Tag Archives: Liberalism

Bilgrami, “Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment”

Next month, Harvard will publish Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment, by 9780674052048Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). The publisher’s description follows.

Bringing clarity to a subject clouded by polemic, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment is a rigorous exploration of how secularism and identity emerged as concepts in different parts of the modern world. At a time when secularist and religious worldviews appear irreconcilable, Akeel Bilgrami strikes out on a path distinctly his own, criticizing secularist proponents and detractors, liberal universalists and multicultural relativists alike.

Those who ground secularism in arguments that aspire to universal reach, Bilgrami argues, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of politics. To those, by contrast, who regard secularism as a mere outgrowth of colonial domination, he offers the possibility of a more conceptually vernacular ground for political secularism. Focusing on the response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Bilgrami asks why Islamic identity has so often been a mobilizing force against liberalism, and he answers the question with diagnostic sympathy, providing a philosophical framework within which the Islamic tradition might overcome the resentments prompted by its colonized past and present.

Turning to Gandhi’s political and religious thought, Bilgrami ponders whether the increasing appeal of religion in many parts of the world reflects a growing disillusionment not with science but with an outlook of detachment around the rise of modern science and capitalism. He elaborates a notion of enchantment along metaphysical, ethical, and political lines with a view to finding in secular modernity a locus of meaning and value, while addressing squarely the anxiety that all such notions hark back nostalgically to a time that has past.

Conservative or Liberal? Take This Test

I greatly admire Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral psychology, particular his recent book, The Righteous Mind, on the differing moral intuitions of conservatives and liberals. So I was intrigued by a recent test Haidt published in Time–a series of questions that, Haidt says, predict where one falls on the political spectrum. The questions don’t relate to politics directly. They relate more to values (“Should kids be taught to respect authority?”, “Is self-control or self-expression more important?”) and lifestyle (“Do you like fusion cuisine?”)–what we might think of as culture. None of the questions relates to religion as such, though, to my mind, there are obvious overlaps. Also, none of the questions relates to economics; Haidt’s point, which seems right to me, is that politics remains largely a matter of moral intuition.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about the test and ruin it. Go ahead and answer the questions. For what it’s worth, they predicted my political leanings quite well. (H/T: Rod Dreher).

Ahdar & Leigh, “Religious Freedom in the Liberal State”

This week, Oxford University Press publishes a new edition of Religious Freedom in the Liberal State, by Rex Ahdar (Otago) and Ian Leigh (Durham). The publisher’s description follows:

Examining the law and public policy relating to religious liberty in Western liberal democracies, this book contains a detailed analysis of the history, rationale, scope, and limits of religious freedom from (but not restricted to) an evangelical Christian perspective. Focussing on United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and EU, it studies the interaction between law and religion at several different levels, looking at the key debates that have arisen.

Divided into three parts, the book begins by contrasting the liberal and Christian rationales for and understandings of religious freedom. It then explores central thematic issues: the types of constitutional frameworks within which any right to religious exercise must operate; the varieties of paradigmatic relationships between organized religion and the state; the meaning of ‘religion’; the limitations upon individual and institutional religious behaviour; and the domestic and international legal mechanisms that have evolved to address religious conduct. The final part explores key subject areas where current religious freedom controversies have arisen: employment; education; parental rights and childrearing; controls on pro-religious and anti-religious expression; medical treatment; and religious group (church) autonomy.

This new edition is fully updated with the growing case law in the area, and features increased coverage of Islam and the flashpoint debates surrounding the accommodation of Muslim beliefs and practices in Anglophone nations.

Gay Wedding Cakes and Liberalism

Over the past several years, there have been a number of reported incidents in the U.S. where a bakery has refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. In the latest case, a bakery in Gresham, Oregon refused to bake a cake for a wedding between two women, citing religious objections.  One of the aggrieved fiancées has filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, which is now investigating whether the bakery violated an Oregon statute prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.

This incident illustrates a wider phenomenon—unwillingness to pursue liberal values when it comes to the politics of sexual orientation.  By liberalism, I mean the strain of European political philosophy that arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries partly as a reaction to the devastating religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, most particularly the Thirty Years’ War that killed eight million people in central Europe.  Liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill stressed individual rights, limited government, and freedoms of speech, press, religion, contract, and property as antidotes to such bloodshed.  They aimed to allow people with fundamentally different world views to contribute jointly to the projects of government, order, and civil society with minimum friction.  Liberalism is the philosophy at the heart of the enduring American constitutional order.

