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.