shallow secularism

Among 2008’s consistently great blogging has been the discussion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age over at The Immanent Frame.  Below, an excerpt from an exchange between Taylor and the Iranian intellectual Akbar Ganji. The two thinkers on God and state:

Akbar Ganji: You state that we should have a historical point of view, but when we look at history we realize that in all of these historical cases that all of the democratic states are secular in that religion and state are separated. Empirically speaking, when we look at democracies we see in all of these cases there is a separation of religion and state. This could have three meanings. Number one is that the state does not derive its legitimacy from religion. The second one is that the state does not implement religious law. The third one is that clergy do not have a particular right or not even a particular right to rule. All democratic states share these three attributes…Since you have stated that that first principle lingers on as the other two have waned, what examples could you give in which a modern democratic state derives its legitimacy from divine sources such as from God?

Charles Taylor: …[C]onsider John Locke. Locke believes that we should follow the natural law and the natural law dictates that the only legitimate authority is created by a social contract. But, where does natural law come from? He is very clear. God has created human beings in the state of nature where natural law holds. It is God’s will, according to Locke that we have a social contract. So you get the founders of the American Republic who wrote a “Declaration of Independence” in which they said that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights.” So there are two ways in which legitimate democratic rule can derive from God. One is that the actual formula of democratic rule is God-given. And the other is that certain people, certain clergy, have a mandate directly from God to order the society. And in a certain sense, Western history is a struggle between these two understandings of God-derived authority.

The “secularism” of democratic constitutionalism turns out to be somewhat shallow – though non-theistic social contract theories can be found, notably in Habermas and Rawls. Does this clarify anything about religious politics in America? On the right, the fallacy comes in assuming that the inseparability of church and state in Ganji’s first sense justifies inseparability in his second and third sense. But it doesn’t follow from the historical fact of a theistically inflected compact  that legislation based on religious authority is necessary or even permissible. For their part, proponents of separation of church and state, mostly on the left, tend to ignore the religious traditions that inform America’s political principles. Even the American “wall of separation” emerged from the idea that individuals ought to be free of conscience so as to exercise choice in their relationship with God; the separation had a religious justification, not a humanist one. Of course, Taylor would note that the idea that one’s relationship with God was chosen, rather than being self-evident, already signaled a historical triumph for secularism.

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~ by staticandme on January 1, 2009.

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