Alas, liberalism is losing out in the culture wars.  The gay wedding cakes battles are representative of a wider disease that infects people in both camps—invoking the power of government to endorse and enforce one’s world view on matters of sexuality and identity.  Rather than just saying, “I’ll take my business elsewhere,” the impulse is to call the attorney general’s office in support of one’s position, as though law and politics were the appropriate fora for deciding the morality of sexual identity and practice.

The predominant forces in both camps are pushing anti-liberal agendas.  In 2004, the Virginia Legislature passed a statute invalidating private contracts between gay people if they replicated the incidences of marriage.  Conservatives continue to resist political settlements on same-sex marriage that would shift marriage decisions from the state to individuals and private communities.  On the other side, progressives are fighting to enshrine their views in marriage and antidiscrimination laws and school curricula.  In the Chik-fil-A flap last summer, progressive politicians around the country threatened zoning prohibitions or other deployments of state power to fight the forces of “hatred and intolerance.”

Where are the liberals?  Where are the people willing to say: “As much as possible, let’s not decide these questions in the arena of the state.  Let’s let them play out in families, churches, religious communities, social networks, friendships, businesses, and private associations.  Let’s resist the impulse to make these kinds of divisive moral and religious questions political questions.  Let’s not fight another Thirty Years’ War.”

Let me try to preempt some likely objections with two concluding observations.

First, a liberal disposition cannot be confined to circumstances where one disapproves of someone else’s conduct but it causes no harm to others—because that’s an empty set.  It’s child’s play for lawyers, philosophers, and economists  to demonstrate that almost anything one person does affects other people.  When the baker refuses to make the wedding cake, it imposes real distress, humiliation, and inconvenience on the person requesting the cake.  Conversely, having to make the cake would impose real offense and moral indignity on the baker.  Liberalism doesn’t depend on a view that one of the parties really isn’t hurt, any more than free speech depends on a view that words can never be hurtful.  Liberalism is a disposition that says “the state must let pass these sorts of harm—they do not rise to the level of force and fraud where state intervention is justified.”

Second, to espouse liberalism isn’t to pretend that the state never has to make political judgments on issues of sexual orientation.  Since the state runs the military, it must decide whether gay people can serve in the armed forces.  Since the state regulates adoptions, it must decide whether gay people can adopt.  And there are of course other examples.  But the fact that it is sometimes unavoidable for the state to wade into these thorny issues does not justify the state wading in when it doesn’t have to.  The great project of liberalism is to strive continually for resolutions that don’t involve the state deciding divisive issues of  meaning and morality that require choosing between contending world views.  This isn’t always possible, but it’s possible much more of the time than it happens.

Calling all liberals . . .

Hill on Theism, Naturalism, and Liberalism

John Lawrence Hill (Indiana U., Robert H. McKinney School of Law) has posted Theism, Naturalism, and Liberalism: John Stuart Mill and the “Final Inexplicability” of the Self. The abstract follows.

The purpose of this essay is to explore what often is overlooked in political and constitutional discussions of the relationship between law and religion. Law and religion are not natural adversaries. They are thought to conflict today not simply because secular law must create a space for competing religious viewpoints. The source of the conflict runs much deeper. It is nothing if not metaphysical–a conflict of worldviews.

This essay explores the metaphysical conflicts between the religious and the secular-naturalist worldviews by examining the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. I chose Mill not only because he is arguably the most important liberal philosopher of all time, the thinker who transformed liberalism from the older, classical to the modern, progressive ideal, but because he also had a well-developed metaphysical conception of human nature which is so strikingly in tension with his political liberalism. Mill’s “harm principle,” developed in On Liberty, is the true philosophical source of the modern right of privacy. And his overarching justification for liberty as a means of self-individuation is the dominant idea of freedom today. Yet Mill was a deeply conflicted thinker–a utilitarian who was drawn to romanticism, a political libertarian and a metaphysical determinist, a naturalist who rejected God, soul, and self, who nevertheless made self-individuation the real animating justification for political liberty.

The contradictions within Mill’s thought are the contradictions of liberalism itself. They are ultimately our contradictions–and they derive from our own ambivalent attachments to theism and naturalism.

