-worldly. It has problems deciding between the merits of individual and group efforts. Because it is positive, other than in defending human rights (I have stories to tell from the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist struggles) it relies on patience.

I do not read Fish with any regularity because my early encounter with him was disappointing. A "formal entity" I understand as one that is merely counted. That is a stream we must swim against because we cannot escape it. I cannot easily tell whether current alienation is a cause of it or the result of it.
Will, then you're problem isn't with Fish. It's with political theorists like Rawls, Habermas and, now, William Connolly. All three of whom are fairly ahistorical in their approach to the public sphere. I think Fish would agree with your critique of ahistoricism.

Any universalizing discourse will necessarily be ahistorical--whether its liberalism or theocracy. To universalize the subject it must rip it out of history and give it something akin to "reason."

I think you're right that religious values and the political sphere don't have to be at odds. But at least right now the brand of political liberalism that has the most disciples is built on the assumption of a public/private split in the subject and a notion of the subject as an autonomous closed self that can navigate between a private world that includes religion and the public sphere that includes politics. At bottom, the problem with liberalism is its notion of a closed, rational, autonomous, free, subject. As you point out, those don't really exist on the ground. Rather we see intersubjective, bounded, fragmented selves negotiating and contesting in a messy public sphere.

January, if you're interested this article does a good job of piecing out the various notions of 'liberalism' in American history/culture.
January said…
Again, Michael, thank you. The article does provide a typology that is worthy of the basis for further discussions.

I do agree that the notion of subjectivity you identify with liberalism is a problem, but not one limited to liberalism but all metaphysical thought.

Yet my hunch, as a self-identified liberal, is that liberalism requires no limits on time and resources. Rather all failures are just learning experiences. But in an ethos of looming limits, the inevitability of tragedy becomes what must be limited. Pragmatism may cope with that, but only if it can conform itself to a new, more interdependent view of subjectivity.
Will said…

My disagreement is perhaps with Rawls and Habermas and Connelly. But the question is which Habermas and which Connelly.

In years past, Connelly has made arguments, from the viewpoint of "agonal" or "radical" democratic theory, defending the legitimacy of Christian fundamentalists being fundamentalists in the public sphere. In recent work, he's backed away from that, put off by a growing danger he sees in fundamentalism.

Habermas has become more open to thinking about how to include religion, or people with religious views and impulses, into public life. He's as tone deaf to religion as ever. But he seems to be recognizing the simple reality of religion being part of public life and trying to articulate how to, of necessity, make room for it and still maintain his program of public forms of rational communication.

As to universalizing discourse(s) being ahistorical--I'm not fully convinced. They are, if you mean that they fail to recognize how they are always historically rooted and so culturally contingent. But if by universal you take a more functional approach and mean efforts to find common public ways of communicating, I'd argue that they are at once historically contingent, always negotiated and evolve within a specific time and culture--and, at the same time, creating a common space in which individuals and groups and contest.

Such a space will always both include and exclude, and include in ways that both constrain and enable. But it is, as a common space, in some meaningful sense rightly viewed as "universal." This may be a weak form of functional universalism--perhaps an analogy to Gianni Vatimmo's "weak reason" or the "chastened modernity" Habermas advocates. So, I am advocating a more historically informed and morally and intellectual chastened Enlightenment project. But there is too much of value in that project, whether its notions of liberal public spaces, or ideals of universal communication to simply reject them. The point is to try to retrieve them, acknowledging the appropriate postmodern and traditional critiques. Among the big thinkers of the 20th century who did this the best, I think, was Paul Ricoeur, who tried to take in the tradition, modern critique and utopian hope, and the deconstructive impulse associated with the postmodern.

I think that conceptualizing such a "weak universalism" is helpful in that we need a way to think, and act, that acknowledges plurality. But acknowledging plurality of necessity requires acknowledging others and thinking about how to talk with them and together make decisions about things--in other words, some sort of common space that transcends (in the weak sense that I'm advocating; so not in some "transcendent" sense) their particularity.