X Close

What makes for a truly liberal State?

Credit: Getty

August 7, 2018   6 mins

Does liberalism contain the seeds of its own undoing by allowing tolerance of intolerance? Look at the growing anxiety about curbs on free speech in universities, and you might suspect that the answer is yes. Writing recently in the Times Literary Supplement, the philosopher John Gray recalled that social democrats, conservatives, liberals and Marxists once worked alongside each other in a spirit of free enquiry, despite their deep differences of outlook. Cherished orthodoxies were not unknown; sometimes dissenters had trouble getting heard.

“But visiting lecturers were rarely disinvited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to . . . end their careers. An inquisitorial culture had not yet taken over.”1

But it has now – and the shift is becoming more and more marked in politics. The secular liberal State now claims more than its due, including the right to govern a citizen’s conscience and set norms as though the government were the only force in society that mattered. In other words, the so-called liberal State isn’t liberal at all. Among other things, it needs religion to provide a crucial reminder of its limits, as well as richer visions of human flourishing with deeper foundations than the thin soil provided by a principle like ‘tolerance’ alone.

The so-called liberal State isn’t liberal at all. Among other things, it needs religion to provide a crucial reminder of its limits

The suggestion of a spiritual cure to our malaise comes from Rowan Williams, in a recent lecture on the Victorian historian Lord Acton’s thinking about political and religious liberty.2 The former Archbishop of Canterbury had a subtext. His not very coded message was that Acton, as a Catholic with a keen eye on the rights of minorities, was rolling the pitch for a classically liberal model of Church–State relations which contrasts sharply with the prescriptive models of liberalism we see today.

Given past and continuing evidence of religious authoritarianism, how can self-aware Christians, Muslims and others answer the very influential view that religion should be a purely private matter? By quarrying the thought of many forebears besides Acton, Williams has long shown a talent for reframing stale-sounding debates in fresh ways. As archbishop, for example, he distinguished between good and bad models of secularism, respectively the ‘procedural’ and the ‘programmatic’.

Procedural secularism grants no special privileges to any particular religious body, but denies that faith is merely a matter of private conviction. It should at least be allowed to nourish the public conversation. Williams continues to see so-called programmatic secularism in a far less positive light, because it insists on a ‘neutral’ public arena and hives religion off into a purely private domain. Rather than resolving clashes of outlook, programmatic secularism risks inflaming social conflict by stoking resentment among faith groups.

In a series of addresses over the past 15 years, Williams has proposed ‘interactive pluralism’ as a recipe for harmony. This encourages robust dialogue among faith communities and between them and the State. No one has received the whole truth ‘as God sees it’, so all have something to learn. Such a model contrasts with the subjectivity implied by multiculturalist attitudes. As indicated, a tag such as ‘tolerance of diversity’ can conceal a multitude of sins.

Since the State is the authority that permits you to follow your conscience, it cannot claim the right to dictate what you believe

Acton’s ideas – spelt out in addresses and essays during the 1870s – are worth revisiting in more detail. The future Professor of Modern History at Cambridge made the eye-catching claim that religious liberty or freedom of belief is the foundation of all other liberties, and that political liberty in turn underpins the health of religious communities. The rationale for this lies in his definition of liberty as: “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty. Against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion, the State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere.”3

The State and religious communities thus owe something to one another. If one is to be free, the other must be free. And the State has a duty not only to respect conviction and conscience – especially the conscience of a minority. It also has an obligation not to be swallowed up by any religious body and not to assimilate itself to one faith group. The State, then, is not a Church. The State guards the possibility of there being ‘Churches’ – Acton’s shorthand for communities of conviction and conscience – and the existence of these communities of conscience stands before the State as a challenge and reminder of what it is and isn’t. From this follows a crucial inference. Since the State is the authority that permits you to follow your conscience, it cannot claim the right to dictate what you believe. If it does, you have a severe problem. 

