Patrick Deneen: Liberalism, Toleration and the Future Religious Liberty

Patrick Deneen: Liberalism, Toleration and the Future Religious Liberty

Dr. Patrick Deneen, Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, spoke at Ave Maria University on April 8, 2015. 

Deneen used the recent turmoil in Indiana over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as his starting point, opening with the question: What are the politics that caused the current controversy? He identified the age-old “theological-political problem” as being at the heart of the controversy.

“If you look at the…long history of the Western tradition, there have been three basic ways,” Deneen said, “that have been proposed to manage or deal with the theological-political problem.” The first of these is civil religion, a religion mandated by the city and required of every citizen. Practiced by ancient Rome and promoted by Machiavelli, he said, civil religion unites the city and prevents rebellion under the cover of religious dissent.

With the advent of Christianity, things changed. In the City of God, Deneen explained, Augustine makes the “much more difficult, challenging, and in some ways unsettling argument that the theological-political problem was in some ways irresolvable.” Man has, in a way, divided loyalties. He lives in the world and, as such, is subject to worldly authority. Yet man is also homo viator—a pilgrim in this world—and is ultimately headed for the City of God.

“In the wake of the Protestant Reformation,” Deneen said, “a third possibility was raised…broadly, the liberal settlement…as articulated in the First Amendment.” The liberal settlement calls for the separation of church and state and allows for the free exercise of religion, except when religious beliefs or practices are judged to be harmful in the public square. John Locke, who enumerated the liberal settlement in his “Letter Concerning Toleration,” argued that the sole realm of the state was in the material care of the citizens. His idea was that the care of the soul, Deneen explained, “is the sole responsibility of the individual, not of the state.”

It would seem, and many believe, that the liberal settlement is a solution to the theological-political problem directly opposing that of civil religion; the one gives the state total power, and the other limits the state’s power. It would also seem that liberalism “maps” onto the Christian proposal. “Liberalism,” as Deneen phrased the argument, “is generally in conformity with…the Christian recognition of two cities. There are two spheres—the realm of the state and the realm of the soul.” 

But Deneen went on to suggest that liberalism is really not so different from civil religion and possibly hostile to the Christian answer. Citing the scholarship of Brad Gregory, Deneen argued that the two—the establishment of state churches and the toleration of the plurality of religions—accomplish the same end: the control of diversity. Deneen called liberalism “a new, more subtle and much more insidious form of civil religion.”

This coincidence of the seemingly opposite is what we saw come out of hiding during the recent events in Indiana. Deneen pointed out that any religious practice that the state determines is threatening to the peace can be shut down under the logic of the liberal settlement. As Locke argued in his tract on toleration, anyone who holds allegiance to no power, as atheists do, or to another power, as Catholics do, cannot be trusted to abide by the state’s laws. The arguments of the liberal settlement, Deneen said, “are not as neutral as one would be led to believe.”

Liberalism, Deneen predicted, is emerging as something that “promotes individualism, religion as a choice, as an option, as a hobby. It will promote generational fraction and fragmentation…and it will tend to encourage a decrease of institutional forms and institutional practices, with an emphases on internal and spiritual…belief.”

He concluded with a warning that Catholics have come to “accept and embrace the story that liberalism presents…a continuity of the Christian understanding of the settlement of the theological-political question.” He urged them to think again. What Deneen saw in the events in Indiana was an emergence of liberalism as “a kind of civil religion,” one that is hostile to a “teleological understanding of human beings.”

“Last week’s events,” he said, “were not just a legal tussle…not just a debate between political parties…not just positioning for the next presidential election, but in fact the latest salvo in the great battle of the theological-political question at the heart of the West.”