The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.
Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’
Without pointing out those places where I agree with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I would like to add a qualification to his claim that the modern Western world is correctly described as “hyperpluralistic.” The term “hyperpluralism” is sometimes used in socio-political discourse to refer to the fragmentation of political interest groups and the resulting challenges associated with forming coalitions. Gregory, however, often writes about “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose.” He thus uses the term in a more general sense, which includes moral, philosophical, cultural, political and theological aspects.
Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.
The Transatlantic Academy is seeking candidates to serve as resident Fellows from September 2014-June 2015 to examine the research theme, Religion and the Liberal Order.
I want to start with a paradox. In the secular age, as Charles Taylor has amply illustrated, religious belief no longer structures our social imaginary. Instead, it has become one option, one possibility, among others: one of the ways in which we give meaning to our lives. The secular age, then, is characterised by the fact of pluralism—an irreducible pluralism of beliefs, values, commitments. Yet we secular moderns also give special primacy to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is standardly presented as the archetypical liberal right. So the paradox is this: how (and why) do we protect freedom of religion in an age where religion is not special?
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 collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of seventy years of anti-religious policies—of a period in which religious expression was severely curtailed and religious institutions were always controlled, at times co-opted, and at other times brutally repressed, with the aim of effecting the demise of religion, an aim which was never fully realized. The post-1991 era was radically different, at least in those newly independent countries that adopted and implemented liberal laws regarding religious expression and organization. It might be expected that religious leaders and practitioners would have a straightforwardly positive view of this widening scope for religious activities, but this turned out not always to be the case.
It is hard to remember, but religious pluralism meant something quite different fifty years ago. We have, I would argue, so shifted our collective understanding of religious pluralism, and this transformation has been so naturalized, that we have little common conception that this shift even happened and much less sense of its consequences.