Liberalism's Religion

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Cécile Laborde
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , September
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent times, different dimensions of religion have come under scrutiny: for instance, donning religious symbols at the workplace, establishment of religion, religious family laws, and commercial organizations’ denial of services to people of the LGBTQ community on grounds of freedom of religion.

Cécile Laborde’s Liberalism’s Religion is a fresh contribution to rethink the place of religion in the public sphere, especially in matters of law. This is crucial because, Laborde argues, the concept of religion has been under-theorized in liberal political philosophy. One of the most popular criticisms against liberal theory, raised by theorists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, is that it works with a Christian understanding of religion. As a result, liberal theory on state-religion relationships cannot transcend the Western experience.

In addition, critics like Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Stanley Fish make a strong case against the possibility of state neutrality. Laborde takes these critical religion theorists’ challenges seriously and reformulates liberalism in order to defend it against those criticisms. She draws a distinction between practices of the liberal state and liberal egalitarian theory and confines her analysis to the latter. Acknowledging the criticisms raised against liberalism, Laborde contends that the “philosophical school of liberal egalitarianism is less vulnerable to it” (4, italics original).

The central argument of this book is that religion should be “disaggregated” (2) into a “plurality of different interpretive dimensions” (2). The controversies involving religion cannot be solved by referring to a vague category of religion but by identifying the different dimensions of religion involved and the liberal values to be promoted. This allows Laborde to depart from existing theories, which either grant special legal protection to the category of religion or argue in favor of religious non-establishment.

Hence, Laborde offers a more nuanced analysis of how religion ought to be treated in law. The strategy of disaggregating religion successfully allows Laborde to dispense with the charge that liberal theory relies on a Western-Christian understanding of religion. The book suggests a case-by-case analysis of law and religion cases. The merit of Laborde’s theory of liberalism’s religion is that it exhibits transcultural potential.

The book is divided into two parts with three chapters each. In the first part, “Analogizing Religion,” Laborde shows the existing liberal theorists’ response to the critical religion challenge. She highlights that the disaggregation approach is latent in the existing literature. In the second part, “Disaggregating Religion,” Laborde clearly articulates her theory and applies it to a few cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Swiss minaret ban, and the peyote case. The book’s theoretical analysis is an amalgam of contextualized political theory and legal reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights and the landmark cases of the US Supreme Court. Apart from indulging in independent reasoning, the author critically engages with actual cases of legal importance.

Three concepts discussed in the second part of the book deserve special mention: minimal secularism, integrity protecting commitments, and theory of exemptions (collective and individual). Chapter 4 elaborates on the idea of minimal secularism. It answers the question: How can a liberal state be secular? According to Laborde, a liberal state is minimally secular if: (1) it provides accessible reasons for policy decisions; (2) it treats all citizens equally; (3) and it respects the liberty of its citizens. Minimal secularism allows a broad range of possibilities of state-religion arrangements to be secular and liberal, including a conservative state like “Divinitia” (151), which has conservative laws on abortion and euthanasia and state recognition of religion.

Chapter 5 discusses collective exemptions. Here, the central question is what kinds of groups can be granted exemption from otherwise generally applicable anti-discrimination laws. Chapter 6 discusses Laborde’s theory of individual exemptions. It explains the situations in which an individual can be exempted from laws that burden his/her “integrity-protecting commitments (IPCs)” (203). IPCs are a class of ethically salient commitments that “allows an individual to live in accordance with how she thinks she ought to live” (203-204). Laborde argues that all IPCs deserve protection irrespective of being religious. What is interesting about this book is that Laborde does not give a yes or no answer on religious exemption. Even within the same religious belief, she analyzes the context and the conflicting values to suggest an answer. For example, a Sikh might be exempted from wearing a helmet at a construction site if that is his only means of living but he cannot be exempted from wearing a helmet while riding a two-wheeler because it threatens safety measures.

One of the fresh arguments of this book is Laborde’s acceptance of state sovereignty and denial of state neutrality. She acknowledges that the state has the sovereign authority to draw the jurisdictional boundary of its own sphere of autonomy and other spheres of autonomy—specifically, that of religion. Also, the category of accessible reasons in justification of state policy does not exclude religious reasons by virtue of their being associated with religion. This is an addition to the existing literature of public reason in liberal theory. Laborde constantly emphasizes that she is challenging the strict separationist view of state-religion relationship by proposing minimal secularism. Her emphasis on democratic decision-making process for arriving at inconclusive issues in a society reinforces the merit of a democratic set-up.

However, despite all its merits, Liberalism’s Religion is not immune to criticism. One problem with this book is that it does not pay attention to the category of community while discussing exemptions. Although Laborde explains in one of the endnotes that she attends to individuals as members of communities rather than communities per se, she should have considered the category of community while theorizing about exemptions. This is important because community identity enjoys prominence over individual identity in countries like India. Another serious problem is that while discussing collective exemptions, Laborde does not consider the kind of discrimination that can be allowed at the first place. Her overarching emphasis is on the kind of groups which deserve exemption.

Nevertheless, Laborde offers a modest account of liberalism. She acknowledges that her theory is one among many. The central argument—religion is not a special category and its treatment in law is because of the features it shares with non-religious beliefs—is a novel contribution to the existing literature. Already in a short span of time, Liberalism’s Religion has generated rich discussion. Special volumes of journals have been dedicated to discussing this magnum opus. Philosophically dense, it is a must-read for scholars of secularism, liberal theory, and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sania Ismailee is a Doctoral Fellow in the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cécile Laborde is Nuffield Chair of political theory at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy.


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