Stanley Fish and the Socio-Political Avatar image

Stanley Fish and the Socio-Political Avatar

If the modern, secular liberal state had a Bible, it might be the opinion section of the New York Times. And if it had a high priest, candidates would certainly include Stanley Fish, the distinguished literary theorist, law professor and author of Is There a Text in This Class? So when the two come together to talk about the place of religion in the secular state, as they did a few weeks ago in an op-ed piece, it makes fascinating reading. The arguments Fish puts forward in the first half of his article are, for my money, about as definitive a statement of the way secularists think about religion as you’re likely to find anywhere. And they are, in places, very problematic.

He begins his piece, ‘Religion and the Liberal State Once Again’, uncontroversially:

You are free to believe that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ and to order your behaviour accordingly. You are not free to coerce others, either by physical force or the force of law, to share your faith and behave as you do.

Which is nice. Freedom to follow and worship Jesus, freedom from coercion to believe or behave in a certain way: pretty much what Paul was urging Timothy to pray for in 1 Timothy 2:1-4.
Then things become, suddenly, much more restrictive:

The key distinction underlying classical liberalism is the distinction between the private and the public. This distinction allows the sphere of political deliberation to be insulated from the intractable oppositions that immediately surface when religious viewpoints are put on the table. Liberalism tells us that religious viewpoints should be confined to the home, the heart, the place of worship and the personal relationship between oneself and one’s God.

The leap here is massive. In a flash, we have jumped from ‘you cannot coerce others to believe’, to ‘you cannot bring your religious viewpoints into the public sphere’, without pausing for breath. This is not the place to reflect on how much trouble this assumption has caused, particularly when Western governments have got involved in the Middle East. But it is fascinating that beneath this statement, expressed in the world’s leading newspaper by one of the world’s leading thinkers, is the idea that, for religion not to become coercive, it is necessary that religion not become public. Put the other way round, it is assumed that a non-coercive religion which engages in the public square is impossible.
There are so many counterexamples that it is hard to know where to start, but consider the Amish for a moment. It is not clear that the very public nature of many of their faith expressions – dress, housing, technology, trading practices, community formation, schooling, and so on – has ever conflicted with their five hundred year old, Anabaptist tradition of non-coercion. And that makes me wonder: does freedom to worship really require a faith that has no public expression at all, and which is confined to the home, the heart and the church? Or is it perfectly possible to express religious values publicly and peacefully, so long as – and this is crucial – those religious values include non-coercion, non-violence and so on?
So let’s say one were to stumble across a group of religious people whose founder, and whose sacred texts, urged love for God, love for one’s neighbour, love for one’s enemies and non-violence, and who consistently, despite the high-profile excesses of a few, adhered to those principles. And let’s say that, at the same time, the heart of those people’s religious beliefs was Iesous Kurios – that Jesus, not Caesar or Obama or Cameron or Merkel, was Lord of the world, and that their announcement of this fact was a very public statement. What then? We would suddenly have what Stanley Fish apparently regards as impossible: a decidedly non-coercive, yet emphatically public, religious belief.
Now to be fair to Fish, he may not believe that public religious beliefs are necessarily coercive. He may just be saying that, because they sometimes are, we’re better off without them. But the problem is, virtually any worldview articulated in public could, in the wrong circumstances, lead to coercion. Free market economics has. So has economic redistribution. So has environmentalism. And atheism. And opposition to higher tuition fees. And numerous other beliefs that, for all I know, most New York Times op-ed writers might well share. This doesn’t mean that those beliefs are evil, or (in Fish’s terms) that they should be constrained to the realm of the home, heart and the church. It simply means that coercion and violence are always wrong in a liberal state, and that allowing them under the guise of religion is reprehensible.
Now consider one more paragraph:

When the liberal citizen exits the private realm and enters the public square, he or she is supposed to leave religious commitments behind and function as a stripped-down entity, as an abstract-not-full personage, who makes political decisions not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as what political scientist Michael Sandel calls an “unencumbered self”, a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities.

I find this extraordinary. In the public square, we are not to engage through the self, the real one, with its strong preferences formed by ethnicity, gender, memory, religion, culture, class and so on (how many citizens, let alone politicians, would that disqualify?) Instead, we are to engage through a totally neutral socio-political avatar: unencumbered, genderless, classless, religionless, preferenceless. At one level, I appreciate Fish grouping religion together with ethnicity, gender and class, if only because it shows how ludicrous it is to exclude those things from the public space (unless we are to make people’s gender a “private matter” for “the home, the heart and the church” – and what on earth would that mean?) But at another level, I find myself wondering whether this isn’t simply an attempt to seize any passing sociological argument and dragoon it into service to support an implausible position.
In a liberal state, we cannot have people imposing religious laws on an unwilling populace, and we cannot have violence or coercion used to gain religious adherents. But to leap from this to saying that religion (and apparently gender, class and the rest) should always be excluded from any public discourse is … well, somewhat fishy.

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