Laborde, “Liberalism’s Religion”

This seems to be a book not about liberalism as a kind of religion (or as valuing a Laborde.jpgparticular kind of religion), but instead about what liberalism–particularly the secular liberalism of the kind championed by the author–ought to do with religion in today’s day and age. A book very much in line with recent efforts to destabilize the category of religion as meriting special legal (and constitutional) protection, which in turn requires severing the reasons for its protection from their historical roots. Indeed, ultimately, I wonder whether the book actually is about the distinctive sort of religion acceptable to liberalism, or perhaps even about liberalism as itself espousing a variety of religion. The author is Cécile Laborde, the publisher is Harvard UP, and here is the description.

Liberal societies conventionally treat religion as unique under the law, requiring both special protection (as in guarantees of free worship) and special containment (to keep religion and the state separate). But recently this idea that religion requires a legal exception has come under fire from those who argue that religion is no different from any other conception of the good, and the state should treat all such conceptions according to principles of neutrality and equal liberty. Cécile Laborde agrees with much of this liberal egalitarian critique, but she argues that a simple analogy between the good and religion misrepresents the complex relationships among religion, law, and the state. Religion serves as more than a statement of belief about what is true, or a code of moral and ethical conduct. It also refers to comprehensive ways of life, political theories of justice, modes of voluntary association, and vulnerable collective identities.

Disaggregating religion into its various dimensions, as Laborde does, has two clear advantages. First, it shows greater respect for ethical and social pluralism by ensuring that whatever treatment religion receives from the law, it receives because of features that it shares with nonreligious beliefs, conceptions, and identities. Second, it dispenses with the Western, Christian-inflected conception of religion that liberal political theory relies on, especially in dealing with the issue of separation between religion and state. As a result, Liberalism’s Religion offers a novel answer to the question: Can Western theories of secularism and religion be applied more universally in non-Western societies?

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