Should liberal politics accommodate religious faith?
You can interpret the title of this piece in two ways; the first interpretation being that religious faith must be represented unequivocally within politics. This viewpoint creates a situation where the laws, morals and rules believed by the faithful to be the indubitable exigencies their chosen deity requires from all human beings are able to potentially define, influence and enforce dogmata on all citizens from within the political sphere. The second interpretation is within a metaphorical liberality where accommodate is defined as settling a difference of opinion in a way that is acceptable to everyone.
Religious beliefs have been and continue to be sustained in isolation from the world of actualities within historical and contemporary societies, they are a collection of ambiguous theories that do not require the establishment of proof or the presentation of fact nor do they require the religious advocate to seek to provide substantiation. To the faithful, their faith is the defining factor of their system of religious beliefs and to the irreligious individual faith is the excuse for a complete lack of corroborative evidence. Religion is not liberal it is in fact quite the opposite but this does not instantly bar religious faith from inclusion within liberal politics as that would be against the principal of liberalism.
If liberal politics lends itself to the interpretation of politics based on pure liberalism of, being pro-freedom of expression and pro-democracy, democracy defined solely by majority vote then this essay would end now. Pure liberalism lends itself to infiltration by those with an agenda be it the racist or religious zealot this leads to gradual perversion of the systems of government before ultimately being in a position to be dominated. For the purpose of discussion and clarity and not as credence of this being the prototypical liberal model, I will use the example of western representative democracies when talking about liberal politics.
In his work, A Theory of Justice John Rawls outlined his idea establishing how using the completely theoretical situation where justice is being defined by people without social, political and religious prejudices or any sense of self interest; all human beings can reach common agreement on human rights. This of course offers up an instant contradiction as it casts aside all potential prejudices with the exception of a belief in secular liberalism. I would argue it could also be interpreted on first reading to describe a human being stripped of its humanity just as easily as the author considered it descriptive of the perfect situation from which to formulate the laws by which humans interact. Rawls (1973) states “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conception of the good or their special psychological propensities.” Writer Ben Rogers identifies that in his later articles Rawls realises the inconsistency within his theory. Rogers (1999) states “The main concern of Rawls’s later work is to argue that this in itself should not undermine the liberal project. Instead, we need to recast liberalism as a strictly political creed – one which appeals not to contentious views about God, morality or the person, but to the less contestable values of reciprocity, fairness and mutual respect.” Here for me is the defining point that identifies how religious faith is represented and the right to believe protected only by the direct exclusion of religion from decision making within liberal politics. This position of apparent exclusion does not in actuality exclude as it does not prevent a religious person from attaining political office neither does it prevent them from representing their views rooted in religion. The abortion debate in America conjures contrasting arguments fortified with passion and anger all vying for acceptance this includes the secular view and the beliefs of those of religious faith and those seeking to use arguments to their own ends. Obama (2006) states “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths.” Translation of singular ideas into liberal ideas is the key here because without it how for instance could you argue a point or expect support from a person like myself with no belief in the supernatural if your argument is purely verbatim quotes of religious texts. Religion and liberal politics are highly incompatible in my opinion, take for instance the view of many religions that god not birth control should govern how many children you have. The growing overpopulation of the world and depletion of resources as a result is undeniable yet I have never heard a politician reference the subject, which can only be because there are those to whom it would be seen as an attack on traditions relating to religion. This correlates to the US abortion debate with arguments that are not always uniquely about the primary assertion. Many Americans regard subjects like abortion as indicative of a decline in a certain shared identity that comes inclusive with an expectance of moral compliance. Luker (1984) states “First, there is the decline in religious commitment, which they feel keenly. But, second, they are also talking about a decline of a common community, a collective sense of what is right and wrong. From their viewpoint, once morality is no longer codified in some central set of rules that all accept and that finds its ultimate justification in the belief in a Supreme Being, then morality becomes a variation of ‘do your own thing.’” The problem with a requirement for shared identity and values rooted in religion or race is that it becomes exclusive and anything but liberal, you fit in with our definition of a citizen or you become an untrustworthy antagonist and a danger to society.