Rosen on the Liberal Case for Educational Accommodation of Religious Groups

Apropos of Erwin Chemerinsky’s illiberal proposal to close down all private and religious schools, here is a liberal argument for accommodation of the educational preferences of (some) religious and other “perfectionist” groups: The Educational Autonomy of Perfectionist Religious Groups in a Liberal State, by Mark Rosen.  The influence of Rawls on Rosen’s work is very substantial, but Rosen departs from Rawls in several interesting ways.  Arguments like Rosen’s are not the only way to think about issues of educational pluralism (and it seems to me that Rosen’s piece has nothing to say about the educational autonomy of non-perfectionist groups, such as one might find at your typical secular private school).  For a different approach, see this earlier post on Ashley Berner’s essay.  But, like Berner’s essay, Rosen’s is a serious and thoughtful attempt to grapple with these problems.  Here’s the abstract.

This Article draws upon, but reworks, John Rawls’ framework from Political Liberalism to determine the degree of educational autonomy that illiberal perfectionist religious groups ought to enjoy in a liberal state. I start by arguing that Rawls mistakenly concludes that political liberalism flatly cannot accommodate Perfectionists, and that his misstep is attributable to two errors: (1) Rawls utilizes an overly restrictive “political conception of the person” in determining who participates in the original position, and (2) Rawls overlooks the possibility of a “federalist” basic political structure that can afford significant political autonomy to different groups within a single country. With these insights, I argue that some, though not all, religious Perfectionists are consistent with a stable liberal polity, and explain why foundational Rawlsian premises require that Perfectionists be accommodated to the extent possible.

My ultimate conclusions are that liberal polities ought to grant significant autonomy to those illiberal groups that satisfy specified conditions, and that the autonomy of such “eligible” illiberal groups is subject to two further constraints, which I call “well-orderedness” and “opt-out.” The autonomy to which eligible Perfections are entitled includes the authority to educate their children in a way that provides a fair opportunity for the groups to perpetuate themselves. The constraint of well-orderedness, however, permits the State to impose educational requirements that facilitate peace and political stability. Accommodating eligible illiberal groups, subject to these constraints, is an instantiation of liberal commitments, not a compromise of liberal values.

Theological Argument in Law: Engaging with Stanley Hauerwas

From our friend John Inazu, we get news of the publication of the latest issue of Law and Contemporary Problems, a symposium on the work of Stanley Hauerwas and theological argument in law which John put together.  Congratulations to him and to all of the contributors for their pieces.  Here is a portion of John’s foreword to the symposium (footnotes omitted):

Some of Hauerwas’s critics may be right to argue that he “reacts against a type of liberalism that exists mostly on the pages of books by Rawls, Rorty, and their followers, and not in actual practice.” But that description is at least true of the academy.  Much teaching and scholarship relies upon unacknowledged constraints on argumentative practices from professors who embrace the ideals of Rawlsian public reason or, more strikingly, whose epistemic commitments welcome a spectacular diversity of viewpoints and worldviews—except for theological ones. As a result, a great deal of scholarship ignores or too easily dismisses theological argument. If public reason and epistemic bias have succeeded anywhere in squelching theological argument, it is in the academy.

Contrary to the academy’s dominant orthodoxies, Hauerwas insists that Christian theology properly belongs in contemporary discourse: “[A]t the very least Christianity names an ongoing argument across centuries of a tradition which has established why some texts must be read and read in relation to other texts.” As a result, “Christians for all their shortcomings still represent an ongoing educated public that means they must . . . have agreements that make their disagreements intelligible.” It is for this reason that

[Christians] should not avoid exploring what differences their convictions might make for why they do what they do. That difference will, of course, vary from subject to subject but surely such an investigation is the kind of work a university should sponsor. I obviously think that would be true of those working in other religious and nonreligious traditions. Of course, such work would make the university more conflictual but I see no reason why that is a disadvantage.  (Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God 91 n.19 (2007)).

