Logic & Reason
Join Date: Apr 2011
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Andrew Willard Jones just published an article at his blog Postliberal Thought
titled "What if the liberal concept of religion is the real problem?
American conservatism is in the midst of a fierce internal debate concerning Christianity, morality, and liberalism. In a recent dust up, Sohrab Ahmari caused an uproar by pointing out the truism that a nation’s law is both a reflection of and a source for what it holds as right and wrong. Reaction to Ahmari has demonstrated that this debate is severely hampered by conservatives’ nearly exclusive use of the language that late liberalism supplies. Focused on the distinctions between private morality, public governance and the proper overlap between the two, the debate has retained liberalism’s most fundamental concepts and will not, therefore, bring us anything new. This is because, as is the case with all ideological systems, the construction of the language of late liberalism and the pressing of its conclusions are two aspects of the same endeavor. If we use their categories, we will find ourselves trapped within their conclusions. We must break the coherence of this idiom if we intend to resolve our internal fights and articulate a critique of the current regime without unwittingly reinforcing it. A brief attempt at the deconstruction of two basic liberal binaries might be, I hope, useful. They are: religious/secular and moral/political.
The “secular” should not be juxtaposed with the “religious.” To speak in this manner is to have lost a non-liberal meaning of the word “religion” and to have replaced it with a fundamentally liberal category, invented in the past 200 years or so. This liberal “religion” operates within the private realm of personal activities and opinions -- the same realm as romance, hobbies, friendships, and morality. This realm is made up of lifestyle variations to which the State is officially indifferent, and the State is indifferent precisely because these lifestyle variations are embedded within categories that are already publicly legislated. To think that the liberal state allows for “freedom of religion” in some sort of metaphysical sense is quaint. In fact, the State is indifferent to particular religions because they operate within the stability of the juridical, public category of “religion,” and such variations are by definition socially irrelevant. Once a religion leaves the private realm of personal activities and opinions and is re-categorized as “public,”liberal discourse shifts and starts to call it politics or economics.
Within late liberalism, then, one has freedom of religion precisely to the extent that the State has defined religious content, per se, as not mattering to its order; as something private and so indifferent, like one’s favorite color. As soon as this is not the case, as soon as an opinion or action is understood to impinge on the rights of other legal personae or to affect their public options, these opinions or actions cease to be considered properly religious and are therefore eligible for regulation by the State, a phenomenon clearly on display in State action against bakers or florists who decline to participate in same-sex weddings. Less dramatically, we might note the way in which religions are explicitly situated within the tax code, where their potential “religious” behaviors, such as preaching or praying, are itemized and their potential “non-religious” behaviors, such as property ownership, employment, political action, profit seeking, etc, are likewise spelled out. This is a tedious, bureaucratic demonstration of the fact that within the liberal lexicon, “religions” are necessarily made up of content defined as irrelevant to the achievement of the State’s ends.
It is imperative that we recognize the tautological nature of this discourse. The liberal order considers certain ideas or practices to be religious only because they have already been relegated to the realm of the private, where religion functions by definition. “The secular” is really nothing more than a name for societies that use or operate “religion” in this manner -- as a kind of holding pen for these private, personal actions that do not yet affect the State. In late liberalism, to be “secular” is to be uninvolved with these odd, private actions, while simultaneously subordinating them to the realm of the publically indifferent. It is a power move disguised as an essential, metaphysical, transhistorical, and transcultural binary. That this kind of religion is not, in fact, any essential element of the human experience is obvious in the fact that the content of this religion is fluid. Fifty years ago it would have seemed obvious that a business owner’s choice to not pay for employees’ contraception would be protected by his religious freedom. Now, it is increasing obvious that it does not: such things are now political. Nobody is concerned about this businessman’s Sunday worship: such things remain indifferent and so religious. It is worth remembering that to many ancient pagans the Christian conception of the equal dignity of every human being appeared a bizarre aspect of a rather odd cult; but now such equality forms a basic tenant of the ideological structure of the secular State. Things that were once religious are now political and things that were once political are now religious. These categories are relative and relational, functioning within the liberal idiom. It is not that religion is face-to-face with the secular, with equal footing in an essentialist frame. Rather, religion only comes into being as late-liberal religion within the contingent frame of the secular.
