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When May Religion Shape Public Life?

Par John Bowen
Publié par Clifford Armion le 11/08/2010
Le 12 octobre 2010, la Villa Gillet organisait à l'Institution des Chartreux une rencontre autour de la perception des religions dans notre société. Réunissant des spécialistes français et américains des questions religieuses, cet évènement était l'occasion de faire le point sur ces "nouvelles conflictualités" qui sont souvent la conséquence de préjugés et de pratiques culturelles spécifiques à chaque nation. Ce texte a été écrit par John Bowen, anthropologue et professeur à l'Université Washington de Saint-Louis.

In practically every country, whether in Europe, North America, Asia, or elsewhere, this question arises, and often it engenders conflict, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. Mark Lilla has given us a broad historical and philosophical perspective on the matter; I would like to examine it from a political theoretic perspective and ask: Can we formulate the ideal conditions for religion in public life and at the same time take account of each country's particular history?

I think that two questions arise, one about how we deliberate, the second about how we live together. The two clearly are related but it is important to distinguish them, I think, for reasons I will describe.

Democratic deliberation

The first concerns political life, what sorts of arguments are legitimate in political life: in Parliament or Congress, on a court, in school boards or local councils, or in electoral campaigns. May we invoke our religious beliefs as reason for our arguments? Why, if others cannot be assumed to share them? Why not, if they in fact are our reasons?

And in thinking about this question, can we arrive at a shared language across differing political traditions, one that can take full account of debates in France and Britain, but also in Indonesia or Pakistan?

A notable effort to address this issue was made by the philosopher John Rawls in his later work, when he aimed to arrive at a formulation of liberalism that would allow all citizens to engage in democratic deliberation but not expect them to abandon the 'comprehensive doctrines' that they bring to deliberation. Although we think of these doctrines as religious and ethical, liberalism or republicanism also can be comprehensive doctrines, not shared by all citizens.

Rawls made three basic points. First, he postulated that we all can agree on certain 'political values', such as the political equality of women and men, the workings of an electoral system, and the traditions contained in a system of jurisprudence. He argued that for democracy to work, all citizens must subscribe to these values; they must consider them legitimate. NB that 'political values' are narrower than the values we find in our comprehensive doctrines. We agree that all citizens are politically equal but in our broader social lives differ in our ideas about gender relations and choose to associate with people of the same religion, or origin.

Secondly, he argued that citizens should and do find justifications within their comprehensive doctrines for these political values; they can 'translate' from, say, religious values to political ones. Once I sat next to my congressman on an airplane from St Louis to Washington DC, and he explained that he thought the U.S. political system ought to be based on the values and doctrines employed by the Pilgrims in their early colonies!  But he also believes in the US political system and works through it to implement his vision.

Third, Rawls argued that when we engage in political deliberationin elections, in the legislature, or on city councilswe must eventually provide reasons for our positions that others can accept as legitimate. This is the idea of reciprocity. I might support a state ban on abortion because of my religious convictions, and I may state those reasons publicly and politically, but then I should also give reasons that others could accept, even if they did not give them the importance that I did. So, I might say that protecting life outweighs considerations of women's rights over their bodies, even though I support both values. You might argue against this law and reverse the order in which I placed these two values. But we are able to have a debate because we can accept each other's reasons as legitimate.

NB that this argument is quite different from one that says that modern politics requires that we evacuate religion from 'public life', in the words of Marcel Gauchet, an argument that we may not take positions in democratic life in which we publicly draw on our religious convictions. That position seems to be specific to France. But I don't think it renders very well what people do in France in discussions with others who share their comprehensive doctrines, which is to offer versions of their religious traditions that support the French social and political system. Banning religious reasons from political life in France may be a leftover from the Republican battle against the Catholic Church that today has lost some of its urgency. Surely in the current debate over the expulsions of Roma people from France, the voices of public figures who argue from Catholic perspectives have not been silent regarding their religious considerations and I would say that it is good that they do so.

But what about Islam? I think that the most important way to adapt Islamic ideas to each country of Western Europe and North America is to undertake what Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum called 'internal critique', that is, finding arguments within a religious or cultural tradition that support a movement towards the central political values of a society. Catholics and Muslims have been able to find arguments within their respective traditions to support women's rights, against patriarchal interpretations of those traditions. In some cases the shift comes about through re-ordering political values, such as in the case of abortion mentioned above.

Internal critique provides a mechanism for the 'translation' integral to Rawls's view. It does not negate a citizen's comprehensive doctrine, nor does it say that citizenship consists in setting aside those beliefs, but argues for seeing those beliefs in the light of the requirements of participating in democratic politics in a culturally and religiously plural society.

