Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tales from the Enlightenment: "religious freedom"

From Harrisonburg, VA
Gather 'round, kids; grandpappy Kant has a story to tell!
For a few weeks now I've been avoiding any news media outlets - which for me are entirely online. As election season has ramped up, I noticed how even my go-to-guys - Stewart and Colbert - have become almost exclusively fixated on the ugly vetting process for the Republican presidential candidate. It's become a sort of interpretive black hole, whereby all issues are sucked into its inescapable pull and "read" in light of that incredibly nasty public spectacle. So I've switched off...kind of.

I'm still regularly on Facebook, so I continue to hear about this stuff through the various news pages that I "like" and from my friends who are following the news. A decent number of my friends are leftish peaceniks, so last week I heard a collective liberal wail of moral outrage against Rush Limbaugh for some reason or another (I happily don't know why). And the week before that it was Catholics, insurance companies, and birth control, with pictures posted of a bunch of men on a congressional panel talking about women's reproductive rights (the ironical outrage!). This issue was connected to a particular contemporary Catholic candidate for the Republican ticket and references back to a speech from an earlier Catholic candidate seeking the Democratic ticket in the early 1960s, each having various things to say about "religious freedom."

So it's that notion - religious freedom - that I want to talk about, particularly how it gets used in modern political discourse and processes. I'm riffing off a fantastic post from Saba Mahmood at the Immanent Frame blog - Religious freedom, minority rights, and geopolitics (part of a whole series of posts they have running about religious freedom) - but mostly my current reading project, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and past reading of William Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence. With these folks, I'll argue that "religious freedom" is a particular story told this side of the Enlightenment, with particular definitions given to the constituent terms "religion"and "freedom." Much like I argued last fall about the creation myth of human rights, things such as "religious freedom" and "human rights" are far from self-evident, timeless truths available to all people in all places for all times. They are, rather, contingent constructs that purport to provide something that current, dominant forms of geopolitical ordering and organizing (nation-states) are ultimately unable to deliver.

"Religion,"thus defined...
Religion in modernity has undergone a transformation on a number of levels, but most appropriate here is its construal as being a matter "of individual conscience and belief as the proper locus of religion" (Mahmood). The secularization process as a political move in the 18th century arrogated itself to remove the inherently "violent" religions from the political sphere. (Cavanaugh's contribution here is that rather than saving European society from inherently violent religions, secularization was a power grab on the part of the ascending nation-state for a monopoly on legitimate violence.) But since the structures of Christendom were still, for the most part, firmly in place in the 18th century, "religion" had to go somewhere. So it got privatized and became a system of propositional truth claims and moral sentiments. But as Mahmood points out, such a construal of religion was completely impossible in her case study of the Ottoman Empire prior to the 18th century. Indeed, such a construal of religion is impossible anywhere prior to modernity, including Western Christendom. For Mahmood's case, "religious freedom" for Jews and Christians in the Islamic Ottoman Empire was exceptionally different from how it currently gets deployed. Notions of "equality," for instance, are simply inconceivable much less practical.

"Freedom," thus defined...
Freedom in modernity is nearly always defined negatively. So it's freedom from, rather than freedom for. The former implies individual autonomy (a key Enlightenment principle) whereas the latter implies higher purpose (a key rejection of the Enlightenment). The rational individual of modernity must be free from interference to pursue his (sic) own chosen ends. No burdens of tradition and superstition should encumber this free agent with their dubious notions of higher purpose for humanity and creation. So what happens when the free agent is being burdened by systems of control which inhibit the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property)? You have a mess on your hands. And that's where "rights" language comes into play...

"Rights," thus defined...
Religious freedom is construed as a right, namely a human right. (Note the individualistic assumption there.) But MacIntyre points out that the notion of a "right" as an entitlement to individual human agents is foreign to any linguistic-cultural system prior to modernity and is therefore an invention, humorously stating that "there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns"(AV, 69). Rights in modernity, according to MacIntyre, "presuppose...the existence of a socially established set of rules," but difficulties arise for large geopolitical bodies because they can't account for the "highly specific and socially local character" that systems determining such rules and addressing rights accordingly would need to account for (AV, 67). Sociologically speaking, then, human rights are impossible to address substantively with national, or worse, trans-national bodies such as the United Nations. The utterance of "universal human rights"is therefore ridiculous.

Note: I echo MacIntyre's qualification that he's not saying human rights per se are bad. Indeed they have done a lot of good. "But the use of a conceptual fiction in a good cause does not make it any less of a fiction" (AV, 64). So what could be better?

"Takin' it to the streets!" (and the pews)
MacIntyre identifies a practice which becomes thinkable and even necessary under rights in modernity: protest. But there's a problem with protest in our individualistic, emotivist moral climate. Divorced from any shared sense of purpose, or ends, moral discourse through protest necessarily undergoes a transformation similar to the transformations above. Prior to modernity, "protest" has a positive connotation, "to bear witness to something," the "pro" prefix denotes being for something (AV, 71). MacIntyre is worth quoting at length here:
But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone's rights in the name of someone else's utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this. (AV, 71, bold added)
Now I circle back to where I started: My avoidance of the news media and being simultaneously puzzled at the postings by my friends on Facebook. Their expressions exhibit exactly the kind of phenomenon which MacIntyre describes. Rush Limbaugh does something stupid and liberals collectively each other. A liberal cable news figure says something brash and conservatives issue a call to fellow conservatives.

Similarly, as I've watched the #occupy movements unfold over the months, I've marveled at its strange brew of protest and constructive expressions of creative alternatives to the socio-political status quo (eg. "the people's library"in Zuccotti Park). If seen through a MacIntyrian lens, #occupy movements will succeed insofar as they seek to imagine and practice creative alternatives to Empire, which is first of all an expression pro something, while simultaneously being an implicit contra something else. Also, it seems to me that the #occupy movements should focus on strengthening local forms of political, economic, social, and religious engagement in the public square as ways to resist and rebuke the kind of totalizing narrative and politicking that the nation-state and its market enact on the body politic.

Finally, the church. Yoderian ecclesiology holds a preference for the local community of saints, so a lot of this unmasking which MacIntyre performs is helpful for worshiping communities as well. Our constructive work, witness, and life together as the church might have interesting similarities and possible contributions to movements such as #occupy, but those will be happy coincidences that should flow from an immersion in the narrative and practices of the Christian faith. Such practices will engender a "religious freedom" which short-circuits Enlightenment myths and their violent abstractions, and frees us to work for and participate in God's redemptive mission/purpose/telos in this world.

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