At the end of our last post (an extension of our discussions at the IWM Summer School in Cortona), we asked whether secularism and liberalism in fact always go together, as is often supposed. In our second round of Skype conversations, we began to address this question by discussing a related one: to what degree are liberalism and privatized religion necessary for democracy? This discussion was inspired by our IWM course on “Religion and Democracy,” taught by José Casanova and Marcin Krol, which drew on examples of democratic societies to examine the variety of roles that public religion and liberalism, respectively, play in enhancing or inhibiting democratic life.

Echoing his argument in Public Religions in the Modern World, Casanova proposed that religion in the modern world is actually more public than the “privatization thesis” would predicate. Moreover, that this is so does not necessarily pose a problem for democracies. On the contrary, religion’s public visibility and power can sometimes enhance democracy, as in the case of the Solidarity Movement in Poland. And the establishment of a state religion is not always restrictive of democracy, as it was for some Western European nations. Krol questioned whether there can even be such a thing as “liberal democracy” in light of these issues, since the rule of “lack of interference” can become its own form of imposition and oppression—especially, perhaps, if it is focused (as it often is) on protecting the rights of individuals to the counsel of private conscience, rather than the rights of (religious) communities to free expression.

In the following chat (drawn from our conversation and edited for ease of reading), we discuss several themes related to these questions and others that emerged from the course, such as what it means for religion to be “public”; how the public roles of majority and minority religions can be balanced; what constitutes establishment of religion, and whether it matters for democracy; and how liberal political values might be integrated with more traditionally religious ones in a democratic society.

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Grace: We have been talking about two cases of public religion in liberal democracies: local African religions in South Africa and a Satmar Hasidic community in upstate New York. In each case, the religion is one whose values and practices conflict with the norms of the public sphere in its surrounding society. The local African religions seek protection for the practice of animal sacrifice, while the Hasidic community is asking that visitors abide by its strict gendered dress codes (i.e., the covering of women’s bodies). In different ways, the groups seek to challenge public norms and values, and to have their own values and practices respected by the wider public. These cases raise several questions, but let’s start with two. If the privatization of religion is not necessary for democracy, are there still some elements of religion that, more than others, need to be privatized in order to preserve democracy? How do we decide which elements are conducive to democratic public life and which harm it, while avoiding privileging certain religious traditions over others?

Ruth: I think one way to approach the question would be to compare treatments of majority and minority religions in public. In the case of the Hasidic community, this is a minority religion. Would people have responded differently if a small conservative Christian town in Alabama had erected a sign asking visitors to conform to certain standards of conduct?

Grace: Right. People are typically more willing to keep their religion private when public values already correspond to their religious values. This might be the reason that the Jewish community feels the need to be more publicly expressive of their religious values, and that local South African religions are considered “public religions”—because they are religious minorities whose religious values are not reflected in the overarching values of the public sphere. Thomas, could you tell us a little more about why the local African religions have “public” status? What is the history of that?

Thomas: Actually, African indigenous religions are not minority religions at all. But what makes them public, in a sense, though not as Casanova uses the term, is that they are not treated as religions; they are treated as cultures and traditions, and are therefore subject to the provisions of the Bill of Rights in ways that private, so-called “world” religions are not.

Grace: Okay, so they are not a numerical minority. But do they feel that the public sphere reflects their values? Maybe this brings us to how we define a religious minority. Also, they are considered “public” legally, right?

Thomas: It has to do with legacies of indirect rule and the apartheid system. David, I was wondering this week whether you have any insight into this question of integrating customary law and the “kingdom of culture” into post-independence constitutionalism, from the perspective of your research?

David: That’s interesting, Thomas. The culture-religion distinction is also at play in the Philippines. When Muslim personal law was introduced, in spite of a constitution that separates religion and state, the argument was made that such personal law did justice to the culture of the minority without imposing a religion on the population as a whole.

Thomas: Right. The issue is similar in South Africa.

David: The issue of traditional African religions as a source of law in Senegal, though, seems a bit different from what you’ve told us about South Africa. Traditional African religion was not as publicly visible in the post-independence period.  The public debates tended to be over the role of Islam in the family code, and not as much over traditional African religions, which had been left weakened by the colonial period, as the traditional religious elites never secured the tacit cooperation from the colonial powers that the Sufi orders did.

Ruth: So, are there ever conflicts between Muslim personal law and the secular constitutional law in the Philippine case? If so, how are those worked out?

David: Secularists argue that the very existence of the Sharia courts in the Philippines is such a conflict, but that’s not the jurisprudential consensus.  Supreme Court cases there have been less clear-cut. On the one hand, the Sharia courts are allowed to render decisions with respect to local customs.  On the other hand, those decisions aren’t allowed to contradict the basic principles of the Constitution.

