Liberalism’s Religion does not shy away from controversy. In this provocative book, Cécile Laborde takes on recent political and legal controversies on the proper role of religion in liberal democratic politics, such as the public display of religious symbols, public funding to religious schools, and conscientious exemptions from laws protecting equality and nondiscrimination. This book boldly addresses complex and difficult questions at the center of many of these debates: “Can a liberal state establish a particular religion in its laws and institutions? Can state officials appeal to religious convictions in justifying laws? Can majority religious symbols be displayed in the public sphere? Can churches have male-only clergy? Can faith-based businesses deny services to LBGTQ citizens? Should conscientious objectors be exempted from the application of general laws? Should religious minorities be protected against discrimination on the same grounds as racial minorities?” (1). The stakes of these questions today could hardly be higher, and Laborde brings energy and conceptual rigor to bear on them.
Laborde defends liberal egalitarianism on each specific charge toward the broader argument that liberalism is less vulnerable to this prominent critique than has previously been recognized.
Liberalism’s Religion is framed as an engagement with recent critiques of liberal political philosophy, or what Laborde calls “liberal egalitarianism,” by influential “critical religion” scholars, such as Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Charles Taylor, among others. These theorists, sociologists, and philosophers lament that “liberalism…is bound up with an inadequate, ethnocentric, and Christian understanding of what religion is,” whereby privileging specific forms of religious subjectivity that focus on interiority and excluding others that value outward rituals, community ties, and institutional arrangements (4). This “critical religion” account breaks down into three distinct charges: the semantic critique (there is no category of “religion” as such), the Protestant critique (the “liberal” view of religion privileges an individualistic, belief-based, private conception of “religion”) and the realist critique (that the liberal state enacts its own “religion”). Following a charitable reconstruction of these arguments, Laborde defends liberal egalitarianism on each specific charge toward the broader argument that liberalism is less vulnerable to this prominent critique than has previously been recognized.
Despite Laborde’s defense of liberal egalitarianism against “critical religion” scholars, she concedes that liberal egalitarianism is not impervious to criticism. In particular, she draws attention to the issue of the Rawlsian conflation of religion with other conceptions of the “good life,” which she traces to the “insufficient reflection on the conception of religion” in liberal political philosophy (40). To address this significant blind spot in the liberal treatment of religion, Laborde sets out to “develop a more robust theory of liberal egalitarianism” (40). This project is arguably most compelling in its earnest attempt to engage in this constructive endeavor; toward the goal of “build[ing] on, and improv[ing], the liberal egalitarian account of religion and the state,” Laborde sets out to move beyond critique to theorize a more nuanced account of the contentious relationship between religion and liberalism. In an endlessly-frenzied debate that seems dangerously deadlocked, this ambition deserves to be applauded.
The substantive chapters of Liberalism’s Religion examine several key “puzzles” concerning the relationship between religion and politics: religious exemptions and free exercise, state neutrality, nonestablishment, and freedom of association. The theme of religious exemptions and free exercise arguably receives the most attention in the book, perhaps an unsurprising emphasis given the prominence of recent debates on the ethical salience of religion. Like other commentators who defend a “mainstreaming” and “narrowing” approach to exemptions, Laborde argues that religion is not “uniquely special,” but nonetheless deserves to be protected like other “nonreligious beliefs, conceptions, and identities” (3 emphasis in original). Perhaps anticipating objection, Laborde clarifies that she and other liberal egalitarians do not “seek to downgrade the status of religion,” but rather, hope to elevate the standing of other ethical and moral conscientious commitments grounded in secular beliefs, identities, and associations (26). Yet arguably one of the reasons why this debate is so contentious is that efforts to undermine the historically respected category of religion risk eroding longstanding protections of religious freedom in liberal democracies. This anxiety is not entirely unwarranted. As Laborde herself acknowledges, another dominant approach to exemptions is the ‘dissolving’ approach, most famously associated with Ronald Dworkin, which “bites the ethical salience bullet and rejects exemptions on the grounds that no defensible distinction can be drawn between and among religious and nonreligious ethical views” (43). Laborde could say more on this concern to appease her opponents, but she nonetheless provides a compelling defense of exemptions for both religious and secular commitments.
Perhaps anticipating objection, Laborde clarifies that she and other liberal egalitarians do not “seek to downgrade the status of religion,” but rather, hope to elevate the standing of other ethical and moral conscientious commitments grounded in secular beliefs, identities, and associations.
One of the most provocative arguments in Liberalism’s Religion is Laborde’s defense of exemptions for “integrity-protecting commitments.” On Laborde’s account, exemptions should be granted to individuals in cases when obedience to a generally-applicable law would infringe on their most meaningful, conscientious commitments. These acts of integrity might look like “a practice, ritual, or action (or refusal to act), that allows an individual to live in accordance with how she thinks she ought to act,” so much so that violating it would deeply disturb her deepest sense of herself (203-204). Many have objected to this kind of emphasis on sincerity out of concern that it would allow for “religious fraud,” under which individuals might “mimic religion in order to get access to benefits and exemptions,” but Laborde insists that this concern is exaggerated (207). Indeed, cases of religious fraud are rarer than critics worry, and when unavoidable, they seem like a negligible downside toward the more important goal of protecting religious minorities.
Laborde’s striking account of integrity-protecting commitments inevitably raises questions on the limits of these exemptions. Indeed, as Laborde herself acknowledges, “morally abhorrent claims” to perform infant sacrifice in a religious ritual or religious-motivated acts of terror should not be tolerated merely because the perpetrators of these horrific crimes view their acts as “central to their integrity” (205). Yet Laborde insists that the distinction between ‘morally-abhorrent claims’ and “morally-ambivalent” ones is more difficult than liberal philosophers often acknowledge. Laborde’s “preferred theory of justice” would lean more “progressive” rather than “conservative,” by which she means that it would privilege the protection of the “individual rights of children, women, and sexual minorities” over others’ integrity-protecting commitments (217). This approach to exemptions is arguably intuitive given the vulnerability of these demographics; women, children, and members of the LBGTQ community have been historically marginalized, confront oppressive power dynamics in the home and the workplace, and (especially in the case of children) are uniquely defenseless to resist abusive authority. Surely, we should be wary that claims of “religious freedom” or “liberty of conscience” might be smokescreens for a politics of domination and hate. This “progressive” theory of exemptions is promising but ultimately undertheorized in Liberalism’s Religion to the extent that it simply remains undeveloped here; however, I suspect that Laborde’s future work will engage more carefully with the precarious distinction between morally abhorrent and morally ambivalent claims, as well as the most effective ways to balance the protection of vulnerable populations of individuals with competing claims of integrity and conscience.
One of the most provocative arguments in Liberalism’s Religion is Laborde’s defense of exemptions for “integrity-protecting commitments.” On Laborde’s account, exemptions should be granted to individuals in cases when obedience to a generally-applicable law would infringe on their most meaningful, conscientious commitments.
For those of us who work on the ever-contentious relationship between religion and politics, and especially for those of us who worry that both sides of the debate often fail to appreciate the nuances of the challenges leveled against them by their intellectual opponents, Cécile Laborde’s important contribution is a welcomed model of clarity, precision, and complexity. Arguably, there is little reason to be hopeful that recent controversies will be resolved soon, or that other unanticipated ones will not erupt in the coming years, but we will all benefit from the striking and nuanced thinking done concerning religion and politics in Liberalism’s Religion.