Legal Spirits Episode 043: The New Thoreaus

In this episode, Marc interviews Mark about his new article, “The New Thoreaus,” on the rise of the Nones and its impact on free-exercise law. Fifty years ago, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court famously dismissed the idea that a solitary seeker–the Court gave the 19th Century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau as an example–could qualify as a “religion” for constitutional purposes. “Religion,” the Court explained, means a communal activity, not a purely personal quest. Mark argues that recent demographic changes in America have made this question an urgent one. Perhaps 66 million Americans today are unaffiliated believers–people who, like Thoreau, reject organized religion and follow their own, idiosyncratic spiritual paths–and more and more of them seek “religious” exemptions, including in the context of recent vaccine mandates. Mark examines some of these cases and argues that Yoder‘s dicta was basically correct: although religion cannot be an exclusively collective activity, the existence of a religious community is a crucial factor in the definition of religion for legal purposes. Listen in!

Ekins on Some Features of Liberalism in a Censorious Age

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Richard Ekins (Oxford) submitted the following paper for Workshop 1, on the general themes of the conference, which we are delighted to publish here:

Some features of liberalism in a censorious age 

The nominal promise of liberalism is political fairness and, relatedly, social peace, in which persons with different religious, moral, political, and philosophical commitments will be free to live as they please. The promise is illusory insofar as one cannot coherently exclude questions about the good from public life, including from (deliberation about) the exercise of public power. And in fact, we do not live in a golden age of freedom of conscience or freedom of speech. On the contrary, we live in an increasingly censorious age, as Jonathan Sumption puts it,[1] in which uniformity of thought or opinion is sought by way of abuse of dissenters in the press or social media, or by direct public (legal) action. This short paper reflects on some developments within liberalism, understood loosely as a tradition of political thought and practice, which may help explain the censorious temper of our times and the way in which religion and hate speech are understood.

In one influential form, political liberalism aims to bracket questions about what is truly worth acting for – questions that involve controversial substantive commitments – and instead to ground law and government on thin propositions that are fair to all comers. For Ronald Dworkin, the fundamental principle of political morality is that government should show equal concern and respect to all persons. This requirement, he says, rules out public actions that entail or presuppose the judgement that some way of life is vicious or debased and/or that some moral choices are truly better than others. Public actions of this kind, Dworkin maintains, fail to show equal concern and respect.  

This line of argument forms a main element in the jurisprudence of contempt,[2] in which a court or jurist reasons that to act on moral grounds is to act unfairly, in a way that is incompatible with the respect for persons and the freedom that equality demands they enjoy. Judicial review of legislation is justified, on this view, in order to police majoritarian legislatures, who are otherwise tempted to act unfairly, double-counting the preferences of some citizens about how others are to live, and/or reducing others to the status of second-class citizens by rejecting their commitments. The argument is unpersuasive because one cannot avoid the need for moral judgement in lawmaking and governing and to act for what one sincerely takes to be the good, including the good of the person one limits or punishes, in no way involves contempt for those who think otherwise.[3] Further, the argument wrongly frames the reasons on which a legislature acts as preferences, which have a place in collective action only insofar as fairness permits. The aim is to disbar political unfairness; the effect, even if the proscription were applied evenly,[4] would be to prevent justice.  

What is important to note, I think, is (a) the reduction of reasons to preferences and (b) the claim that in acting on (controversial) moral reasons one displays contempt for others. The upshot is that political liberalism is primed to see moral action as an insult or an unfair abuse of process. It is no surprise then that the moral significance of intention is often lost from view, with actions sometimes branded discrimination or harassment regardless of the intentions on which the person acted, per the premise that our actions are often sub-rational with real motivations hidden from us. [5] It is thus easy to frame those with whom one disagrees, or fears, as irrational and in need of correction. 

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