Educational pluralism requires, in part, a political theory that legitimates the presence of belief (both religious and secular) in the public square while insisting upon state neutrality with respect to the content of that belief. Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure’s Secularism and Freedom of Conscience offers one such argument. The book was originally written in French and intended for Canadians struggling with the growing cultural, religious and linguistic tensions in their pluralistic democracy. Secularism and Freedom of Conscience is a sketch – unlike the 800-page manuscripts we are accustomed to from Charles Taylor. However, like anything this eminent social theorist and political activist writes, it’s worth reading.

Maclure and Taylor start by distinguishing between two types of secularism, which they call the “republican” and the “liberal-pluralist.” The republican version favors a common civic identity shorn of sectarian particularity, which “requires marginalizing religious affiliations and forcing them back into the private sphere.” The republican version of secularism assigns the highest priority to moral equality before the law and is therefore wary of favoring or even accommodating differences based upon core beliefs. A private citizen may wear a Star of David, but a district judge may not. A Muslim girl may wear a headscarf at home but not at a public school. Religion becomes an essentially private affair.

The liberal-pluralist version of secularism, in contrast, allows religious observance in the public square as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others or place undue burdens upon public institutions. A district judge may wear a Star of David but must recuse himself from cases involving the legality of publicly sanctioned expressions of faith. A Muslim girl may wear a headscarf in a public school if she desires, but a Muslim teacher at the same school may not require it of other Muslim female students. Maclure and Taylor prefer the liberal-pluralist view because it strikes “the optimal balance between respect for moral equality and respect for freedom of conscience.”

Neither version of secularism is morally neutral. Both versions make minimal claims about what constitutes the good society that citizens of all persuasions can affirm. And both affirm the dignity of the human person, but on the basis of differing fundamental commitments and moral reasoning.

Maclure and Taylor also do a nice job of pre-empting what they call the “problem of proliferation” of claims for special legal protection in the courts, by differentiating between beliefs, values and preferences. At one end of the spectrum are beliefs that are constitutive of an individual’s moral identity; at the other are tastes or preferences, abrogation of which may inconvenience or annoy, but not harm, an individual’s core identity. In the authors’ example, “a Muslim nurse’s decision to wear a scarf at work cannot be placed on the same footing with a colleague’s choice to wear a baseball cap.” The scarf represents a defining obligation in a way that the cap does not. In between core beliefs and preferences lies the realm of “values,” which the authors define as matters of conscience that do not emanate from a “totalizing worldview” yet which are deeply held by adherents. The authors note that courts in the United States and Canada often base their rulings on the right of values to be protected or accommodated by weighing the intensity or sincerity of proponents’ beliefs in those values.

In all of this, the authors present a credible case for one way of balancing freedom of individual conscience and a neutral, secular state. Their argument, however, that the West should move beyond its “fixation” with religion and include other forms of belief as worthy of equal protection, gives me pause. Although perhaps “the state must treat with respect all core beliefs and commitments compatible with the requirements of fair social cooperation,” the historical and cultural role that religion continues to play in liberal societies suggests otherwise – particularly with respect to the institutional role they play in the modern world. (See constitutional scholar John Witte on the unique respect accorded to religion in national and international covenants)

In this vein, I wish Maclure and Taylor had discussed the role of particularist institutions and not just individuals within the secular state. It is hard to find guidance for the appropriate role of Catholic hospitals, for instance, in the schema that Taylor and Maclure have outlined. Or in education: the focus on individuals does not provide guidance about state-funded Catholic schools, in which the question is not merely whether individual students may wear crucifixes in school but whether the very existence of Catholic schools sufficiently balances freedom of conscience with the equal treatment of non-Catholic citizens. As noted in earlier posts, many liberal and secular democracies (such as the Netherlands) “equalize treatment” by funding dozens of religious, philosophical, and pedagogical schools equally.

The reason the Dutch have enjoyed such rich pluralism in education is because they did not start with a theory of the state, but with a theory of society. The late-19th century statesman and pastor, Abraham Kuyper, argued forcefully that “’the associations and institutions that make up the civil society should not be considered subordinate divisions of the State, enjoying only those rights and that scope which the State chooses to entrust to them, but possess their own rights deriving from the purposes for which they exist’” (quoted in Model of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control). The state is not the most important social actor, empowered to “accommodate” religious institutions or not; rather, the state’s job is to ensure fair treatment for all citizens and their organizations. The rights of religious organizations are pre-political, and their role in society is recognized by the state but not created by it.

Kuyper and his allies fought against the republican secularism that had dominated the Netherlands for fifty years, and they won the argument, which of course suggests that such change is possible today. The Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, developed with particular cogency in the modern era by Pope John Paul II, offers a similar picture of civil society in which religious institutions do not ask for “accommodation” from the state but, rather, play their own unique role that the state should protect and honor. It would be interesting to locate Maclure and Taylor’s liberal-pluralist secularism within a larger discussion of the institutional and pre-political nature of religious institutions.

For more of Charles Taylor’s comments on secularism in the late modern world, see his blog on “The Immanent Frame.”

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