“Liberal principles,” declares Milbank, “will always ensure that the rights of the individual override those of the group.” For this reason, he concludes, “liberalism cannot defend corporate religious freedom.” The neutrality liberalism proclaims “is itself entirely secular” (it brackets belief; that’s what it means by neutrality) and is therefore “unable to accord the religious perspective [the] equal protection” it rhetorically promises. Religious rights “can only be effectively defended pursuant to a specific and distinctly religious framework.” Liberal universalism, with its superficial respect for everyone (as long as everyone is superficial) and its deep respect for no one, can’t do it.
If that is so, then the other contributors to this volume are whistling “Dixie,” at least with respect to the hope declared by Rawls that liberalism in some political form might be able to do justice to the strongly religious citizens of a liberal state. Milbank’s fellow essayists cannot negotiate or remove the impasse he delineates, but what they can do, and do do with considerable ingenuity and admirable tact, is find ways of blunting and perhaps muffling the conflict between secular and religious imperatives, a conflict that cannot (if Milbank is right, and I think he is) be resolved on the level of theory, but which can perhaps be kept at bay by the ad-hoc, opportunistic, local and stop-gap strategies that are at the heart of politics.
Read Fish’s full piece in The New York Times.