Spotlight on Chapter 14: Advocating “Principled Distance” between State and Religions

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This is an abridged version of section 2.2 of Chapter 14 “Inequality as a Challenge to Democracy”

In a society with multiple religions, members of one religious group may treat members of other religious groups as unequals: Let this be called inter-religious inequality. A second kind of religious inequality also persists in many societies, when members of a broadly conceived religious group treat their own members (e.g., women, or a particular creed) as unequals. Let this be called intra-religious inequality.

How should states deal with these different forms of religious inequalities? A most important distinction for our purpose is between religion-centered and secular states. All religion-centered states perpetuate religious inequalities and violate important principles of democracy.  If the reduction of religious inequalities is our objective, then, religion-centred states must give way to secular states.  Only secular democratic states can undermine religious inequalities. But this simple answer does not suffice because all forms of secular-democratic states are not equally capable of addressing religious inequality. This begs the question: which form of secular-democratic state is best able to reduce both intra- and inter-religious inequalities?

For one form, separation means total disconnection or mutual exclusion. Here religion is excluded from the affairs of the state but the state too is excluded from the affairs of the religion.  The state has neither a positive relationship with religion, for example there is no policy of granting aid to religious institutions nor a negative relationship with it; it is not within the scope of state activity to interfere in religious matters. The Constitutional state of the US is frequently interpreted to instantiate this model. It is seen to advocate mutual exclusion of state and religion (build a wall) primarily for the sake of religious liberty and denominational pluralism. Thus by protecting religious freedom of all groups and ensuring inter-denominational equality as also by ruling out discrimination in the official domain on grounds of religion, this model prevents certain forms of religious inequalities. However, it has two major limitations. (a) By its refusal to negatively intervene in religious practices, it allows discriminatory and oppressive practices within a religion to continue. (b) By eschewing any positive help to all religious groups, it overlooks that some vulnerable religious minorities may require assistance from the state for its members to live as equals of those belonging to the majority religion. Deeper structural religion based inequalities may therefore continue to persist in societies governed by this model.

In another, second type, disconnection is partial and is conceived at the level of law and public policy in a wholly one-sided manner.  Here to disconnect is to exclude religion from the affairs of the state but to have no limits on the state’s interventionist powers in the affairs of religion.  Such intervention may mean help or hindrance but in either case the motive is to control, regulate and even to destroy religion. Such secular states are decidedly anti-religious. They often advocate one-sided exclusion primarily for the sake of a stringently guarded common public culture that gives a uniform and equal identity to citizens. In their authoritarian form this model is at least partly exemplified in Kemalist Turkey and Soviet Russia. Its democratic version is best enunciated in France.

These secular states (model 2) have one advantage over model 1. Since they are willing to intervene in religious affairs, they can undercut oppressive and exclusionary religious practices and achieve some forms of inter-religious equality. However by refusing to grant positive recognition or financial aid particularly to newly immigrated religious groups and by their obstinate refusal to acknowledge the entanglement of both official and public practices with a historically embedded majority religion, they at least unwittingly perpetuate inter-religious inequality. At the very extreme, by their readiness to hinder and unwillingness to help even the dominant majority religion, they may create new inequalities between believers and unbelievers and undermine religious freedoms.

Partial disconnection is also the form of state-religion relationship in the third (model 3) type of secular-democratic state. Disconnection is partial here because the state continues to partially support one religion, usually the dominant one, on the ground that it is part of cultural inheritance and historical legacy of its citizens and therefore a significant public good. Such states are found in large parts of Western Europe, excluding France. Such secular-democratic states may not be religion-centered but they remain single religion-friendly. State-religion connections combined with a significant degree of disconnection mean that these democratic states are at best modestly secular by the standards set by the idealized American model or the French model.

