Review of Bryan S. Turner & Damien T. Freeman, editors, Faith’s Place. Democracy in a Religious World, The Kapunda Press/Connor Court, Redland Bay [Queensland], 2020, in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Vol. 41, 2020, pp. 241-247.
Australia’s political culture, as with western ruling elites generally, with the partial exception of the United States, is becoming more secular. Yet the world is becoming more religious. Faith still registers strongly in western societies. (Even in Australia, though the trend is clear, a clear majority still identify as Christian, though this is dropping.)
Is the interaction of the religious, the agnostics, and atheists, a dialogue of the deaf, or is something richer and more interesting possible? This is a question that has preoccupied thinkers of all stripes from The Enlightenment onwards.
Turner and Freeman’s book gathers two main essays (theirs) and various responses to the topic at hand – faith’s place in the land and in a world increasingly religious. The issues are both localised (Australia) and international (including Australia’s engagement with the rest of the world.)
The book opens with a Foreword by Brisbane’s Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge who argues “faith speaks not just of God and the things of heaven but also of human beings and the things of earth,” suggesting that the earthly and heavenly cannot be neatly compartmentalised.
The editors’ joint introduction opens with a reference to the early 1990s thesis by the late Professor Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) on democracy’s ‘third wave’ and the need for researchers to discern global trends, such as the Catholic Church’s more benign attitudes to democracy in the 20th century, and the sweeping appeal of democracy post the collapse of the Soviet empire. The reference to Huntington, who wrote widely, is interesting. He is perhaps best known for his thesis on ‘the clash of civilisations’ which he developed a few years after his The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) book (based on an article published the same year) and its relatively optimistic argument about the spread-of-democracy and realistic assessment of major stumbling blocks. In his essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ (1993) for the journal Foreign Affairs, which he turned into a book (without the question mark), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Huntington posited that Western, Orthodox, and Islamic civilisations would clash, with potential for comparable civilisational rivalries from Hindu, Sinic, Japanese, Latin American, and possibly African cultures. What some of these hazy nomenclatures might mean was controversial, debatable, and interesting. Without discussing the later development of Huntington’s ideas (unnecessary in a volume like this), the editors wonder how “might he have evaluated our current situation.”
A key component of that “situation” is highlighted by reference to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report on The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections 2010-2050, which they consider authoritative. Islam and Christianity are likely to grow strongly (with Africa’s population growth, increases in longevity, and improved health care, contributing strongly to the overall story.) The editors say: “The challenges presented for democracy in a religious world are the subject of this volume.”
Turner kicks off the debate with a wide-ranging essay on ‘Liberal Societies in a Religious World’. Unfortunately, rambling might be a better description of what he writes. Though his summation of Pentecostalism as a modern-day version of Methodism is very interesting, this is not explored deeply. Statements about “the wars in the Middle East under the presidency of Donald Trump” (hmmm, were there any?), the “slow death of the Great Barrier Reef” (Are there not signs of life?), the “most interesting development” in the recent history of the United States with “the rise of groups such as InCel – involuntary celibacy” (surely a small, fringe group), support for Trump “from increased numbers of Jews” (in the recent presidential election at least 70% voted against him; the Jewish vote, despite Trump’s commendable progress on Arab-Israel relations, went backwards for him in percentage terms. The 2017 Charlottesville far-right, Nazi-flag heralded rally and its violence, together with Trump’s characterisation of “some very fine people on both sides”, rocked and frightened that community and they voted accordingly), and a few other bloops, mar the discussion. Unconvincingly, Turner writes: “…the forces that are changing and eroding citizenship and democracy are the same forces that are changing and undermining religion.” There was potentially a good essay here, but this contribution needed firmer editing.
Of considerable merit is Freeman’s Chapter on ‘Democratic Leaders in a Religious World’. He quotes Burke: “The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought… to be the first study of a statesman.” From this plank, Freeman seeks to construct the argument that understanding the people requires empathy and intellectual engagement (unless the purpose is to better suppress them!) In a liberal democracy, however, “the liberty of the entire population matters.” From there, he discusses what might be incomprehensible to certain secular politicians: the beliefs of the religious. He suggests five key elements: belief in the transcendent; commitment that metaphysics “dictates ethics” (in marked contrast to relativism); the conviction that there are certain obligations we cannot renounce; the anti-individualist idea that life is led through a community; and, finally, that human flourishing requires discovering meaning inherent in the world and obliges adherents to act accordingly. There is a useful discourse on what all this means in the context of the shared Abrahamic faiths’ beliefs in all five principles, though noting variety and shifting perspectives on them. This reviewer believes the claim that religion dictates the actions a believer must follow is debatable. What Sandel and Freeman mean is that a metaphysical world view, a religion for example, prescribes what a person should do. If ethics is the study, interpretation, and elucidation of good actions, and the grounds for adhering to them, then the point is that for some people it is entirely decided by their beliefs. But as Saperstein points out (and as further discussed below), every day you make choices; it is not like people are automatically programmed robots.
