Faith Enters the Public Square

Book cover
Secularism and Freedom of Conscienceby By Jocelyn Maclure And Charles Taylor, Trans. by Jane Marie ToddHarvard Univ. Press. 160p $24.95

Secularism and Freedom of Conscience is a small book with a large thesis, an analysis initiated by local issues that culminates in a sweeping claim about cultural change. In 2007-8 Charles Taylor served as co-chair and Jocelyn Maclure as a member of the government of Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. “At the time of the commission’s creation, the place of religion in the public square and, in particular, of requests for accommodation based on religion had been prompting public debate in Quebec for nearly a year,” the authors write.

In the current work, Taylor and Maclure have collaborated to present a clear, compelling and common-sense analysis of the vexed issue of church and state in contemporary politics. They commend a “liberal-pluralist” approach to cultural difference.


The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution exemplifies the liberal-pluralist view of state and church: “the Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The amendment rests on two principles essential to governance in a diverse society: the moral equality of individuals and the protection of freedom of conscience. In the authors’ view, secular governance is inevitable and appropriate because there are no rational means for deciding “questions of the ultimate meaning of existence.” Since ultimate questions are subject to “the fallibility of human reason,” the state must be neutral toward belief whether religious, agnostic or atheistic.

States that accept moral pluralism are labeled by the authors as “regimes of secularism.”

They are not, for all that, morally vacuous; they rest on “constitutive values”: human dignity, basic human rights and popular sovereignty that all citizens must accept. It makes no difference whether we accept these constitutive values because we are all children of God, Kantian rational beings or practitioners of Buddhist nonviolence.

Regimes of secularism differ in practice according to the relative weight given either to “moral equality” or “freedom of conscience.” Rigid secularism tends to restrict free exercise of religion; open secularism gives greater weight to freedom of conscience. Liberal-pluralist governance is based on open secularism and so is more flexible in its interpretation of separation of church and state. Britain, for instance, has an established church but in specific law and practice is an open secular regime. A rigid secular regime will be wary of any confusion in the public mind between religion and the state. For example, in the United States constitutional challenges have been mounted against “in God we trust” on coinage as a violation of the establishment clause.

Liberal-pluralist polity seeks to “balance” moral equality and freedom of conscience. Can a Muslim woman wear a hijab if she is a teacher? Does the prominence of this religious symbol suggest that non-Muslim students are second class? If the teacher is not allowed to wear the hijab, does that not violate her right to the exercise of her religious beliefs? The fact that France and Germany, facing this issue, have adopted opposing policies becomes a case in point for the authors, showing the difficulty of applying a once-and-for-all solution to the balance between equality and conscience. It is also a caution against what they label “the fetishism of means,” by which a specific policy or practice is elevated to the status of a constitutional demand.

Why should “religious” belief have any special claim for accommodation? How far must the state go to accommodate special beliefs and practices of a religious faith or, for that matter, any deeply held moral conviction whether religious or not? What, after all, is the difference between “belief” and personal preference? Is regime neutrality even possible? Doesn’t a secular regime make it more difficult for some religious or moral commitments to be expressed?

Maclure and Taylor offer thoughtful answers to these questions. Why do religious beliefs call specially for accommodation? Because they are the individual’s sincerely held governing moral principles. Sincere belief can be accommodated without adhering to any formal religion. Committed pacifism absent religious backing has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a ground for conscientious objector status. Personal preference, on the other hand, is rejected for accommodation because it is peripheral to the person’s deepest moral principles. You may be excused from work for religious holy days but not to pursue a personal passion, even one as worthy as playing the piano.

Regimes of secularism do, in fact, make it more difficult for some religious and moral practices. Countries need a common calendar, and that calendar in the West reflects Christian history. Accommodation is therefore limited for holy days in Jewish or Muslim calendars. Perfect “neutrality” is not possible for open secularism. “Perfect” neutrality is an illusion only of a rigid secularism where secularity becomes, as it were, established “civil religion.”

American readers familiar with the Constitution’s “separation of church and state” will be comfortable with the authors’ commending liberal-pluralist regimes of secularism. Catholic readers, however, may need to ponder the grand historical conclusion that underlies Maclure and Taylor’s justification of secularism.

The evolution of contemporary democratic societies suggests that it is time to reconceptualize the meaning and ends of secularism. From the age of Saint Augustine to the modern period, the relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers was foremost, but the challenges of the present era are of a different nature.

Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) expressed the older clash of spiritual and temporal. Error 55: “The church ought to be separated from the state, and the state from the church.” When the Second Vatican Council supported religious liberty, it seems to have accepted the contention that “the challenges of the present era are of a different nature” than expressed in the Syllabus.

