Cavana on Religious Exemptions as a Problem for Liberalism

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference with LUMSA University 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 discussion papers. Professor Paolo Cavana (LUMSA) submitted the following paper for Workshop 2, on religious exemptions, which we are delighted to publish here:

[1] Liberalism, both as a political doctrine and in its historical manifestation, has known several variants. This notwithstanding, there are certainly some common principles underpinning liberalism. Among these, we must include the primacy of the individual and the protection of his freedom against all forms of political oppression. It is no coincidence that liberalism was born and grew, in Europe and in Great Britain, starting from the Protestant Reformation. It represented a reaction to absolute Monarchies and to the concentration of powers they entailed. The different historical events of the United Kingdom and of continental Europe later marked a furrow in the development of liberalism doctrine and in its historical achievements, which also had effects in giving life to the peculiar American constitutional experience.

Among the main factors that marked the development of liberalism and its historical achievements, there is certainly religion, which has always played a fundamental role. Suffice it to say that the two English revolutions of the seventeenth century, which laid the foundations of liberal constitutionalism, were fought by Parliament in the name of religious freedom against the monarchy and its claim to impose a state religion on its subjects. On the contrary, the French Revolution, and the European liberalism that prepared it and followed it, taking into account the tragedy of religious wars, considered the Church and religion as an obstacle to civil and political progress. As such, both would eventually have to be overcome, or at least they were to be kept closed within the private sphere of individual conscience. This gave European liberalism the anti-religious character that has always differentiated it from the Anglo-Saxon one.

More generally, it can be said that European liberalism, which rests its foundations on the absolutist legacy of monarchies and on the theories of Montesquieu and J.J. Rousseau, since its inception, has always fought against social formations (Le Chapelier Act), considered to be a potential diaphragm between the individual and the State and a source of inequality between citizens. On the contrary, English and American liberalism has always viewed social formations – local communities, religious groups, and free associations – as an essential counterweight to the authority of the central State and hence a guarantee for citizens’ freedom.

It should also be noted that it was not religion in the abstract but in the concrete, that is, Christianity, which laid the groundwork for the birth of the liberal doctrine (B. Croce). In fact, neither the ancient world nor other religions or civilizations recognize – like Christianity, which germinated from Judaism, does – the role of human freedom even in the face of God. As a result, the act of faith can only be the fruit of human free choice, which is the very foundation of man’s dignity: “you have made him little less than a god, with glory and honour you crowned him,” says the psalmist (Psalm 8).

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