Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Liberals STILL Don't "Get" Religion

Here's a review that should be published shortly by the A.P.S.A.'s "Perspectives on Politics." It took them long enough to ask me to do a review, and I may never be asked again....



The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious Pluralism. By Lucas Swaine. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. 215 pp. $35.00 Cloth.

Patrick J. Deneen, Georgetown University


In this book Lucas Swaine argues that modern liberalism has failed in its efforts adequately to provide justification of liberalism’s political legitimacy to religious adherents. This may seem a surprising contention, given the vast literature that attempts to do precisely this, reaching easily as far back as John Rawl’s Political Liberalism if not to the constitutive works of Hobbes and Locke. In particular, contemporary liberalism has failed because it does not offer arguments that can appeal to religious believers, preferring instead a standard of “reasonableness” that cannot assail the faith commitments of religious believers.

Swaine, by contrast, seeks to appeal to the most resistant forms of religious believers, namely what he calls “theocrats.” Theocrats are defined as “believing in otherworldly powers and ends” (30), and as such, prioritize “a religious conception of the good that is strict and comprehensive in its range of teachings” (7). Swaine identifies two kinds of theocrats: retiring and ambitious. Retiring theocrats seek to withdraw from liberal society, forming a closed community that rejects many of liberalism’s main features, including equality of the sexes, lifestyle autonomy, and even, in some instances, the “right of exit.” Examples of retiring theocrats include the Old Order Amish, the Satmar Hasidim, Pueblo Indians, and polygamous Mormon communities. Ambitious theocrats enthusiastically participate in public life, seeking, according to Swaine, to “supplant liberal institutions with stricter laws and regulations drawn from their religious conception of the good.” Such “extremists” include members of “the Religious Right” in America, members of the Nation of Islam, and other Muslims worldwide.

Both kinds of theocrats, while holding faith commitments that are fundamentally unreasonable, can nevertheless be led to accept the legitimacy of liberalism by appeal to three principles of conscience. Conscience must be free 1. “to reject lesser religious doctrines and conceptions of the good;” 2. “to accept the good;” and 3. “to distinguish between good and bad doctrines and conceptions of the good” (49). Religious adherents can be persuaded to accept these principles of conscience if it can be made clear that it is in their interest to do so. If such principles are rejected, then religious communities are under the threat of being ruled by other religious communities, forced adherence to which would render their own salvation unlikely. By ensuring that all members of varying religious communities can always and everywhere employ the principles of conscience, no one religious community can force its members to adhere to its doctrines, and thereby avoid potentially practicing a false religion.

All religious communities need to be persuaded to accept the principles of conscience, but more specific remedies must be employed to confront retiring and ambitious theocrats, respectively. Retiring theocrats should be accorded “semi-sovereignty,” that is, the right to withdraw and form their own insular communities. Ambitious theocrats, given their greater political activism, must be engaged in dialogue and more strongly urged to accept the principles of conscience. In this way, their ambitious “theocratic” agendas – that include the effort to “repeal laws on abortion, contest homosexuality, to bring back other socially conservative values, [and] to revivify a closer relation between church and state – will cease to be advanced, and liberalism preferred.

Swaine should be praised for stressing the need of engaging religious believers, a stance that liberals have eschewed in favor of appeals to “reasonableness.” Yet, this book nevertheless shows in all of its specifics how difficult such engagement by liberals continues to be. To begin with, in order to come up with “principles” that will apply to every kind of religious believer, Swaine lumps believers of widely divergent traditions into the category of “theocrat.” “Theocrats” include Branch Davidians and Christian evangelicals, Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh and Islam. Do all these believers hold the “theocratic” view that their religious precepts should “supplant” liberal institutions? If so, it is clearly an oddity that so many members of America’s armed services come from evangelical Christian communities. It must also be regarded as historically peculiar that those very liberal institutions were in many cases devised and supported by religious believers. Unless one understands the effort, for instance, to “repeal laws on abortion” to be tantamount to “supplanting” liberal institutions (a peculiar belief, since most religious believers seek a change in abortion policy through liberal institutions), one is hard pressed to conclude that liberalism and religious belief are as incompatible as Swaine suggests. Indeed, Swaine seems wholly unfamiliar with the fact that theories of separation of Church and State derive historically from a theological tradition.

While appearing to seek an accommodating relationship to religious communities, the specifics of Swaine’s arguments suggest a different outcome. While “semi-sovereignty” would seem to accord extensive autonomy to “retiring theocrats,” in order to assure a “right of exit” Swaine acknowledges that the State will need to ensure that this right be “taught to children and youth … and enforced by law” (131). That is, the State will be involved in contradicting the religious community’s efforts to form the characters of their children in a way that “semi-sovereignty” would appear to ensure, surely in turn undermining Swaine’s claims that this “semi-sovereignty” will assuage the resentments of “retiring theocrats,” and likely turning them into “ambitious theocrats.” Likewise, while encouraging liberals to engage in “dialogue” with “ambitious theocrats,” this interaction is to occur by means of “infiltration” of religious communities by liberals (136). Through such “infiltration,” liberals can hope to “influence the identities” of believers, persuading them to embrace the “principles of conscience” and ceasing thereby in their efforts to “supplant” liberal institutions. Thus, the “dialogue” is to be rather one-sided, with liberals winning the hearts and minds of unreasonable believers as a kind of secular fifth column.

Finally, Swaine contends that his arguments on behalf of the “principles of conscience” are universal, and not embedded solely in a Western religious worldview (149). Yet, not only are appeals to conscience Western, they are most deeply Protestant – the very tradition from which liberalism itself derived. In other words, it is contended that liberalism is to shore itself up among religious believers by appeal to a liberal, and specifically individualistic, understanding of religion. However, many traditions – including Catholicism and Islam – do not give place of priority to conscience and to individual discretion. If liberalism truly hopes to appeal to religious believers, it cannot do so in the idiom of liberalism, and certainly not one so implicitly offensive to believers as that unwittingly adopted by Swaine.

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