Many examples of this second kind of challenge are addressed in the literature on education and schooling. In developed societies (and developing ones, for that matter), a substantial education is necessary for citizens to be able to achieve a decent life for themselves. In addition, many states see education as a process by which children can learn values that the state deems important for active citizenship and/or for social life. However, the pursuit of this latter goal raises certain issues for religious parents. In the famous case of Mozert v. Hawkins, some parents objected for religious reasons to their children being taught from a reading curriculum that presented alternative beliefs and ways of life in a favorable way, and consequently the parents asked that their children be excused from class when that curriculum was being taught. Against the wishes of these parents, some liberals believe that the importance of teaching children to respect the value of gender equality overrides the merit of such objections, even if they appeal directly to the parents’ religious rights (Macedo, 2000).
Similarly, many proposals for educational curricula are aimed at developing a measure of autonomy in children, which often involves having them achieve a certain critical distance from their family background, with its traditions, beliefs, and ways of life (Callan, 1997; Brighouse, 2000). The idea is that only then can children autonomously choose a way of life for themselves, free of undue influence of upbringing and custom. A related argument holds that this critical distance will allow children to develop a sufficient sense of respect for different social groups, a respect that is necessary for the practice of democratic citizenship. However, this critical distance is antithetical to authentic religious commitment, at least on some accounts (see the following section). Also, religious parents typically wish to pass on their faith to their children, and doing so involves cultivating religious devotion through practices and rituals, rather than presenting their faith as just one among many equally good (or true) ones. For such parents, passing on their religious faith is central to good parenting, and in this respect it does not differ from passing on good moral values, for instance. Thus, politically mandated education that is aimed at developing autonomy runs up against the right of some parents to practice their religion and the right to raise their children as they choose. Many, though not all, liberals argue that autonomy is such an important good that its promotion justifies using techniques that make it harder for such parents to pass on their faith—such a result is an unfortunate side-effect of a desirable or necessary policy.
Yet a different source of political conflict for religious students in recent years concerns the teaching of evolution in science classes. Some religious parents of children in public schools see the teaching of evolution as a direct threat to their faith, insofar as it implies the falsity of their biblical-literalist understanding of the origins of life. They argue that it is unfair to expect them to expose their children to teaching that directly challenges their religion (and to fund it with their taxes). Among these parents, some want schools to include discussions of intelligent design and creationism (some who write on this issue see intelligent design and creationism as conceptually distinct positions; others see no significant difference between them), while others would be content if schools skirted the issue altogether, refusing to teach anything at all about the origin of life or the evolution of species. Their opponents see the former proposal as an attempt to introduce an explicitly religious worldview into the classroom, hence one that runs afoul of the separation of church and state. Nor would they be satisfied with ignoring the issue altogether, for evolution is an integral part of the framework of modern biology and a well-established scientific theory.
Conflicts concerning religion and politics arise outside of curricular contexts, as well. For example, in France, a law was recently passed that made it illegal for students to wear clothing and adornments that are explicitly associated with a religion. This law was especially opposed by students whose religion explicitly requires them to wear particular clothing, such as a hijab or a turban. The justification given by the French government was that such a measure was necessary to honor the separation of church and state, and useful for ensuring that the French citizenry is united into a whole, rather than divided by religion. However, it is also possible to see this law as an unwarranted interference of the state in religious practice. If liberty of conscience includes not simply a right to believe what one chooses, but also to give public expression to that belief, then it seems that people should be free to wear clothing consistent with their religious beliefs.
Crucial to this discussion of the effect of public policy on religious groups is an important distinction regarding neutrality. The liberal state is supposed to remain neutral with regard to religion (as well as race, sexual orientation, physical status, age, etc.). However, as Charles Larmore points out in Patterns of Moral Complexity (1987: 42ff), there are different senses of neutrality, and some policies may fare well with respect to one sense and poorly with respect to another. In one sense, neutrality can be understood in terms of a procedure that is justified without appeal to any conception of the human good. In this sense, it is wrong for the state to intend to disadvantage one group of citizens, at least for its own sake and with respect to practices that are not otherwise unjust or politically undesirable. Thus it would be a violation of neutrality in this sense (and therefore wrong) for the state simply to outlaw the worship of Allah. Alternatively, neutrality can be understood in terms of effect. The state abides by this sense of neutrality by not taking actions whose consequences are such that some individuals or groups in society are disadvantaged in their pursuit of the good. For a state committed to neutrality thus understood, even if it were not explicitly intending to disadvantage a particular group, any such disadvantage that may result is a prima facie reason to revoke the policy that causes it. Thus, if the government requires school attendance on a religious group’s holy days, for example, and doing so makes it harder for them to practice their faith, such a requirement counts as a failure of neutrality. The attendance requirement may nevertheless be unavoidable, but as it stands, it is less than optimal. Obviously, this is a more demanding standard, for it requires the state to consider possible consequences—both short term and long term—on a wide range of social groups and then choose from those policies that do not have bad consequences (or the one that has the fewest and least bad). For most, and arguably all, societies, it is a standard that cannot feasibly be met. Consequently, most liberals argue that the state should be neutral in the first sense, but it need not be neutral in the second sense. Thus, if the institutions and practices of a basically just society make it more challenging for some religious people to preserve their ways of life, it is perhaps regrettable, but not unjust, so long as these institutions and practices are justified impartially.
