Who Goes Too Far? Secularist or Libertarian?

From Linda Woodhead:

Who could have imagined that a court in Cologne would, this year, rule the ancient and sacred practice of male circumcision illegal, or that the previous year the European court of human rights (ECHR) wouldoverturn its earlier ruling that crucifixes should not be displayed in state schools? The see-sawing nature of such judgments about religious freedom suggests something is going seriously wrong in the way the whole issue is being approached.

American commentators think they know what it is – the chickens of European secularism are coming home to roost. Marginalise religion, install secular elites and what do you get? A new secular intolerance to match Europe’s old religious intolerance. Bans on headscarves and minarets strike Americans as egregious. Such things could never happen in the US, with its more robust tradition of respect for religious freedom.

Martha Nussbaum is the doyenne of this approach. Free exercise of religion is essential, she argues, because a person’s religion is essential to their identity. To deny someone the right to live by their conscience is what the 17th-century pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams called “soule rape”. The only possible reason for restricting religious freedom is when it violates civil law or harms others.

This libertarian approach contrasts starkly with the secularist approach more common in Europe, according to which individuals should be free to express their religion in the privacy of their own homes, churches or temples – but not in public. Hence the restrictions in some countries on the display of religious symbols in public places – whether burqas on the streets of France or minarets on the skyline of Switzerland. Some leading political thinkers, including Jürgen Habermas before he revised his view, would even restrict the use of religious reasons in political debate, arguing that only “universal” secular reason is appropriate in public….

When they take their approaches to their logical conclusion, then, both the libertarian and secularist positions go too far. One pushes individual liberty, and sometimes group autonomy, so hard that it denies state and society any space at all. The other pushes state and society so hard that it denies any space for individual liberty or group self-determination. In that sense, they are mirror opposites. But in another way they both make the same mistake, for they are equally careless of democracy. Libertarians deny the legitimate claims of democratic decision-making, while secularists forget that democracies include religious people as well as secular ones, and that genuine democracy tries to balance competing interests rather than impose a single norm.

So the libertarians are surely right that you can have exceptions without the sky falling in. But they forget that submitting yourself to the democratic will when you don’t agree can be a matter of humility, as well as humiliation.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Scott Gay

    Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, responded to a blasphemous theatrical presentation in Paris by asking outraged Christians to protest by laying a white rose in front of the theater, then coming to Notre Dame cathedral to pray. There has to be wisdom on Christian’s part in actions toward individual, group, or state intrusion on their way of life. Abortion is unconsciousanable to a large group of Christians, but culture war as response? Consider the Amish in Lancaster, PA when a man murdered their children at school.

  • Joe Canner

    Along these same lines, Richard Stearns (president of World Vision), has an excellent article at HuffPo regarding the changing landscape of religious freedom, particularly as it relates to religious symbols. He says:

    While symbols can be important, we have focused perhaps too much on them instead of the underlying reality they reflect. Instead, we need to go back to the basics of living as disciples of Christ, living missionally for Christ and demonstrating the Gospel in tangible ways within our schools, workplaces and communities. While I would be happy to see the Ten Commandments back on the courthouse wall, the fight over symbolic issues is backfiring, alienating people from the truths of the gospel rather than attracting them to it. The kind of Christianity the world responds to is the authentic “love your neighbor” kind. Its appeal can’t be legislated through court battles and neither can courts stop its spread.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    It’s impossible to choose one side or the other as objectively better. That’s the problem with the concept of “Government” to begin with. To broadly apply any one approach to justice will ALWAYS fail to bring justice or all. Justice is not Left, Right, or even Middle and can only be carried out perfectly in a moment by moment application of Love to the person next to you. There is no idea government because government, by definition, seeks justice by means of the sword, not by Grace.

    Such is life…

  • http://timdedeaux.com Tim Dedeaux

    I come from Mississippi, where the democratic process has been more often used to defeat liberty than to preserve it.

    The democratic process preserved slavery. It took a brutal, savage war to end it.

    The democratic process upheld segregation and Jim Crow until court decisions and demonstrations overturned it.

    Entrusting essential civil rights to the whims of the majority is a recipe for oppression and disaster.

  • phil_style

    @Tim Dedeaux,
    Entrusting essential civil rights to the whims of the majority is a recipe for oppression and disaster.

    Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
    - Franklin ;)

    (although I disagree with his opinion that liberty requires a well-armed lamb).

  • kierkegaard71

    The libertarianism described in this article is not some fringe concept – it is more descriptive of the basic idea of liberty, as historically put forth (free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.). The author describes both “libertarianism”/liberty and “secularism” while just presenting the extreme of “secularism”. I suppose the extremes of “libertarianism” would be handing out Bibles in a public park, having an evangelistic rally in a coliseum, or protesting at an abortion clinic – all very “dangerous” activities in a pluralistic society. All this to say, I find that “secularism” goes too far, in that it is trying to aggressively stamp out the traditional notions of basic human liberty.

  • Mike M

    Democracy is way over-rated anyway. We’re a Republic just because “majority rules” leads to just those abuses outlined above. And our penchant for “saving the world for democracy” leads to preventive wars in foreign countries that end up being ruled by the majority who may be worse than those we helped depose.


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