Comfortable as Catholics may be with the political wisdom of “the separation of state and church,” the fundamental philosophical claims of Maclure and Taylor should raise serious issues about how Catholicism presents itself within the age of secular modernity—a subject that Taylor has explored at length in his magisterial A Secular Age. If secularism must be reconceptualized, what should one make of the rather common Catholic polemic against secularism? The authors assert that open secularism accepts “the fallibility of human reason,” the assumption that there are no rational means for deciding “questions of the ultimate meaning of existence.” Lacking rational means for deciding the ultimate meaning of existence, how should one understand Catholic teaching when it enters the public square? Advancing the “truths of faith” in a secular age cannot be as straightforward and certain as Catholic pronouncements often appear. Unless these problems are addressed, modern secularism will, on principle, turn a deaf ear to faith.

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Christopher Rushlau
5 years 7 months ago
This is a rather upsetting essay.  It is hard to pick out the authors' thesis from that of the reviewer, and saying so assumes that each only had one.  If law is about sorting out matters, we have problems from the start here.  I will mention two difficulties here, and then try to suggest a way forward.

At the end, O'Brien says that institutions of "ultimate meaning" will have a hard time defining objects of faith (if I may use that term) in a rational age (ditto).  Why should their difficulty make government responsible (even culpable?) for "turning a deaf ear to faith"?  Is government supposed to help them define objects of faith, such as by adopting what are judged to be those of the majority, as we do with religious holidays?

Back at the beginning, I distrust the pair of values to be "balanced".  I'm not sure if the terms offered in quotation marks ("moral equality" and "freedom of conscience") come from the book under review.  I don't think these values can be placed on the same level of abstraction.  I cannot conceive of a legal system that does not embrace "moral equality".  Even if a state judges that right-handed persons should receive a financial stipend, it must either explain to left-handed persons how this is not invidious discrimination or compensate them in some other way.  So the topic today seems to be a uni-dimensional problem of "freedom of conscience":  how "thick a skin" (to cite the old verity) must a citizen have in tolerating religious symbols and practices not her own?

Not having found a clear argument here I may speculate.  O'Brien would like the Catholic Church to find a way to make its faith objects more rational and hence less irritatingly provincial to citizens who cherish other symbols and rituals.

Karl Rahner, SJ, would find much grist for his (deceased) mill in the reviewer's sentence, 'The authors assert that open secularism accepts “the fallibility of human reason,” the assumption that there are no rational means for deciding “questions of the ultimate meaning of existence.”'  I'm not sorry to recommend Rahner's scholarship once again here, because he is the "only game in town" on this issue (as his famous term, "anonymous Christianity" might make immediately evident). He states that there can be no "categorical" knowledge of God, apparently in line with Aquinas.  Well, then, can we draw the line between the mundane and the ultimate?  What happens in religous observances that does not happen in piano-playing (assuming holidays are not sheer historical accretion)? 

Rahner would say two things here, or I will, at any rate.  One is that human reason is fallible in relation to earthly matters in one way and divine matters in another.  The latter is already referred to:  the problem of objectifying God.  In mundane things, sensory data can be deliberately misconstrued, as in the case of racism.  It is one's "fear of God", ultimately, that leads one to heed the evidence of one's senses.  "The judgment of history on error is death," OW Holmes said somewhere.  So anything a social order can do to cultivate respect for the dignity of the senses, as opposed to floating abstractions of uncertain application as legal axioms (such as "Global War On Terror"), will preserve that culture of "ultimate meaning" which makes "ultimate" carry its weight as a term:  evincing a respect for common things.  I might call this here-and-now-ism, a respect for the present age (seculum).  Earthly appearances are not merely a ruse of "ultimate meaning" which itself is altogether hidden to the senses.  That anti-Gnosticism, as it were, would be the state's job.  As an economics professor who'd gone to law school suggested to me, a stop sign is an excellent example of a legal institution.

The institutions of "ultimate meaning", on the other hand, would do all they could (to perhaps pick up on the reviewer's rhetorical goal here) to make apparent the relevance of their "ultimate meaning" to secular affairs:  in a word, sensible.  The less the Catholic Church seeks to cultivate, in the words of the old canard, "pie in the sky by and by" as the content of the life of faith, the less resistance it will likely find from the state in deciding the proper thick-skinnedness of the public as to Catholic practices, because the state will get more back on its investment in here-and-now-ism (secularism).  If the Church said, as Rahner did, that heaven cannot be imagined (he said it would be intolerable to go on for thousands or millions of years in the life we knew here, leaving the beatific vision, God face to face, as the content of heaven in all its incomprehensibility) much less delivered on a platter, that on such matters we are rightly called to trust in God given the trustworthiness of God in visible matters (such as making the sun stay within its proper course and making conscience work as well as it does when we actually use it), then we would find in the Church an exhortation on the dignities and duties of conscience that shepherds us to find not just plentiful evidence but sufficient proof for belief in a God of love and justice.  Given, that is, one's desire to believe.

That might define the dividing line between church and state.  A state cannot require faith, but must deliver facts on the barrelhead, like putting a stop sign where it is needed and then enforcing its commands, explicit and implicit ("stop," yes, but then, too, "look, and proceed if you reasonably judge it safe to do so, subject to being overruled by a court of due process").  There can be no effective explicit reliance by the state on "ultimate meaning" (like blessing you with holy oil before drawing and quartering you for heresy?), but all reliance, on the other hand, is properly placed by the state on people's fearing God as the beginning of wisdom, as it were:  heeding their senses and drawing reasonable conclusions.  For its part, a church that does not require a faith decision, but rather seeks to supply "everything you need to know" about everything, may be functioning as a state within a state, but it is not functioning as any sort of help to the citizens of the actual, proper state. 

It turns out, lo, down these many eons, that we need a lot of exhortation to get us to heed the evidence of our senses, via coming to believe in the God whose creative power, if it manifests itself irrefutably in any particular act, provides us with senses and the freedom to use or abuse them: as opposed to God's Pesonally springing out at us from behind the bushes and yelling, "booh!" (although God does that on occasion, too, but generally, and this is an unstated premise for all law, we need and enjoy "mandates of reason).
Thomas Farrell
5 years 7 months ago

When I read Dennis O’Brien’s opening sentence, I was prompted to be alert and look for “a large thesis” and “a sweeping claim about cultural change.” I clearly expected the large thesis to be a sweeping claim about cultural change.

In the third paragraph, O’Brien says, “In the authors’ view, secular governance is inevitable and appropriate because there are no [widely agreed upon] rational means for deciding ‘questions of the ultimate meaning of existence.’”

At first, I thought that this sentence was the large thesis that makes a sweeping claim about cultural change. But I kept reading.

O’Brien also tells us that the authors refer to regimes of secularism in the cases in which the states accept moral pluralism. So let’s see if I understand this point.

Here’s my paraphrase of the point. In regimes of secularism, there will be laws that govern certain behavior. But the laws do not govern other forms of behavior. Other forms of behavior should be governed, if at all, by each individual person’s personal morality. For example, certain persons may prefer to follow deontological moral theory as a way to form and guide their consciences.

However, conservative Catholics, for example, may prefer to follow the Catholic tradition of so-called “natural law” moral theory regarding sexual morality. However, what happens when conservative Catholics believe their favored moral theory really is the “natural law” that everybody should follow, not just conservative Catholics?

So is my paraphrase on the right track? Do I understand O’Brien’s account of what the authors say about regimes of secularism?

I kept reading. Later in O’Brien’s review, I read, “Catholic readers, however, may need to ponder the grand historical conclusion that underlies Maclure and Taylor’s justification of secularism.” Oh my, the wording here about “the grand historical conclusion” reminds me of the wording in the opening sentence about “a sweeping claim about cultural change.” So I guess that I need to revise my guess about the sentence I quoted above that I took to be the large thesis that makes a sweeping claim about cultural change.

So here’s the sentence that O’Brien quotes as “the grand historical conclusion that underlies Maclure and Taylor’s justification of secularism” (i.e., regimes of secularism):

“The evolution of democratic societies suggests that it is time to reconceptualize the meaning and ends of secularism. [But who exactly needs to undertake this task of reconceptualizing? Do Catholics, for example, need to undertake this task?] From the age of Saint Augustine to the modern period, the relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers was foremost [in Western culture], but the challenges of the present era are of a different nature.”

So there were relationships between the temporal powers and the spiritual powers in Western culture. I think I understand this. Let me try to paraphrase the point. In pre-modern times in Western culture, the spiritual powers were not the temporal powers, but the spiritual powers usually claimed that the temporal powers were somehow subordinate to the spiritual powers. However, in modern times, the spiritual powers are not the temporal powers, nor are the temporal powers (i.e., regimes of secularism) somehow subordinate to the spiritual powers. Sp is my paraphrase accurate?

Now, if this is supposedly the grand historical conclusion that Maclure and Taylor work with, then I have to tell you that their grand historical conclusion is parallel with and highly compatible with the grand historical thesis that I work with in my article “The West Versus the Rest: Getting Our Cultural Bearings from Walter J. Ong” in the journal EME: EXPLORATIONS IN MEDIA ECOLOGY, volume 7, number 4 (2008): pages 271-282.

In the last paragraph, O’Brien raises an intriguing question: “If secularism must be reconceptualized [by the Catholic Church?], what should one make of the rather common Catholic polemic against secularism?” But isn’t this rather common Catholic polemic against secularism aimed at secular culture and values, but not necessarily at regimes of secularism (i.e., state governments)?

Ah, but O’Brien then asks, “how should one understand Catholic teaching when it enters the public square?”


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