Grace: Do secularists feel their constitutional rights are being trampled on, and vice versa? Is there a lot of conflict over this, or do most people agree that it’s a good compromise?

Thomas: In South Africa there has been a lot of debate about harmonizing customary law with the rights provisions of the Constitution. South Africa follows a principle common to liberal constitutional states internationally, whereby customary law is accommodated up to where it conflicts with liberal constitutionalism, and then individual rights in the liberal tradition trump other claims.

Ruth: Who has been involved in that debate? Are there “sides”?

Thomas: Well, traditionalists, mainly aligned with so-called traditional leaders, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA), make up one side, and then there are progressive non-governmental organizations on the other side, aligned around women’s rights in particular.

David: My sense is that the conflicts in the Philippines aren’t so much about whether to have the courts as about their scope moving forward.  Some in the Muslim community want the Sharia courts to be able to hear commercial cases, for instance, and there’s fairly broad agreement that these courts don’t have the administrative capacity that they need to address the needs of the Muslim community. As for “sides,” they don’t cleanly map onto a secularist-religious divide, because the broader context of public religion in the Philippines doesn’t have nearly the kind of influential secularist camp that we do in the U.S., for instance.

Thomas: I think that’s a really important point. The secular-religious divide just doesn’t work in most of the rest of the world. We need a different rubric for distinguishing the issues we’re trying to get at.

Grace: So, going back to Thomas’s point about the tension between liberalism and more collectivist, traditional communities, which is more amenable to secularism? Which to democracy? We could move beyond the idea that there is a clear religious-secular divide by noting that there are traditions of liberalism as well as collectivism in religion, and then recognizing that one might be friendlier to secularism and/or to democracy than the other.

David: It’s interesting, on that last point—the reproductive health debates in the Philippines are very contentious right now, with many resenting parts of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for their role in opposing a bill that would liberalize RH law.  But many of the advocates of the RH bill aren’t generally anti-clerical; rather, they are advancing distinct religious arguments. The best chance for a compromise may actually come from more progressive elements within the Catholic community.

Ruth: If anything, it seems more divided along particularist/universalist lines—where one side is interested in respecting the variety of cultural values and the autonomy of certain communities (up to a point), and the other side is more interested in creating a set of liberal principles to which everyone would conform. This may or may not involve disagreements over “religion.” In many cases, these groups overlap significantly with religious groups (who share values and norms at the community level) and secular groups (who have aligned with some liberal principles). But what does one make of the argument that secularists (i.e., defined as those who seek to actively strip public life of religion) are imposing their own form of cultural hegemony on groups who might wish to practice their own religion in certain public spaces? The sides get flipped, right?

Grace: Exactly. There are religious and secular fundamentalists. And then there are traditions of liberalism among both religious and secular communities, though perhaps less often in religious communities.

Ruth: So I guess my question is—and this relates back to my earlier question about minority and majority rights—do liberal states tend to allow minority religious groups more leeway (e.g., letting Philippine Muslims keep Sharia courts, letting a New York Hasidic community impose their own norms on visitors) when it is justified under the rubric of minority rights?

David: I do think there’s something to that observation, in part because the danger of state capture by a minority is so much less plausible.

Ruth: And because it allows religious expression to be consistent with liberal norms, right?

David: Right. The Philippine Muslim example is a little complicated because the presence of Sharia courts is so closely tied to attempts to resolve the Mindanao conflict.

Grace: That makes sense, at least in the empirical cases we have been discussing. And I think that Ruthie just made an important point: that it is consistent with liberal norms. But I would add that it is not necessarily consistent with secular norms, which recalls our question from the last post as to whether secularism and liberalism always go together.

Going back to the issue of privatization, there are cases in which majority religions may feel forced to privatize even when their values are not represented in the public sphere. If privatization is forced on religious communities by a secular minority, is this a case in which secularism and liberalism might not go together?

Ruth: What do you mean by “majority religions feel forced to become private”? Do you have an example in mind?

Grace: Well, I was thinking of pre-revolution France.

David: Or Turkey.

Thomas: A better example, because talking about public and private spheres in pre-revolution France is anachronistic.

Grace: That’s true.

David: I’m not an expert on Turkey, but my understanding is that the public-private distinction under the secularizing regime was actually far less consistent than advocates of the “privatization thesis” would argue.  Religion was actually forced to be quite public in some ways, with all religious education and clerical sermon-writing controlled by a state agency, which, as it happens, is the largest part of the Turkish bureaucracy. So it wasn’t simply that religion could go off on its own into the private sphere. The secularist elites didn’t trust it to do so, and so forced it to be controlled.

Ruth: Right, so public here equals state-controlled?

David: I think that’s likely right. There was little public space that was beyond the state apparatus.

