In Sunday’s NY Times, Ross Douthat weighed in on the series of controversies that I and other contributors to this site have been blogging about in the last several weeks. Whether it’s contraception, infant circumcision, or chicken sandwiches, we’ve noted increasing tension between many liberals’ claims to respect religious freedom and their opposition to many religious practices, institutions, and viewpoints.
Douthat attributes this tension to confusion between freedom of worship and the broader principle, enshrined in the Constitution, of free exercise of religion. While freedom of worship is limited to what happens inside the church or synagogue, free exercise of religion includes the full range of activities that may be inspired by religious convictions or affiliations. According to Douthat’s argument, liberals believe that freedom of worship should be protected. They just think that religious freedom ends when the service is finished.
Douthat’s distinction is helpful when it comes to interpreting the Constitution. But his emphasis on rival views of human sexuality (“a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms”) obscures a more fundamental issue. The basic question is not whether sex and reproduction are subject to a natural or legal order ordained by God. It is whether the concept of “religion” that we have inherited from the encounter between the Enlightenment and Protestantism is adequate to the enduring variety of religious phenomena.
According to that concept, true religion is oriented toward beliefs rather actions, individuals rather than communities, and choices rather than obligations. In the 18th Century, traditions and institutions that didn’t meet this standard–particularly Roman Catholicism and Judaism–were mocked as superstition, priestcraft, or empty legalism. Today, they’re more likely to be dismissed as cults.
The problem with this view is not that it’s secular. Many of its most influential advocates, including Schleiermacher, were sincere Christians. Rather, the trouble is that the dominance of the Enlightenment/Protestant paradigm makes it difficult to understand tensions between religion and the modern state.
That’s why so many commentators seem to be genuinely mystified by this summer’s controversies. They accuse religious critics of contraception or gay marriage (or advocates of infant circumcision) of stepping over the line between religion and politics as if it were clearly and uncontroversially drawn. But that distinction is precisely what’s in dispute. The categories of “politics” and “religion” simply don’t mean the same thing in traditions that reject liberal Protestantism’s deep intertwinement with modern philosophy.