Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is Religion Entitled To Deference?

I caught an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by professor Stanley Fish of Florida International University. In commenting on Muslim uprisings over the caricatures of Muhammad, he seems to be suggesting that this episode is a result of liberalism’s pervasiveness in society (or at least the media). However, he does not cite the typical assumptions about liberalism’s goal somehow being the destruction, or at least the societal caging, of religious influence in society. On the contrary, it is actually liberalism’s indifference to religion that seems to be the problem.

First let me say that I mentally skipped (indifference?) the professor’s references to liberalism as a religion and his definitions of what liberalism professes to be. Here he seems to be using “liberalism” in the colloquial, pejorative sense more commonly heard on Fox News than in the halls of serious discourse: anything that disagrees with conservative positions. I doubt he has seriously considered that liberalism has complex meaning and philosophical history that is better addressed by others with those kinds of expertise. Setting that aside for the moment, his remaining argument is interesting.

The bottom line is that Fish does not appear to like the fact that some people do not take religious views seriously. He notes the distinction implied in the First Amendment clause:

“It is in the private sphere – the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship – that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

But it is in the public sphere, the argument goes, one’s religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection…Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed – and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate – is “respect”; nothing less, nothing more”

This is not enough for Fish. He sees “respect” as a form of condescension: “I respect you; now don’t bother me”. He suggests that liberalism (again, whatever that is) fully accepts the right to speak openly about one’s religious beliefs, but some line is crossed when those beliefs “might serve as a basis for action or public policy”.

I do not know if Fish is implicitly arguing the opposite (that religious views should not only be given respect, but deference as well) or merely describing the situation as he sees it. Regardless of professor Fish’s position, many in religious communities certainly feel that their faith-based views should be either incorporated into public policy or flat out replace secular law. This is what the Taliban was all about; to a lesser extent, I think this is the road 21st century conservative Christianity is taking as well. I remember Pat Robertson suggesting some years ago, quite unambiguously, that there was something wrong with the idea that people could close their doors to proselytizers. In effect, you are not showing proper “deference” to religious views if you politely shoo Jehovah’s Witness proselytizers away from your door on a Sunday afternoon while you’re watching the football game. Pat Robertson is considered a nutcase even among conservative Christians, you might say. Well, clearly. But how far removed is it for Catholic Bishops to demand that their congregations vote for anti-abortion candidates? I think the examples are just at different distances along the same path.

The private/public distinction is vital. Fish seems to think that religious views should be allotted some kind of special attention in the public sphere as well as the private. Deference should be paid to those who espouse religious views in public. Never mind this poses issues with the definition of religion (given that he defined it as such, would Fish argue that liberalism be allowed deference in the public square?), or whether all religions should be met with equal deference (no doubt the “historic” argument would enter here: since America is a “Christian” nation, deference should be reserved for Christian viewpoints). There is a more fundamental problem if religious viewpoints are allowed special designations. The purpose of a public aspect to freedom of speech is that it allows dissent. Public viewpoints, be they political, religious or other, are also subject to public commentary and critique. Without the ability to dissent, publicly, from any kind of viewpoint, even one that offends, there is no true freedom.