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.