3. Liberalism and Its Demands on Private Self-Understanding
In addition to examining issues of toleration and accommodation on the level of praxis, there has also been much recent work about the extent to which particular political theories themselves are acceptable or unacceptable from religious perspectives. One reason for this emphasis comes from the emergence of the school of thought known as “political liberalism.” In his book of that name, John Rawls (1996) signaled a new way of thinking about liberalism that is captured by the idea of an “overlapping consensus.” An overlapping consensus refers to reasoned agreement on principles of justice by citizens who hold a plurality of mutually exclusive comprehensive doctrines (a term that includes religious beliefs, metaphysical positions, theories of morality and of the good life, etc., and may also include beliefs such as theories of epistemic justification). Rather than requiring citizens to accept any particular comprehensive doctrine of liberalism, a theory of justice should aim at deriving principles that each citizen may reasonably accept from his or her own comprehensive doctrine. Thus, the consensus is on the principles themselves, rather than the justification for those principles, and as such the conception of justice offered is “political” rather than “metaphysical.” This view of liberal justice marked a break with Rawls’s earlier “metaphysical” liberalism as expressed in A Theory of Justice, although debate continues among commentators about just how sharp a break political liberalism is and whether or not it is an improvement over the earlier view. The aim, then, for a political conception of justice is for all reasonable citizens to be able to affirm principles of justice without having to weaken their hold on their own private comprehensive views. However, some writers have argued that this is impossible—even a “thin” political conception of justice places strains on some comprehensive doctrines, and these strains might be acute for religious citizens. One such argument comes from Eomann Callan, in his book Creating Citizens. Callan points to the role played in Rawls’ theory of “the burdens of judgment” (see Rawls, 1996: § 2): fundamentalists will not be able to accept the burdens of judgment in their private lives, because doing so requires them to view rival faiths and other beliefs as having roughly equal epistemic worth. If Rawlsian liberalism requires acceptance of the burdens of judgment, then the overlapping consensus will not include some kinds of religious citizens.
A different way that liberal citizenship might conflict with a religious person’s self-understanding is if the former requires a commitment to a kind of fallibilism while the latter requires (or at least encourages) certitude in one’s religious belief. Richard Rorty has been read as arguing for the need for liberal democratic citizens to privatize their faith (1999) and to hold their beliefs at an “ironic” distance—that is, provisionally, and with a healthy skepticism about the extent to which they decisively capture reality (1989). But this kind of irony is not possible to maintain along with authentic faith, at least as the latter is understood in many religious traditions that emphasize the importance of certitude in one’s belief and totality of one’s commitment to God.
Thus, a religious citizen could feel an acute conflict between her identity qua citizen and qua religious adherent. One way of resolving the conflict is to argue that one aspect of her identity should take priority over the other. Witness the conflict experienced by the protagonist in Sophocles’ Antigone, as she buries her brother in defiance of Creon’s decree; in doing so, she acknowledges that her religious duties supersede her civic duties, at least in that context. For many religious citizens, political authority is subservient to—and perhaps even derived from—divine authority, and therefore they see their religious commitments as taking precedence over their civic ones. On the other hand, civic republicanism has tended to view a person’s civic role as paramount because it has seen participation in politics as partly constitutive of the human good (Dagger, 1997).
In contrast to these approaches, the liberal tradition has tended to refuse to prioritize one aspect of an individual’s identity over any other, holding that it is the individual’s task to determine which is most important or significant to her; this task is often seen as the reason for the importance of personal autonomy (Kymlicka, 2002). But this tendency makes it more challenging for liberals to adjudicate conflicts between religion and politics. One possibility is for the liberal to argue that the demands of justice are prior to the pursuit of the good (which would include religious practice). If so, and if the demands of justice require one to honor duties of citizenship, then one might argue that people should not allow their religious beliefs and practices to restrict or interfere with their roles as citizens. However, not even all liberals accept the claim that justice is prior to the good, nor is it a settled issue in the literature on political obligation that norms of justice can successfully ground universal duties of citizenship (see “The Obligation to Obey Law” and “Political Obligation”).
4. Religious Reasons in Public Deliberation
One recent trend in democratic theory is an emphasis on the need for democratic decisions to emerge from processes that are informed by deliberation on the part of the citizenry, rather than from a mere aggregation of preferences. As a result, there has been much attention devoted to the kinds of reasons that may or may not be appropriate for public deliberation in a pluralistic society. While responses to this issue have made reference to all kinds of beliefs, much of the discussion has centered on religious beliefs. One reason for this emphasis is that, both historically and in contemporary societies, religion has played a central role in political life, and often it has done so for the worse (witness the wars of religion in Europe that came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, for example). As such, it is a powerful political force, and it strikes many who write about this issue as a source of social instability and repression. Another reason is that, due to the nature of religious belief itself, if any kind of belief is inappropriate for public deliberation, then religious beliefs will be the prime candidate, either because they are irrational, or immune to critique, or unverifiable, etc. In other words, religion provides a useful test case in evaluating theories of public deliberation.
Much of the literature in this area has been prompted by Rawls’ development of his notion of public reason, which he introduced in Political Liberalism and offered (in somewhat revised form) in his essay “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” His view is not as clearly expressed as one would wish, and it evolved after the publication of Political Liberalism, but the idea is something like this: when reasonable citizens engage in public deliberation on constitutional essentials, they must do so by offering reasons that do not appeal to any comprehensive doctrine. Since citizens have sharp disagreements on comprehensive doctrines, any law or policy that necessarily depends on such a doctrine could not be reasonably accepted by those who reject the doctrine. A prime example of a justification for a law that is publicly inaccessible in this way is one that is explicitly religious. For example, if the rationale for a law that outlawed working on Sunday was simply that it displeases the Christian God, non-Christians could not reasonably accept it.
Rawls makes important exceptions to this norm of public discourse, and he seems to have gradually softened its requirements somewhat as he developed his views on public reason, but his intention was to ensure that democratic outcomes could be reasonably accepted by all citizens, and even in his theory’s latest manifestations he seemed to view “public” reasons as those which could reasonably be accepted by everyone rather than explicitly drawing on comprehensive views.