The politics of religious freedom:

Varieties of religious freedom and governance

posted by Robert Hefner

As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s and Saba Mahmood’s earlier contributions to this discussion remind us, the received wisdom in Western policy circles today emphasizes the necessary synergy between democracy and religious freedom. What I wish to suggest in my remarks here is not that this characterization is wrong, but that it is sociologically too simple, and that the oversimplification can result in ill-conceived prescriptions for pluralist religious freedom. The relationship postulated in the received model overlooks the fact that, even in the West, the slow consolidation of electoral democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries co-evolved with, not one, but a variety of regimes for religious governance. Moreover, until the great secularizing surge of the mid- to late twentieth century, most of Western Europe’s regimes of religious governance were not liberal in the political-philosophical sense of the term; indeed, many are still not today. Rather than religious freedom being a sine qua non of modern democratic politics, then, religious governance in Western Europe appears to have been structurally underdetermined and plural in form.

Our appreciation of the more complex history of religious governance in the West does not necessarily refute the normative importance of religious freedom in contemporary debates about religion and democracy. Indeed, as I hope will be clear in the following remarks, I personally endorse such efforts, at least where—as is the case in significant portions of the global south today—they resonate with the aspirations and circumstances of local actors. To understand such resonances as well as the alterities and resistances that ideas of religious freedom may encounter, it behooves us to deepen our understanding of the genealogy of democracy and religious freedom in the West. I do so here by way of three brief points.

The first is that democratization in the modern West did not give rise to a stable and universally valid practice of religious liberty, but a variety of governance regimes that, in most countries, secured religious freedom for some faith communities while restricting rights and privileges for those outside the imagined national community. Second, the form religious freedom and governance took in each Western country bore the unmistakable imprint of path-dependent struggles among different religious and class coalitions, all attempting to project their influence into the structures of religious governance. Third, the resulting varieties of religious governance seen in the modern West remind us that the practice of religious freedom was never the result of some unitary principle or hegemonic discourse, liberal or otherwise. Inasmuch as this is the case, those interested today in promoting—or critiquing—efforts to develop a more inclusive practice of religious citizenship in the world would do well to direct their attention to not just abstract principles of individual autonomy, but also to the situated practices, coalitions, and balances-of-social-power that ultimately determine which among the several varieties of religious governance are likely to prevail.

Behind my comments is a general reservation with regard to current debates on religious freedom. There is a tendency among proponents and critics of liberal freedom alike to over-intellectualize and homogenize the genealogy of religious freedom in the modern West. This simplification results in part from a tendency to conflate philosophical genealogies of religious freedom with a more comprehensive sociology of the real-and-existing varieties of religious governance. Although philosophies of religious freedom offer insights into the ways in which human rights and subjectivity were imagined and rationalized by intellectual elites, the struggles that gave rise to different systems of religious governance involved a more varied assortment of actors, norms, and powers. More important yet, the individuals and groups involved in such contests came to subscribe to notions of religious freedom, where they did so at all, on grounds that had as much to do with group identities and interests, and social pacts through which both were advanced, as they did any ontological commitment to individual autonomy or the sanctity of personal belief.  All evidence suggests that there is a similar diversity of motivations and political ontologies operative among those in the global south today who have concluded that some variety of religious freedom is congruent with their own needs and aspirations, even where liberal-philosophical ideals of individual autonomy are not. In settings like these, it may be more sociologically realistic to speak of “civic pluralist” rather than just “liberal” religious freedom, so as to emphasize that individual rights here may be most effectively secured through social pacts and arrangements that recognize group identities and rights as well as philosophical liberalism’s emphasis on the autonomy of the individual.

As the sociologist David Martin pointed out more than a generation ago in his A General Theory of Secularization, and as historians of religion like Hugh McLeod or political scientists like Ahmet Kuru and Jonathan Fox have more recently underscored, there was no single pattern of confessional freedom in modern Western Europe during the long century in which electoral democracy took hold. No European democracy, including laicist France, adopted the American model of a constitutional wall of separation combined with a relatively competitive and religionized public sphere. The majority of Western European countries recognized a state religion or several state-approved religions; most still do today. Most regimes of religious governance countenanced religious education in public schools. With a few notable exceptions like France, the majority of European countries do still today, although the aims of the courses in some schools are shifting from indoctrination into a particular faith tradition to education about religions. Most European states also provided tax revenues for the maintenance of schools, houses of worship, hospitals, and religiously-based associations.

Although some European countries extended state support to several religious communities, no European country provided equal treatment for the entire array of religious communities resident within its borders. In this sense, full religious freedom for most of the modern period was not universal, but selective and circumscribed. As with Jewish communities in the late nineteenth century and Muslim communities in Europe today, the terms for admission to the ranks of state-recognized religions were usually not constitutionally specified; they were instead the contingent result of social struggles and political pacts among representatives of different religious and class coalitions.