Mautner on Excluding Women from Torah Study

One of the many things that worries secular liberals about the revival of religion — assuming a revival is really occurring — is the traditionalism of the religious worldview. Since the Enlightenment, liberalism has taught that the individual must be free to  determine for himself, without the interference of tradition or traditional authority,  the meaning of existence and his place in the universe (see, e.g., Planned Parenthood v. Casey). The religious worldview rejects this idea. The meaning of the universe is determined by God, and wisdom lies in discovering His plan and accepting the place He has assigned you in it. (Of course, religions differ on the details of the plan!) There are important qualifications, of course. Liberalism doesn’t think people should just do what they want, and traditionalism doesn’t think that everything must always remain the same. But much of the tension between secular liberals and religious conservatives can be traced to these different premises.

Menachem Mautner (Tel Aviv University – Buchman Faculty of Law) has posted an interesting-looking piece that explores this tension in the context of Jewish law, or, more precisely, the study of Jewish law: A Dialogue between a Liberal and an Ultra-Orthodox on the Exclusion of Women from Torah Study. Here’s the abstract:

This is a fictive dialogue between a liberal and an ultra-Orthodox on the exclusion of women from Torah study. The dialogue begins with a lengthy discussion of the highly intricate preliminary problems of understanding and normatively evaluating the practices of another culture. The Liberal argues that the exclusion of women from Torah study precludes them from fully realizing the intellectual potential that lies within them, i.e., it denies them reaching the height of their human flourishing. It also implies that ultra-Orthodox women are regarded as having lesser moral worth than men.

The ultra-Orthodox argues that whereas modernity is premised on the denial of any status bestowed by tradition in the life of a person, for the ultra-Orthodox tradition has a binding force: it embodies God’s imperatives as to the good life, together with the ways these imperatives have been interpreted throughout the generations by Halakhic sages. Torah study is a religious imperative (mitzvah) that under the accepted tradition is Continue reading

Schmidt & Promey (eds.), “American Religious Liberalism”

Last month, Indiana University Press published American Religious Liberalism edited by Leigh E. Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis) and Sally M. Promey (Yale University). The publisher’s description follows.

Religious liberalism in America has often been equated with an ecumenical Protestant establishment. By contrast, American Religious Liberalism draws attention to the broad diversity of liberal cultures that shapes America’s religious movements. The essays gathered here push beyond familiar tropes and boundaries to interrogate religious liberalism’s dense cultural leanings by looking at spirituality in the arts, the politics and piety of religious cosmopolitanism, and the interaction between liberal religion and liberal secularism. Readers will find a kaleidoscopic view of many of the progressive strands of America’s religious past and present in this richly provocative volume.

Redding on What American Legal Theory Might Learn from Islamic Law

Jeff Redding (Saint Louis U. School of Law) has posted What American Legal Theory Might Learn from Islamic Law: Some Lessons About ‘The Rule of Law’ from ‘Shari‘a Court’ Practice in India. The abstract follows.

In 2010, voters in the state of Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that prohibits the Oklahoma courts from considering “Sharia Law.” A great deal of the support for this amendment and similar (ongoing) legal initiatives appears to be generated by a deep-seated paranoia about Muslims and Islamic law that has taken root in many parts of the post-9/11 United States. This Article contends that the passage of this Oklahoma constitutional amendment should not have been surprising given that it is not only right-wing partisans who have felt the need to strictly demarcate and police the boundaries of the American legal system, but also liberal partisans too. Indeed, this Article argues that certain modes of American liberal legal thought actually facilitate the anti-shari‘a mania currently sweeping the United States. As a result, an adequate response to this mania cannot simply rely on traditional, American-style, liberal legal theorizing. Indeed, as this Article argues and explains, some extant American liberal understandings of ‘law,’ ‘legal systems,’ and ‘the rule of law’ are eminently inappropriate resources in the struggle against American forms of reactionary parochialism because these liberal understandings are themselves deeply compromised by their own forms of parochialism.

This state of theoretical affairs is unfortunate. As a result, in the course of demonstrating some of the theoretical inadequacies of American liberal legalism, this Article also commences an alternative theorization about ‘law,’ ‘legal systems’ and, more particularly, ‘the rule of law.’ This theorization relies heavily on what can be learned about ‘the rule of law’ — including whatever exists of it in the United States — from the experiences of an Indian Muslim woman, ‘Ayesha,’ who recently used a non-state ‘shari‘a court’ (specifically, a ‘dar ul qaza’) in Delhi to exercise her Indian Islamic divorce rights. I recently interviewed Ayesha at length as part of a larger project on liberalism and Islamophobia.