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that religion can only flourish when the State as such isn’t religious, but the point is certainly grasped by T. S. Eliot in his Essay on the Idea of a Christian Society. This is the text in which the devoutly Anglican poet says that he would prefer to have a competent atheist running a government than an incompetent believer. His point is that the State has its business, but that business has boundaries. Williams’s conclusion is forthright, especially in view of his own left-wing allegiances:

“When a State believes – and acts on the belief – that there are no loyalties more serious than political loyalties, the State becomes idolatrous and diabolical. Thus the presence within the State of communities of non-negotiable conviction is unexpectedly the best thing that can happen to a State. A State faced with communities which deny its absolute and universal reach is benefiting from that. Once the State recognises that there are, within it, communities that it doesn’t, so to speak, franchise – that don’t derive . . . their meaning from the State, the State will have reason to hesitate over any attempt to assimilate all communities to itself. The State will have reason to be cautious of any policy that tries to homogenise, totalise and control.” 4

The point is encapsulated equally well by John Neville Figgis, the early 20th-century Anglican theologian, who wrote of the ‘free Church in the free State’. He held that all you need to make a State a champion of liberty is a community within it insisting on its own liberty over against the State. By recognising its limits, the state would become more fully itself.

For many observers, of course, the problem is precisely that the contemporary State often fails to acknowledge such limits. Like Williams, a Jewish leader such as Jonathan Sacks has highlighted the risks of a liberalism that sees itself as a substantive programme rather than a force for defending diversity and the freedom of conscience. To sum up: liberalism which has itself become a programme risks becoming an orthodoxy imposed from above. Acton’s ideal is very different. The liberal State does not have a moral agenda except the preservation of the liberty of all its constituent communities.

In this light we can see the justice of Jonathan Sacks’s description of religion as:

“…part of the ecology of freedom because it supports families, communities, charities, voluntary associations, active citizenship and concern for the common good. It is a key contributor to civil society, which is what holds us together without the coercive power of law. Without it, we will depend entirely on the State, and when that happens, we risk what [the historian] J. L. Talmon called a totalitarian democracy, which is what revolutionary France eventually became.”

And to boost Sacks’s argument still further, we might add that the standard secular narrative whereby the forces of enlightenment gradually threw off religious shackles in the name of freedom and progress is deeply flawed. Ignore the seductive but shallow story told by Steven Pinker in a recent bestseller, Enlightenment Now, and look instead at the work of a figure such as Larry Siedentop, whose grasp of the intellectual history is far more secure.

In his book Inventing the individual, Siedentop argues that the roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the 14th and early 15th centuries. These included belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental ‘natural’ rights; and, finally, “the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality”.

Religious voices will not and should not always get their way in a free society

I have suggested that the illiberal State, by pushing religious conviction into a purely private sphere, ends by instrumentalising its citizens and seeing them as no more than agents of the State’s purposes and subjects of the State’s decisions. Such illiberalism forms a secular counterpart to theocracy. In cases such as abortion or assisted suicide, to cite two especially contentious areas, Christian and other campaigners will advance theologically based arguments about the sanctity of life, as well as practical arguments endorsed by many secularists.

Religious voices will not and should not always get their way in a free society. They need to be held to account on the basis of cogency, viability and other criteria. But if we follow Acton’s arguments,  believers cannot be expected to accept an interpretation of their beliefs that reduces them to the status of a buttress for secular morality.

Williams judges that “the abrasion and tension” in much ethical debate “does still tell us something about the need to remind the State of its limits and to remind the Church that its job is not only to argue for exemption or special status but to remind the State that it is not the sole form of belonging for citizens. You could put it epigrammatically, as some have, by saying that the best citizen is the person who is not only a citizen. His or her loyalty to the political unit is qualified, enriched and fleshed out by other kinds of important, morally significant loyalties.”5

The relevance of this argument in an age of populism is obvious. Not just because it points to a need to respect minorities, but also because human rights language and the language of religious liberty should not be seen as mutually opposed.

  1. John Gray, ‘Un-liberty’, TLS, March 30, 2018
  2. Rowan Williams, ‘Religious and Political Liberty’, the Las Casas Institute Lecture for 2016
  3. Lord Acton, ‘The History of Freedom in Antiquity’, an address delivered to the members of the Bridgnorth Institute, February 26, 1877
  4. Rowan Williams, ‘Religious and Political Liberty’, the Las Casas Institute Lecture for 2016
  5. Ibid

Rupert is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement. His books include ‘Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack’ and ‘God Is No Thing: Coherent Christianity’.

Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments