Liberalism and Religion: Against Congruence

Jeff Spinner-Halev


I argue here against recent trends in liberal and feminist theory contending that the state should insist that religious groups internalize liberal justice and equality. Doing so dangerously ascribes too much power to the state, and threatens liberty and stability. I argue instead that the liberal state must balance different values. I begin by claiming that while Rawls worries that religious people want to impose their way of life on others, a more accurate concern is that of liberalism imposing its way of life on religious conservatives. I also contend that Rawls’s concern about stability leads him wrongly to think that there must be widespread agreement on the principles of justice, which leads to considerable intrusion in conservative religions. This widespread agreement is unattainable; a better route to stability is through extensive agreement on decision making procedures. Feminist arguments are less concerned with stability, but share with Rawls the idea that private values should be congruent with public ones. I argue that doing so leads to unacceptable intrusions on liberty. Religious groups can be internally non-liberal as long as there is pluralism within the society, exit from groups is assured, and their members all receive a decent education.

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