Stanley Fish’s Follow-Up on Religion and the Liberal State
Stanley Fish often has insightful comments to make about the state of contemporary society. His most recent NYT opinion column features a follow-up reflection that seeks to clarify what appeared to be lost on some of his readers in their responses to an earlier column. This column, “Religion and the Liberal State Once Again,” offers another try at surveying the central issues faced by religious (expression, affectivity, influence, etc.) in the public sphere of a liberal state.
Fish’s clarification of what these philosophical/political terms mean (in contrast to what some readers mistook them to mean) is succinct and helpful. Take, for example, Fish’s explanation of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism”:
First, by “liberal” and “liberalism” I do not mean, as some posters [of comments in response to last week's column] assumed, a position on the political continuum at the other end of which would be “conservative” and “conservatism.” Liberalism is the name of an enlightenment theory of government characterized by an emphasis on procedural rather than substantive rights: the law protects individual free choice and is not skewed in the direction of some choices or biased against others; the laws framed by the liberal state are, or should be, neutral between competing visions of the good and the good life; the state intervenes aggressively only when the adherents of one vision claim the right to act in ways that impinge upon the rights of others to make their own choices.
After a few responses to readers’ responses, Fish makes this remark about the pressing issue at hand; namely, what to do about “religious spill-over” from the private sphere of religious practice into the public square of political discourse and legislation.
The question is what does the liberal state do with those religious believers — the popular answer in the comments is “tell them to go back where they came from” — and my contention, and the only one I make (in agreement with John Milbank), is that the liberal state is incapable of doing anything with them except regard them, as many of the posters do, as fanatical, medieval, crazy, dictatorial and downright dangerous. As I point out, liberalism’s inability to regard strong religious claims — claims that spill out into public life — as anything but a mistake and a transgression is not something liberalism can correct or get beyond; it is the inevitable (and blameless) reflection of what liberalism is and must be if it is to sustain its particular, not to say peculiar, brand of universalism, a universalism that operates by reducing persons to formal entities, all of which are, in the essential political respect, exactly the same. (It’s universalism writ small.)
Notice Fish’s admittance to agreeing with John Milbank…interesting association. In any event, the matter is judicial in some respect. A related pressing question centers on the relationship between one’s religious belief/perspective-on-rights/practice and the legal system of a liberal state, which seeks to remain ‘objective’ or at least ‘secular’ in its legislation.
What Fish ultimately concludes is that, while many view this questionable relationship to have been resolved some decades/centuries ago, this matter remains one still hotly debated in our current day. Is there room for a plural legislation in light of an increasingly multicultural population? Should the laws of a nation be interpreted differently for those who hold different religious (cultural, social, family, etc.) beliefs?
One thing is for sure, there is no room for such a possibility in a liberal state. However, one might ask, is that form of society necessarily the best? The discussion continues.