The Liberal State, Broadly Defined, Is Not Hostile to Religion

September 24, 2019 | Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George
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Responding to recent debates among American religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy of the kind practiced in the U.S. is innately inimical to traditional religious values, Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George defend a system of government devoted to protecting the freedom of its citizens. These two Catholic intellectuals instead argue for a version of liberalism that is supremely well suited to allowing for religious flourishing, so long as certain principles are observed.

[P]olitical authority shouldn’t undertake managerial direction of religious institutions, and it shouldn’t coerce religious acts (though it may and should coercively forbid certain acts that may happen to be religious, such as the slaughter of children). This is because the political common good does not directly concern personal holiness. . . .

And note well that nothing in this argument [for a republic that guarantees individual rights] supports or encourages progressive liberalism’s strictures against religious believers acting in the public square to advocate for just and humane public policy. It does require equal liberty for religious communities as a political matter in circumstances of pluralism like ours. But it does not require a naked public square where religious believers must leave behind their substantive beliefs about the human good.

Indeed, religious traditions are sources of wisdom, and citizens owe it to one another to draw deeply from these wells of wisdom when deliberating about essential aspects of justice and the common good. This is not, contrary to certain fears, to embrace theocracy—the authority of church and state are distinct. As Richard John Neuhaus never tired of saying, the alternative to the naked public square isn’t the sacred public square but the civil public square in which citizens of all religious persuasions (or “comprehensive views”) can deliberate together about how we should order the life of the community we constitute.

Our “liberal” institutions deserve better than to be dismissed a-priori based on abstractions. They deserve to be admired when they enable the common good, and improved (or in some cases replaced) when they don’t.

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