There are many versions of liberalism, but it would be uncontroversial to say that they agree in placing a premium on individual liberty. As a political paradigm, liberalism is committed to protecting the freedom of persons to live and think as they choose without interference from the state, provided they do no harm to others. This fundamental commitment underlies the classical liberal arguments for religious liberty and toleration articulated by John Locke and J. S. Mill. It forms the basis for legal provisions guaranteeing freedom of religious belief, worship, and expression in liberal democratic nations, as well as the principle of non-establishment, which prohibits the state from favoring any religion or from favoring religion over nonbelief. The formulation of these two principles, religious freedom and nonestablishment, requires that the spheres of the secular and the sacred be distinguished in order to institute a particular relation between them. Questions have been raised about the validity and universality of this distinction, as well as its implications for the place of religion within political life. In contemporary political theory, the topic of public reason has been especially prominent, the point of contention being whether and how religious discourse may be allowed in political reasoning. Balancing religious freedom against other fundamental liberal rights poses another difficulty in cases where the beliefs and practices of religious individuals and communities come into conflict with general laws or compromise equality, another central liberal value. Sometimes social and political judgments about such cases seem to apply a double standard to the religious practices of certain minorities, moreover, and to reflect an element of cultural racism. This is arguably true of attitudes and decisions in Western countries regarding the hijab and other types of veils worn by Muslim women. Applying liberal principles for regulating religion in a fashion that is genuinely neutral and impartial remains a challenge. Indeed, some argue that there is no way of defining “religion” for the requisite purposes without privileging certain forms of it. If so, liberal efforts to protect religious freedom may end up enforcing varieties of religious establishment.
Recent scholarly attention to religious establishment can be understood as a response to the crisis of secularization theory and the apparent return of religion to global politics. As a category, religious establishment represents a concrete instance of the religious touching the political, which political scientists can systematically measure and analyze to qualify the nature of religion’s return to global politics. Theoretical advances in the conceptualization of religious establishment as a combination of various policies of government regulation and favoritism of religion, in addition to the creation of cross-national databases to measure these policies, has led scholars to rediscover and categorize a broad range of patterns of religious establishment across the globe. Furthermore, these advances in conceptualization and data collection have enabled scholars to produce new political science research on the relationship between religious establishment and patterns of national religious life; cross-national levels of democracy; and the probability of political violence. Several hidden threads bind much of this scholarship together, including implicit assumptions made about normative debates on the meaning of religious liberty, as well as historical patterns of state formation. By explicitly recognizing these assumptions and linking them to future research agendas, political science scholarship on religious establishment is well placed to advance debates on the contemporary role of religion in global politics.
In the previous centuries, religion had been losing its prominent role in society, but its relationship to the modern democratic state is still among the most fundamental questions of political philosophy. Secularism is commonly described with label of “the separation of Church and state,” but the idea of the state disconnectedness from religion is a much more complex a phenomenon than this term suggests. A secular state must “manage” the relationship between religion and state institutions in a way that makes religion both subject to specific disabilities and singling out for special treatment. Modern secularism has several different faces: Political secularism, economic secularism, educational secularism, ethical secularism, scientific secularism, and religious criticism are all different modes of secularism. Political secularism is the key mode among these, because it is a precondition of the pursuit of the other modes. Political secularism has three essential elements: politics, religion, and their separation. Consequently, different conceptions of secularism will provide different and rival versions of the core concept, political secularism, depending on how they define politics, religion, and separation. Secularism can refer to different levels of the state: to its ends (a theocracy is the exact opposite of a secular state in this regard); its institutions (the connectedness/disconnectedness of the state’s institutions with that of the Church); its laws/public policies (the state’s regulation of religion and religious activities); its source of legitimacy (what is the final source of the legitimacy of the state); the justification of its public policies/laws (what justification is given to state laws/public policies); the level of power and jurisdiction (whether the state is the only sovereign on its territory or sovereignty is shared with the Church); and its symbolic dimension (whether the state symbolically supports any religious groups). The function of political secularism is to prevent at least four different kinds of problems: It must protect the religious freedom of believers on its territory, and religion must be protected from politics, but the state must be also protected from religion. In addition, there is a possible problem on the symbolic level, with the state’s official endorsement of religion. Political secularism must also satisfy important normative principles. The most important of these are freedom of conscience and the principle of state neutrality. To satisfy these principles/normative requirements, the secular state must manage religion in a way that it keeps a principled distance on the aforementioned levels, but it must also protect and accommodate religion so it does not suffer unfair disadvantages. The upshot is that a secular state will be incompatible with either full religious establishment and the radical separation of Church and state—regimes that satisfy political secularism will take place somewhere between these two poles.
Nathan C. Walker
A society’s political and legal treatment of religion is a distinct indicator of the health of a democracy. Consequently, high levels of political and legal contempt for religion in the United States can be an indicator that partners in American democracy may be going through a divorce. By drawing upon studies that measure voter attitudes and behaviors, as well as research that tracks the levels of social hostilities and violence toward religion, students of democracy see into two of society’s most revealing mirrors: political rhetoric and the nation’s laws. These reflections can unveil powerful questions about the true character of a nation: will democracy rule from a place of contempt for the religious other, or from a state of passive political tolerance, or from a constitutional commitment to actively protect the rights of those with whom we disagree? Theories of political tolerance and psychological studies of contempt prove helpful in examining contemporary levels of religious animosity in politics and law. The Religious Contempt Scale, as introduced in this essay, gauges a society’s willingness to tolerate the religious other. When special attention is given to the frequency and degrees of severity of expressions of contempt, it becomes clear that contempt has political utility: to motivate the intolerant to gain access to power and, in turn, to motivate those who are intolerant of intolerance to remove them.