It is not limited to European societies, indeed Sen and Nussbaum originally were writing about India. It is also what citizens of Indonesia or Morocco engage in when they work to move religious reasoning towards commonly-accepted political values of women's and men's equality for example in Islamic courts.

Living together in society

The second question concerns living together in society. How far do our ways of living have to resemble one another in order for us to construct a harmonious society? How far may people go in living among themselves, in an effort to comply with their religious traditions and transmit them to their children? Is it harmful for society if people school their children privately, or if they conduct marriage and divorce only in a religious manner?

There are two issues here: one about differences in people's public behaviors and appearances; the other about their decisions to use religious institutions rather than public ones. Each society has its own habits and preferences in this regard: I think it fair to see that French people are more likely to be annoyed seeing Muslim women in hijâb than are English people, and that this preference has a historical and philosophical basis. Conversely, as I have argued elsewhere, French universalism has led Islamic scholars to adapt jurisprudential norms to French legal structures more than is the case in England.

We must accept a great deal of 'path-dependency' in this regard, meaning that we cannot and should not overcome our histories and philosophies. We should have utopias, as Dominique Schnapper writes, but we should also recognize that these utopias arise from our particular national histories (as she also says).

So although we can argue for a shared philosophical approach to the political question - I have proposed Rawls, others will have other candidates - I am less sure of arriving at one for the social question. I am even more skeptical about formulations that speak of the 'West' and of 'Muslim societies'. Such formulations play into, indeed implicitly accept, the idea of a 'clash of civilizations', which does not, I think, give much credit to the democratic successes in some Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia or Turkey, nor does it usefully reflect on the strong religious motivations of the American electorate, where it is probably still true that to be a successful presidential candidate a man or woman needs to publicly claim Christianity.

We then can evaluate different Muslim adaptations to life in new countries in terms of the dominant ideas about 'la vie commune' in each country. Let me take the example of Muslims who marry and divorce without registering their marriages, and therefore divorcing only in Islamic fashion. The practice exists in France and Britain and has come in for criticism in both societies but for very different reasons.

Criticism in Britain focuses on failure to register religious marriages with the state, on grounds that in those cases women do not have access to their husband's salary and house upon divorce. Marrying at a mosque and divorcing at an Islamic shariah councils is not itself criticized because it follows the English pattern. In England, marriage historically was religious and gradually was extended to other dissenting faiths, leading eventually to the possibility of civil marriage in 1837. Legal recognition of a marriage requires only signing a registry book, which may be done after a religious marriage in a church, temple, or mosque. There is no state marriage ceremony because there is nothing British about marrying.

Criticism in France says that such practices entail a turning away from the state and therefore from the wider society, because marriage is a public thing, and must be celebrated at city hall. Religious marriages are also threatening to the symbolic and social unity of the society because they are religious. No one criticizes the large number of couples who enter into a PACS, because these relationships are not religious and because they are not a form of marriage and therefore do not privatize something that must remain public. If the Islamic nikah were not translated as mariage but as 'Islamic union' would it be more acceptable?

Both sets of attitudes fit with the respective societies. In England, religious identities are taken to provide the necessary moral background for citizenship. In France, religious identities are taken to be particular things that in public must be subordinate to the common life. Islamic scholars and leaders have shaped Islamic advice and institutions so as to adapt to these societies. Islamic leaders in Britain create shariah councils and ask for the right to give divorces with civil legal effects (which they do not now have). Islamic leaders in France do neither; they say that mariage is mariage and Muslims must marry at city hall.

This view then would follow Rawls in distinguishing between the political sphere and its requirements of translation and reciprocity, and the broader social sphere with its allowances for associative life and different values.  Demands for uniformity in the broader social, non-political sphere would have to be justified on other grounds. Such grounds could be those of the particular legal or political tradition. For example, the civil law tradition treats marriage as a public matter; in addition, the Republican political tradition values participation in common institutions. These two dimensions of French political culture give ample reason for stressing the participation by all citizens in public ceremonies, as ceremonies of Republican citizenship. In those cases, rights of religious freedom were not endangered.

But in other instances where Muslim women wearing hijâb have been said to threaten the Republic, such that they were denied naturalization, or not allowed to participate in marriage ceremonies, or, in the case of niqab-wearers, are to reprimanded by the police (who perhaps have other work to do?) in these cases, more precise arguments would need to be made than have heretofore been offered about the reasons why social life cannot include people in such dress. It becomes the role of theory not to mimic or justify widespread social prejudice, but to subject those prejudices to serious critique.

Pour citer cette ressource :

John Bowen, "When May Religion Shape Public Life?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), août 2010. Consulté le 22/05/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/religion-et-societe/when-may-religion-shape-public-life-