Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nothing special about the public sphere: a reply to Mark Cladis

Mark Cladis has a new post on The Immanent Frame where he discusses a model for public life as it relates to religion. As a "variegated topography", the public is (supposedly) not set in hierarchical relation to religion, either above it in secularist fashion or below it à la various integralisms, fundamentalisms, etc. Religion is "nothing special" to the public insofar as it is not categorically singled out but rather a real and integrated part of the variegated whole of public life.

I'm constantly amused, pleased, and troubled by post-secular musings like this. The "return to religion" hailed by sociologists, philosophers, and political theorists should be encouraging insofar as my work in theology... in a religious community... is represented under this "return". But (setting aside the silly notion that we had even gone elsewhere to begin with), I am troubled by the way that religion is often framed theoretically by these (now) interested parties.

It struck me the other day when reading an article about Muslim piety that religion tends to only attract wide interest when it has political or social implications as defined by a public concern apart from the religious community itself. There is an increased interest in religious life, but often as a peculiarity... as a still-new spectacle in the public imagination. As much as Cladis attempts to offer his model as a successful alternative to religious domination or marginalization, I'm not convinced that the "variegated" public landscape he maps out takes religion seriously enough, or is self-critical enough concerning "the public sphere".

As an example, here are two assertions made by Cladis, each of which seems to put the other in question [bolds are mine, and his emphases are not carried over]:

"A working assumption in this model is that public voices will usually be varied in form and content. Some voices may be explicitly religious; others may be explicitly non-religious. But these distinctions do not matter, according to this model, because no voice is treated as a special case. Or, to say the same thing differently, liberty of conscience and freedom of speech deem that each voice is a special case worthy of a hearing."

...but then:

"The Evangelical Environmental Network, for example—which is concerned about the relation between hurricanes, climate change, and the poor—is lobbying Congress to enact laws to stem global warming.

The proposed model would allow into the public realm these evangelical voices and their religious arguments that address environmental policy. It would not, however, permit government funding for evangelical groups to administer environmental programs, insofar as these groups promote a distinctively theological point of view in the delivery of services."

Cladis' point in arguing that "religion is not special" is that religion is not categorically special, but rather shares a place in a variegated public with other voices. This is clear enough in his description of free exercise, but when he moves to the question of establishment it appears that religion is quite "special", and not in a way that can be approved for public consumption. Does Cladis' change of policy stem from the fact that we're not dealing with religious "voices" now, but rather a "delivery of services"? Such justification seems rather weak to me. Presumably (in this model) a public investment in public religion (via its services) accepts such services on the basis of a religion that has already been deemed "not a special case" as regards its public voice... that is, on the basis of the public argument made by this religious voice for public programs without paticular reference to the religion as a public good itself. What, then, prevents government funding for religious programs that have not been proposed by a special religious voice, not been accepted by special religious criteria, and not been enforced for special religious reasons?

In other words, what changes between the "initial" case that Cladis speaks of and the eventual exclusion of religion from the public sphere? He writes, "this model goes on to acknowledge that, in some sense, religion is a special subject (in light of particular socio-historical circumstances). " Does this mean that its special status is circumstantial? If so, how strong an argument can he really make? Does this model then offer any prescriptive word to situations of Shari'a tradition, or secularist regimes? It doesn't seek to alter an American form of separation, but would it try to impose one in a different societal situation? I don't think it could or should, if it tried.

So the model seems stuck between being incoherent because of its leap from public religious voice to disallowance of religious sponsorship, or else impotent before custom and historical circumstance in modelling anything about whether and how religion is a "special subject" in public life. I think this results from the fact that it is still more or less rooted in a secularist framing of the public that cannot understand religion properly... rather than stopping at critiquing Habermas' conception of religion as a "special language", Cladis should recognize that he is setting up the language (or the language rules) of secular public discourse as "special", when it is in reality nothing of the sort.

4 comments:

  1. could you clarify this:

    "Presumably (in this model) a public investment in public religion (via its services) accepts such services on the basis of a religion that has already been deemed "not a special case" as regards its public voice... that is, on the basis of the public argument made by this religious voice for public programs without paticular reference to the religion as a public good itself. What, then, prevents government funding for religious programs that have not been proposed by a special religious voice, not been accepted by special religious criteria, and not been enforced for special religious reasons?"

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  2. So the Evangelical Environmental Network (to use his example) wants government funding in order to run environmental programs. What I'm asking is, why should the government not take part in such religious programs if the programs are being argued for with "religious voices" that have been deemed acceptable for public policy discourse, if the programs have been accepted by the government on the grounds of these arguments (for environmental concerns rather than religous ones), and if the programs will be enforced by the Evangelical Environmental Network for the purpose of reducing the threat of global warming.

    Basically, why does religion become a "special case" at the point of government sponsoring or funding, when nothing new as far as "religion" goes has been introduced with regard to the government's relationship with a religious group.

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  3. Aha - gotcha. And as long as it's just the voice asking for it and the motivation of that voice, I would definitely agree with you. I think issues come up when its something about the service being delivered itself (or concerns about what else the money might fund) - not the voice or the motivation per se that's the problem (after all - congressmen often use religious voices and motivations).

    I'll respond in more detail - but I think I understand what you were saying now.

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  4. OK - so I have read and considered. Not sure how much new I have to offer, but here it goes:

    I think one important distinction that Cladis was trying to make - but didn't quite articulate it - was between the "public sphere" and the "public sector" - the marketplace of ideas and social landscape of "the public" on the one hand, and the institutional trappings that actually confiscate money, wage wars, regulate behavior, and distribute funds. I think it's entirely consistent to have one set of standards for the "public sphere" and a separate set of standards for the "public sector" because they are very different beasts. The public sphere is a passive thing - a site of interaction, so restriction of the use of the public sphere necessarily restricts the action of free agents. The public sector, on the other hand, is an active thing - a free agent. Restrictions on the actions of the public sector may therefore be appropriate, and shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as restrictions on other free agents (ie - religious groups). In fact, the active sponsorship of religious groups by the public sector - while potentially appropriate - does risk threatening the free action of other agents in a way that opening the public sphere to religious groups doesn't.

    Does that make sense? Opening the public sphere to religious groups (or social groups, or business groups, etc.) has VERY different implications from opening the public sector to these groups, and it should be treated differently. That doesn't mean that the public sector should never be open to religious groups - I think Cladis goes too far in this - but it does mean that different rules may be appropriate.

    By opening the public sector to these groups you are essentially mobilizing a free public agent to support the group in question. By opening the public sphere to these groups you do no such thing. We should be very circumspect about why and how we mobilize public resources.

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