Cue the teeth-gnashing

by CarlD

I’m having the summer interaction density problem again. I’m mostly ok with that – as the cryptoquip I did this morning put it, a vacation is when you have nothing to do and all day to do it in. Not that I have nothing to do, but mostly it will keep.

Anyhoo, into the void of inspired posts I toss this NYT Opinionator piece by Stanley Fish, “Is Religion Special?” Fish does a nice breakdown of the current state of the 1st Amendment in relation to religion in public education. He notes that both the establishment clause (the one where government doesn’t get to prefer a religion) and the free exercise clause (the one where the government doesn’t get to obstruct religion) have been pretty much nullified with respect to public education by a series of Supreme Court rulings. And he argues that the current inclination of the law is to strip out the (scary, spiffy) specialness of religion as implied by those two prongs of the 1st and to treat religion as “just another discourse.”

The problem with this, he notes, is that religions in their own terms cannot simply be discourses among others. “The denial of religion’s claim to be special is the denial of religion as an ultimate discourse, and is, in effect, the denial of religion as religion; it becomes just one more point of view. (This is the inevitable effect of protecting religion as a viewpoint; it is just an item on a list.)” His conclusion: religions are inherently exclusionary and therefore in fundamental, irresolvable tension with liberal toleration. I am reminded of our earlier discussion about Christianity and postmodernism.


6 Comments to “Cue the teeth-gnashing”

  1. Fish appears to have bought into the concept of what religion is associated with Southwest Asia monotheisms. In polytheistic traditions (I think, in particular, of traditional Chinese religion), the claims of religion are neither ultimate, exclusive, nor deontological in their demands on the faithful.

  2. You’re right, John. He’s pretty explicit about that contextualization and its specific relation to U.S.American constitutional law, but sweeps up both too much and too little by calling his target religion. Fundamentalism might have worked better but also been more directly inflammatory. It’s also worth noting that many communities not commonly called religious also may define themselves in terms of a transformative exclusivity (nationalism, identity politics). The larger point though is that when groups do so, they create a fundamental tension with liberal proceduralism. How (or whether) to apply liberal tolerance to groups that are programmatically intolerant is where the rubber hits the road.

  3. How (or whether) to apply liberal tolerance to groups that are programmatically intolerant is where the rubber hits the road.

    The key to resolving the conundrum is, I suggest, the classic liberal principle that tolerance is extended to individuals within legally permitted bounds, group membership being irrelevant. If individuals behave in programmatically intolerant ways that break the law, society will respond with appropriate sanctions; group membership shall in no wise be held to justify programmatic intolerance that infringes the rights of others.

  4. Agreed, that’s the good liberal solution. But in the first of the two articles Fish makes a very interesting point about the intersection of liberal multiculturalism with actual cultures, not all of which share the values of toleration and inclusion. He frames this in terms of the Supreme Court majority’s attempt to distinguish belief and conduct, according to which exclusionary conduct can be sanctioned without doing damage to group beliefs:

    That is to say, the belief/conduct distinction, a close relative of the mind/body distinction and the private/public distinction, itself embodies a very specific viewpoint (one the government is not entitled to have or enforce) concerning just what a religious belief is, and as such it discriminates against religions that do not respect, indeed cannot respect, the belief/conduct distinction.

    Point being that making group membership irrelevant is itself the imposition of a cultural norm.

  5. Point being that making group membership irrelevant is itself the imposition of a cultural norm.

    Of course it is. But there comes a moment when even the most tolerant liberal must take a stand. If the other programmatically denies the vocabulary of motives that makes liberalism possible, there is, as C. Wright Mills, noted, no alternative to fight or flight.

  6. Yes. I think Fish does a good job of identifying this impasse, although he does not in these two articles draw this conclusion. In fact I take his point to be that procedural liberalism is blocked from drawing this conclusion, which requires a jump from refereeing particular disputes to the metalevel of the conditions of dispute. In Europe, which is historically less committed to the fantasy of cost-free diversity, they seem to be further along in the process of officially untolerating the intolerant.

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