Grace: The secular state wanted to shape religion in its own ways, rather than leave it to be shaped by Muslims in private.

David: My sense is that that is correct. Kuru’s work on secularism in Turkey spells that out in more detail.

Ruth: So we have a couple of different meanings of “public” floating around: “public” meaning visible in public; “public” meaning adjudicated by the public; and “public” meaning state-controlled.

Thomas: I think the whole notion of private religion, like secularism, is a theory that we should be revising. I just don’t think religion has been that private, or at least not nearly as private as we’d like to think.

Grace: Agreed.

Ruth: I agree, but I am not sure what one would mean by private, except for not public in one of the ways I have tried to outline above.

Grace: But is this necessarily a bad thing for democracy?

Thomas: No, I don’t think so.

Grace: If religion is public—meaning visible—my hunch is that it is not necessarily bad for democracy. But if by public we mean state-controlled, it becomes more problematic.

Thomas: And dropping the pretenses of the last century or two is challenging.

Grace: Although, Casanova does make the point that disestablishment might not be necessary for democracy.

Ruth: I am trying to wrap my head around our discussion so far, and this is what I have: We are thinking about whether there is a necessary link between secularism and democracy. But I think we all agree that religion and secularism can take many forms, and that there are different possible meanings of democracy. So, if we take democracy to mean actual rule by the people, where whatever the majority of people think is best is how they will actually organize their lives together, you will not necessarily end up with a liberal state. If, on the other hand, you wish to enforce respect for minority rights, you will sometimes have to trump the will of the people. I think it would be helpful if we clarified which version of democracy we think is desirable (and these are sketches only), and then think about how different manifestations of religion would be either harmful or conducive to each.

Thomas: I think we need to find ways to let religion and democracy speak to one another, rather than rely on models or typologies that define degrees of compatibility. I think democratic public life can accommodate religion in the public sphere when discussion pivots on values: what kinds of values do we as a society want to live with and live by? That’s an open-ended debate, and it gets heated (abortion, etc.), but it’s also not a new way of doing things—religion has always been a conversant in the public sphere. But I think it’s a mistake to discount one party’s value system because it is founded on something other than liberal rationality, which is Habermas’s point about moving towards a postsecular society.

Grace: I think that’s right.

Ruth: Although the argument has always been that liberal values are subject to rational argument and standards of proof, whereas religious values are fundamental. You have to refute that premise to make your point, Thomas (which I think you can).

Grace: Right. But does this ultimately matter? Is the danger really that we won’t be able to talk to each other if our foundations are different? Is this actually true in practice?

Thomas: You could also argue that discounting religious values as fundamental or non-rational is a liberal ruse for excluding religion from the conversation.

David: It seems to me that there are two kinds of issues in the balance here, as regards the extent of the compatibility of religion and democracy.  On the one hand, there is the question of the extent to which individual rights should be governed by communal norms of any sort, whether these be religious or ethnic.  The other is how much space to give religious groups to dissent from the broader civil law.  These may be minorities, as in Wisconsin v. Yoder in the States, but could easily be plurality groups, like evangelical Christians demanding conscience protections in employment hiring law.

Thomas: Some last thoughts: I think there’s a danger in over-determining an incompatibility between religion and democracy, and thus stumping for the privatization thesis as the alternative. The fact is that religion is a major part of public life, whether secularists like it or not. And, of course, religion is formidably heterogeneous, both within and among traditions. But I think we need to abandon the privatization argument, because clearly only some aspects of the religious domain are private. I also think we need to rethink the secular-religion model because it just doesn’t give us much analytical leverage to describe what’s happening in a lot of places—for example, South Africa and the Philippines; it might be useful in places like the U.S., with strong histories in this debate, but even in Europe it has inconsistent usefulness. Also, to reiterate my point about values, I think that’s where we can find fruitful mediation of the place and role of religions and the religious in public life. For better or worse, I think an analysis trained on those debates would be useful.

Grace: I agree, some aspects of religion are more public and some are more private, and this is the case at almost every time and place. Perhaps an interesting way forward would be to figure out how groups, both secular and religious, struggle over which elements of religion should be public and which private, and why. What do these groups see as the stakes of these debates? I also think it is useful to consider what we mean by “public,” in order to better determine what it might mean to have public values, whether religious or secular, that everyone can debate and perhaps agree upon. So I like Ruthie’s attempt to find a definition of “public,” and I believe thinking through different conceptions of the public is a worthwhile task.

Thomas: Yes, I’d find that very useful too. I used to think “public” was everything to do with government, but I’ve been rethinking the distinction between government and state, and that makes for interesting ideas about the public, too

Grace: We have come up with some fruitful points for future discussion on religion, secularism, and democracy. But we never really answered the question of whether secularism and liberalism always go together. We’ll have to save that for our next installment. . . .