Make Them Change Their Religion! Unmasking Civic Totalism

I’m reading some political philosophy these days and I’m coming across books that really do say that the state should be allowed to force people to change their religious beliefs. How on earth did it come to this?

In my mind, the political left is no longer characterized by a broad and inclusive platform, but by an increasingly radical social progressivism. While social progressive politicians and parties are far from monolithic, generally speaking, they are economically socialist, tend towards authoritarianism, and believe that the public good is best served by increasing government regulation of private spaces. As a consequence, many social progressives see in Christianity a moral framework that must be resisted; indeed, traditional Christianity, including its institutions, cultural influence, and moral vision, is the number one enemy that social progressives are struggling against. Christianity’s enduring legacy in western culture can only be defeated by realigning institutions towards a secularized morality, by redefining the parameters of religious freedom, by a coercive catharsis of religion itself, and by deconstructing permanent structures of human existence like family and marriage. Such a social transformation requires totalizing control over civil society in order to be effective. Thus, in the end, the social progressive vision amounts to what Stephen Macedo calls civic totalism where the plenipotentiary state is invested with all power and seeks to regulate as much of public and private life as possible.[1]

Key to civic totalism is the view that public institutions are supreme and civil society is reduced to a legal fiction where liberties are granted, modified, and revoked by the will of the state. In addition, the distinctions between public and private increasingly shrink. As a result, private life is treated as an artificial construct and it is no longer regarded as an impenetrable frontier with special privileges. For social progressives, the health of the state depends on a convergence of private and public values, requiring government to be empowered with the “ability to turn people’s deepest convictions – including their religious beliefs – in directions that are congruent with the ways of a liberal republic.”[2] Consequently religion too, within civic totalism, is regarded as dangerous since religion ascribes notions of ultimacy to something other than the state and the state’s vision of the public good. Religion creates a competing social vision and an alternative morality, which divides the loyalty of citizens away from the state’s objectives for human conduct, rendering certain forms of religion as hostile to the state’s ambitions. For Macedo, religion must be taken seriously in a liberal democracy and a regime must be protected by “a shared account of basic civic values that impose limits on what can be true in the religious sphere.”[3] It is a civic totalizing conviction as it applies to religion that led Secretary Hillary Clinton to say, in the context of a speech about women’s access to reproductive services, that “laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”[4]

[1] Stephen Macedo, Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[2] Macedo, Diversity and Distrust, p. 43.

[3] Macedo, Diversity and Distrust, p. 37.

[4] Twitchy Video, “Hillary Clinton – Religious beliefs have to be changed,” 24 April 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yj1T1gP4Q9M. Cited 23 October 2016.

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