Within late liberalism, then, religions are simply voluntary associations relevant to particular aspects of their members’ private lives. As soon as a religion verges into non-religious aspects of members’ private lives, it becomes a cult; if it verges into coercion, it becomes a terrorist organization; if it mobilizes for political action it becomes a political party; and if it starts manufacturing and selling goods, it becomes a business. In a liberal order, these actions are generally understood as perversions because within its categorical schema the content of religion doesn’t belong in certain aspects of the private or in the public realms of politics or economics. So, liberal States tend to effectively outlaw such perversions. Or else, they must redefine the public to include them and the religious to exclude them. For example, the giving of alms and the provisioning of charitable services such as hospitals and schools, actions which were once understood as profoundly religious, as they have been steadily incorporated into the welfare State have been rearticulated as in essence political and public. Both the political and the religious have been redefined to accommodate this new practice. Hospitals matter socially and so they simply cannot be, in essence, religious -- and so they must be eligible for direct state regulation. Such constant redefinition is the ongoing project of liberalism’s discourse on religious liberty which is necessarily as much about defining religion and keeping it in its proper private realm as it is about protecting it from public disturbance. The late liberal notion of religious liberty is ultimately about the maintenance of the irrelevance of the “religion” category itself. Religion is by definition free and can be identified as whatever we are free to do.
Within this discourse, when populist, right-wing Christians argue for their religion to become the basis of public order, they can only be heard as arguing for a type of theocracy, for their peculiar, socially irrelevant private beliefs to be forced on everyone. This only reinforces the liberal discourse on religion and politics because the whole discussion has been historically constructed against the ever-present threat of “confessional” States. More directly, liberal Christians who accept the privatization of Christianity work with the secular regime in the maintenance of the social irrelevance of religion, normally and often tragically through their defense of religious freedom. Neither side in the current debate is really breaking free.
Religion is just one type within a whole category of similar phenomena, “morality” being perhaps the most fundamental. For example, for many decades now Christians have attempted to mount an effective opposition to what they have called “moral relativism.” What is meant by this concept? Christians can’t really mean that our late liberal opponents don’t believe in right and wrong. We know that isn’t the case. Those on the left believe with great passion that social security must be extended and that it is a matter of simple justice that the minimum wage be raised. They are outraged by racism and sexism and they find our exploitation of the natural world to be an abomination. Those on the libertarian-leaning right will defend to the death the rightness of private property and individual liberty. Any curtailment of business or redistribution of wealth is abhorrent to them. The entire ideological edifice of liberalism rests on the conviction that it is just plain wrong to intervene in the individual’s pursuit of desire fulfillment, and that to do so is a violation of justice, the paradigmatic moral principle. You will find no group of people more certain of the rightness of their convictions and more willing to force others to comply with them than those who congregate on university campuses. There is, obviously, no shortage of right-and-wrong in late liberalism’s woke culture. And yet, many Christians continue to talk about moral relativism. Why?
This behavior becomes intelligible when we understand that similar to religion, in the everyday liberal vernacular, the word “moral” is restricted in application to things that society is more-or-less relativistic about. Sex is a “moral” issue because we don’t think that people’s sexual preferences impinge upon justice. Sex is like sports. We know that people disagree strongly about which team ought to win, but we don’t feel the need to resolve this conflict through some sort of compromise or censure. We are sports team relativists. In fact, the concept of sports includes this relativism intrinsically – the fans of neither team are wrong and there is no contradiction -- that’s how sports work. Similarly, your favorite color is red and mine is blue, and that’s just fine; we are color relativists and there is no incoherence in our being so. Relativism is built into the concept of favorite colors. In the same way, in everyday, liberal usage, the word “morality” carries with it the concept of relativism. It’s not that society has relegated all “lifestyle” choices to the relativistic category of morality. Light up a cigarette in polite company to prove that is not the case. Smoking is not a “moral” issue, it’s a public health issue, like obesity, and so an appropriate object of public disdain and censure. Rather, particular behaviors have become “moral” precisely because they are understood as socially irrelevant. The relativism comes before the morality; relativism is a criterion for the category. But, this isn’t quite enough. For a behavior to be relegated to “morality,” it normally must be something (like sex) that old-fashioned people (mostly Christians) mistake for something that is not relative (like fair wages). The word “morality” comes to mean something like: “things that we all know are relative and socially unimportant but concerning which Christians have historically tried to oppress us and would again if given the chance.” In this way, the late liberal concept of morality includes within it both moral relativism and the story of Christian opposition to moral relativism. And so, when Christians argue against “moral relativism” as if it were a real thing, they reinforce not only the liberal segmenting of human action into moral (i.e. relative) things and amoral (i.e. political) things, but the marginalization of Christianity as an ultimately tyrannical dogma that has been overthrown, but which remains a threat. They are paradoxically profoundly liberal in their illiberality because liberalism requires them for its internal coherence.