During the French riots of 2005, it became apparent that one of the main causes had its origins in the restricted view of the French shared identity and the idea that everyone regardless of heritage should adopt the identity of an atypical French person. The idea of a shared identity is insulting if circumstances of wealth and geographical location dictate facing life from the fringes of society within the realm of the socially excluded. Metaphorical fingers were quick to find reasons for the riots’ Islamic extremists, career criminals, French colonial attitudes towards émigré and the unwillingness of immigrants to integrate. The Union of Islamic Organizations of France issued a fatwa during the disturbances forbidding Muslims from rioting, causing damage or endangering life. Issuing this declaration from a position external to French politics removes to some degree the ability of those with opposing viewpoints from issuing accusations of collusion between the rioters and Muslim organizations. If a religious political party had issued the fatwa then I am sure a claim would have been made of collusion in creating the riots to be lauded as the only party capable of stopping the riots and the accusation in these circumstances would be hard to disprove. According to many who blame religious extremism for the riots and those opposed who blame the government the entire demographic of the areas that suffered rioting was Muslim or the second and third generation offspring of immigrant families from Muslim principalities. Cesari (2005) states “In effect, these young people are victims of the ‘post-colonial syndrome,’ in which an Arab or Muslim background becomes a symbol overdetermined with all the negative imagery built up over decades of colonialism. In this way, social marginalization is also consistently reinforced by cultural inequality” Here religion in the context of background has become both the reason for the riots and the projection of misrecognition. The riots in reality appear to be about social exclusion and entrenched stereotypes and religion appears to have hijacked the issue just as surely as prejudice caused it. The riots included many people from French families that have no traceable ethnicity or people whose migrant roots are within the non-Muslim world. These people share the same conditions of impoverished social deprivation, living in the same poverty stricken areas and stigmatised with their own moniker of lawless, criminal, slacker or wastrel. Saberhan (2005) states “In the Bois-Blancs district in Lille, when the school was burned down, for the first half-hour they were all white.’ That didn’t surprise him. ‘The colour of your skin is a handicap in looking for employment, that’s true. But so is your address.” Each religion misrepresents other religions and the non-belief of the atheist alike; if a specific religion holds political power then the doctrine of the one true god one true religion excuses the exclusion of every other opinion. Identity is important and that importance is magnified if others misrepresent it and this can include religious identity but equally important are the conditions you live in and the quality and equality of life. When describing the status model of recognition Fraser (2000) states “the status model understands social justice as encompassing two analytically distinct dimensions: a dimension of recognition, which concerns the effects of institutionalized meanings and norms on the relative standing of social actors; and a dimension of distribution, which involves the allocation of disposable resources to social actors.”
In conclusion, I would argue that liberal politics should accommodate religious faith only in as far as it accommodates every citizen’s right to have an opinion. The religious advocate should relate that opinion in terms of the physical world, the world of actualities and not the speculative ethereal realms if they wish to expound it for political inclusion. Liberal politics and liberal societies need to remove generalizations and ill formed representations of identity from the groups and individuals that make up a society. Just as extremism within religion discriminates against the non-conformist so does the formation of preconceptions of others based on stereotypes. Once you have discriminately identified a group you can also identify what resources they need and should have access to. I am Caucasian and English by birth I live in an old northern English mill town therefore I am typecast as being contented earning minimum wage and I eat a diet of low quality processed foods, I drink beer most nights per week, I enjoy racist comedians and I watch Coronation Street every night. All those statements in regards to me would be untrue although I do know others who do actually fit this stereotype but you cannot excuse the generalisation or the implied need for access to fewer resources because some may fit your profile.
© chronic-oldham (2013)
Cesari, J. (2005) ‘Ethnicity, Islam, and les banlieues’, http://riotsfrance.ssrc.org/Cesari/pf/ (accessed 30 November).
Fraser, N. (2000) ‘Rethinking recognition’, New Left Review, no. 3 (May/June), pp. 107-20.
Luker, K. (1984) Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, pp. 186-91.
Obama, B. (2006) extract from ‘The audacity of hope’, Sunday Times, 5 November 2006, p. 37.
Rawls, J. (1973) A Theory of Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 11-16.
Rogers, B. (1999) ‘Portrait, John Rawls’, Prospect, issue 42, pp. 50-5.
Saberan, H. (2005) ‘French “White” Rioters’. ‘Dans le Nord, au tribunal, des émeutiers loin des clichés. Des jeunes Blancs issus de milieux défavorisés comparaissent devant la justice’, Libération, 18 November.