How do religion-friendly states of Western Europe fare when evaluated by norms of religious equality?  Not all that well, it seems. Blind to the more complex dimension of inter-religious inequalities, they do not even see that in this dimension they are not secular. On the complex scale of inter- and intra-religious equality, we find all kinds of institutional biases beginning to show up in European state-religion arrangements. Despite all changes, European states have continued to privilege Christianity in one form or another. The liberal democratization and the consequent secularization of many European states have helped citizens with non-Christian faiths to acquire most formal rights. But such a scheme of rights neither embodies a regime of interreligious equality nor effectively prevents religion-based discrimination and exclusion.

So, do forms or conceptions of secular-democratic states that better address religious inequalities exist? Ones that advocate neither mutual exclusion nor one-sided exclusion of religion, nor indeed a friendliness solely towards  one religion? One particular form outside the West (in the Indian sub-continent) that has tried, often unsuccessfully, to eliminate deep religious inequalities, and which currently lies in shambles everywhere, needs careful attention.

Several features of this fourth kind of secular-democratic state are worth mentioning. First, multiple religions exist in their background not as optional extras added on as an afterthought but as part of its foundation. These secular democratic states are inextricably tied to deep religious diversity. Second, they are committed to deeply diverse set of values, not only liberty and equality but also fraternity (or sociability)—to foster a certain quality of relations among religious communities, perhaps even interreligious equality under conditions of deep religious diversity. Third, it is concerned as much with interreligious inequality as it is with intrareligious inequality. Some community-specific sociocultural rights are granted for their intrinsic value. Common citizenship rights are not seen as incompatible with community-specific rights in limited domains such as education. Fourth, such secular democratic states do not erect a wall of separation between religion and state. There are boundaries, of course, but they are porous. This situation allows the state to intervene in religions in order to help or hinder them without the impulse to control or destroy them. This intervention can include granting aid to educational institutions of religious communities on a non-preferential basis and interfering in socio-religious institutions that deny equal dignity and status to members of their own religion or to those of others. In short, this form of secular democratic state interprets separation to mean not strict exclusion or strict neutrality, but what we call principled distance, which is poles apart from one-sided exclusion or mutual exclusion.

When we say that principled distance allows for both engagement with or disengagement from religion, what kind of treatment is that? First, religious groups have sought exemptions when states have intervened in religious practices by promulgating laws designed to apply neutrally across society. This demand for non-interference is made on the grounds either that the law requires them to do things not permitted by their religion or that it prevents them from doing things mandated by their religion. For example, Sikhs demand exemptions from mandatory helmet laws and from police dress codes to accommodate religiously required turbans. Principled distance allows a practice that is banned or regulated in the majority culture to be permitted in the minority culture because of the distinctive status and meaning it has for the minority culture’s members. The state may grant authority to religious officials to perform legally binding marriages or to have their own rules for or methods of obtaining a divorce. Principled distance allows the possibility of such policies on the grounds that holding people accountable to a law to which they have not consented might be unfair.

Principled distance is not just a recipe for differential treatment in the form of special exemptions. It may even require state intervention and, moreover, in some religions more than in others, consideration of the historical and social condition of all relevant religions. To take first examples of positive engagement, some holidays of all majority and minority religions are granted national status. Subsidies are provided to schools run by all religious communities. Minority religions are granted a constitutional right to establish and maintain their educational institutions. Limited funding may be available to Muslims for Hajj. But state engagement can also take a negative interventionist form. For the promotion of a particular value constitutive of secularism, some religion, relative to other religions, may require more interference from the state. For example, suppose that the value to be advanced is social equality. This requires in part undermining caste and gender hierarchies.

Such states are not compelled to choose between active hostility and passive indifference or between disrespectful hostility and respectful indifference towards religion. They combine the two, permitting necessary hostility as long as there is also active respect. The state may intervene to inhibit some practices as long as it shows respect for other practices of the religious community and does so by publicly lending support to them. This is a complex dialectical attitude to religion that we call critical respect. So, on the one hand, the state protects all religions, makes them feel equally at home, especially vulnerable religious communities, by granting them community-specific rights. For instance, the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions and the provision of subsidies to schools run by religious communities. But the state also hits hard at religion-based oppression, exclusion, and discrimination, in short all forms of religious inequalities.