Today some supporters of religious freedom might be tempted to dismiss these examples as illiberal and undemocratic, and leave the matter there. But my point is simpler: these and other examples demonstrate that the history of democratization is not the story of the progressive maximization of any single democratic value, whether the autonomy of the individual or some other, but an evolving balance among several, sometimes discordant, public ethical values, along with the social groupings who served as their carriers. The history of religious governance in modern Europe’s consociational democracies, like the Netherlands and Belgium, illustrates this point with particular clarity.

Until the 1960s, the Netherlands—a laboratory for many Western ideas on republican freedom and economic liberalism—had a political and religious system organized around guaranteed group representation by way of what were known as religious “pillars” (verzuilingen). This arrangement was the pacted framework within which democratization in the modern Netherlands emerged, and it was premised on a more communitarian notion of citizenship than acknowledged in Atlantic liberal models of democracy. The pillars were vertical social structures based on the Netherlands’ four major ethico-religious groupings: Roman Catholics, orthodox Protestants, Reformed Protestants, and secular humanists. Since the 1990s, efforts have been made, still not fully successful, to secure state recognition for a fifth pillar, the growing community of Dutch Muslims.

In their heyday, the pillars were social and not ecclesiastical organizations, governed by a non-clerical administrative board. Established in the aftermath of the nineteenth century’s struggles among Dutch religious communities and secular humanists, pillar administration provided state funds for religious education, hospitals, and other social services. Even labor unions were organized in a pillarized way. Although regarded as prerequisites for the democratic peace, the pillars were controlled by leaders in a way that was, as the Dutch sociologist Anton Zijderveld once put it, “rather authoritarian and elitist,” even if allowing a “remarkable social and political pacification.” Civic peace and religious freedom were thereby secured by way of mechanisms that were as much vertical and communitarian as they were liberal.

The point of this comparison is not to suggest that religious governance in Dutch society was somehow an exception to the Western liberal rule. On the contrary, the consociational example is interesting because it makes more salient processes and tensions endemic to democratization and religious governance across all of Europe from the mid-nineteenth century to today. Even as electoral democracy was being established, the emerging system of religious governance had as much or even more to do with group rights and elite pacts as it did any foundational commitment to individual autonomy. The precise balance of religious rights and exclusions also showed the imprint of nationally-specific cultures, struggles, and compromises. One could say that the history of religious freedom in the modern West looks very different when seen from the perspective of mundane struggles over religious education and finance rather than, say, liberal philosophers’ political ontologies.

It is also useful to make comparisons like these because the situations they evoke are far closer in organization and political dynamic to the religious landscapes in much of today’s global south. In matters of religion and governance, of course, there is no single “global south” or “new majority.”  The religious and political heritage varies greatly in different countries and regions. What is similar between parts of the global south and modern Europe, however, is the way in which the heightened mobility and plurality of people, goods, and ideas have given rise to new religious and ethical movements and, with them, calls for regimes of religious governance capable of accommodating the new plurality. Just as was and is still the case in the West, the precise form of these appeals has varied. In countries where national identity has long been fused with a more-or-less established religious community whose borders are policed by well-entrenched elites, pluralism and religious freedom, even in a consociational form, may appear or be portrayed as intrusive and inauthentic.  Elsewhere, as in parts of sub-Saharan Africa or East-Southeast Asia, the relative weakness of a hegemonic world religion may create a more open and competitive religious market. Even here, however, the task of scaling up from religious diversity to a public ethical and legal framework that explicitly embraces such plurality is anything but guaranteed, dependent as it is on the passions and interests of different religious and class groupings.

The implications of this analysis for proponents of religious freedom are by no means dire, but they are cautionary. They imply that progress toward a sustainable and inclusive religious freedom depends, not only on the constitutional affirmation of principles of individual freedom, but on the creation of a public ethical culture and alliances of interest across and within ethical communities. No less important, and, again, contrary to some philosophical representations of religious freedom, the social motivations for popular support of religious freedom may have as much to do with the recognition and defense of group identities and interests as it does any self-conscious commitment to the autonomy of the individual.

Rather than a counsel of pessimism, however, this prescription is, as I understand it, quietly encouraging. It suggests that religious or—as I prefer to call it, subsuming it within a more plural and contingent ideal—civic pluralist freedom is a condition to which people in diverse societies can and will aspire because it allows them to resolve certain problems of co-existence in conditions of deep religious and ethical difference. Inasmuch as this challenge is pervasive in contemporary societies, we should not be surprised to see that many non-Western moderns rally to some variety of civic pluralist freedom. Equally important, and as has always been the case in Western democracies, even where people in different societies embrace civic pluralist freedoms, their reasons for doing so may well be based on religious ontologies more varied than those highlighted in liberal philosophy’s imaginary of autonomous individuals.

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