Liberalism has no problem, therefore, with religion or with morality or with other “comprehensive philosophical and moral doctrines,” as Rawls would put it. By definition, these things have a proper and protected place within the liberal regime of rights. They are integral to liberalism’s concept of the private, which is the realm of the irrelevant. One can “define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” as long as one’s determination of that meaning, as D.C. Schindler has put it, amounts to nothing at all-- at least nothing social. Liberalism provides a tidy, closed circle. This is what the so-called pluralism of liberalism ultimately amounts to. It is, in fact, a profound homogenization and enforcement of orthodoxies. Everything is the same in its “diversity.” Everyone has a different favorite color as they move through the relentless sameness of the State and the market.
Christians, then, ought to shift the argument away from the proper role of morality or religion in legislation and to the fundamentally religious/moral character of all law. The liberal tradition in part rests on the notion that reason and morality are distinct. Morality, as we have seen, is defined in public discourse as made up of convictions that are not based on reason. Reason for liberals is, therefore, by definition morally neutral ground and so the only legitimate basis for coercive, legal action. The Christian tradition, however, views things almost exactly opposite. To the Christian, to say that an action is moral and to say that it is rational is to say the same thing. All moral action is rational action and all rational action is moral action. To say that something pertains to morals is simply to say that it pertains to practical rather than speculative rationality. Human law is, therefore, merely reason applied through prudence to the here and now, which is another way to say that all law is the “legislating of morality.” This is not a complicated idea. It is merely to understand that the right thing to do and the reasonable thing to do are the same thing—which we all already know (I hope). This simple idea, however, explodes the liberal conceit because within it to declare something as pertaining to “morals” does not exclude it from the realm of legislation, quite the opposite, in fact. Through the Christian idiom, such simplistic and tautological categorical denunciations are undone and the liberals would be compelled to make a case for the prudence of particular legislation. For example, they would be compelled to argue that banning pornography is a bad idea not because sex is categorically a moral issue but because either porn is itself good or because the disruption such a ban would cause to the good of free political speech is not worth the benefits, or something like that. In this way, within the Christian idiom which equates morality with rationality, the liberals would, perhaps ironically, be compelled to offer rational justifications for their legislative actions or inactions. Stripped of the cover of their constructed categories of “morality” or “religion,” liberals would have to account for the empirical consequences and the rationality of their laws or lack of laws. This works in the other direction as well. Christians could not fall back on their private morality or faith but would rather be burdened with the demonstration of the rationality of their convictions and with determining their prudent application, given a society as de-Christianized as our own.
The current conflicts rocking conservatism needs to be shifted into a more fundamental frame. Christians need to stop moving the liberal pieces around on the board and start bending the rules of the language game themselves. To argue that our morality or our religion ought to be enshrined in law, while retaining the liberal definitions of all these terms, is, I’m afraid, as a matter of definition proto-fascist. To argue that our morality or our religion is a merely private matter, is, I’m afraid, to argue that Christianity doesn’t matter at all. Rather, we need to speak in an idiom which joins religion and morality to rationality in the very definition of law. We need to describe late liberalism in this idiom, deconstructing the categorical tautologies out of which it is constituted. Such a move would, in fact, bring unexpected moderation because it would bring to light the vast swathes of religious and moral ground shared by political opponents. As St. Augustine taught us long ago, what holds us together politically is not some neutral, amoral realm. It is rather our shared loves, our shared morals, and ultimately our shared religion – even if minimal, confused in content, and admixed with error. It would be good, I think, for us to see this.