Freeman refers to Dyson Heydon’s description of modern, anti-clerical, “elites” who do not understand or appreciate various religious creeds, who desire “unconditional surrender” to the dictates of the secular state. (This is a reference to Heydon’s essay/inaugural 2017 PM Glynn lecture, ‘Religious ‘Toleration’ in Modern Australia: The Tyranny of Relativism’.) But there are grounds to suggest competing and contrasting views need not be impenetrable, from one to the other. Freeman suggests: “The levels of mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, and ambivalence that attend this rapprochement will… likely be determined by self-interest and any amicable relationship may well entail its own peculiar contradictions.” Then he becomes absorbing, discussing the political theorist Michael Sandel’s ideas about the “encumbered self” and the desirability of understanding religious freedom as “freedom of conscience, not freedom of choice”. The former suggests freedom to follow a duty, based on the this-is-who-I-am argument. Freeman argues that the “encumbered self is a richer concept than the duty to adhere to conscience” position, on the principle that verisimilitude matters, though Freeman’s argument would benefit from greater elucidation. (Perhaps this is a subject for a future book.)
But what is the meaning of the encumbered and the unencumbered self? This is not more than sketched, though it lies at the heart of Freeman’s analysis and his development of Sandel’s thinking.
In brief, Sandel charges that the liberal embrace of an unencumbered, individualist self, is unsustainable. Freeman quotes Sandel: “where conscience dictates, choice decides.” This fits with the idea that my personhood is decided by who I am. It is not so much that a person chooses what to believe, it is that intrinsic identity decides what are their beliefs. This is a difficult and tricky territory to negotiate.
Freeman sees a possible bridge from secular to religious perspectives, suggesting that just as gay and transgender persons are what they are, and can only be that, then it is irrational to criticise them for not “choosing” to be otherwise. He argues for the need for protection of “some aspect of the encumbered self” and references the thinking of Rabbi Jonathan Sachs (1948-2020) about “the dignity of difference” and proposes “we need to understand ourselves as part of communities of meaning.” Freeman goes on to conclude: “That religious conscience gives rise to an encumbered self should not be incomprehensible to leaders if they reflect on other senses of the encumbered self that are more immediately comprehensible to them.”
This suggests that difference in society needs empathy, sympathy, an open mind, and the imagination to link apparently incompatible positions into a more nuanced appreciation of the world as it is.
Freeman’s analysis is partly contested by the most interesting (and longest) response in the book, David Saperstein’s essay ‘Religious Freedom in the Twenty-First Century’. Before returning to this – the most important and subversive aspect of the book – it is commendable of the editors to have drawn a rich array of responders.
A former Labor Senator for NSW, now CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, Ursula Stephens, references her experiences including in the all-party Parliamentary Christian Fellowship where, in an atmosphere of trust and confidence, policymaking was influenced. Luke Gosling, a Federal Labor MP in the Northern Territory writes on ‘Amen to the Holy Land in Australia’. He links the beliefs of Aboriginal cultures and the ‘introduced faiths’, saying:
If we have leaders who help others to see the constructive intuitions in these traditions – including in the Indigenous connection with land, sea, sky, and all creatures great and small – then we’ve got a chance of upholding the holiness of life, the dignity of every person, and of living more sustainably on this planet.
Current Liberal Senator for Western Australia, Dean Smith, writes on religious diversity, commenting that the incomprehension of religious attitudes exists not only between secular and religious, but is also “alive between religious people”. Comparative religions anthropologist Robert Hefner’s piece on ‘Faith’s Place in an Age of Democratic Trial’ addresses the book’s themes (affirming “the importance of an encumbered and democratic selfhood even within the circumstance of only modestly overlapping truth claims”), as does religion scholar Jocelyne Cesari’s ‘Democracy in a Religious World or Religion in a Democratic World?’, who regrets, unpromisingly, “the analysis of the never-ending interactions between religion and politics is challenging, if not impossible, within existing political theories.” She tries to repair the gap, careful about widening it. Australian Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan’s account of Islamophobia and secularism in liberal democracies draws parallels between the suspicion of liberal elites towards Islam, and what he sees as the: “Pressing need for … consideration of how to develop appropriate public policies to manage religious and ethnic diversity and to promote inter-religious harmony.” The alternative is localised, small-pond style clashes of civilisation with other religious viewpoints and secular modernity.
James Franklin’s essay, ‘Incomprehension of Religion in Australian Society’, neatly responds to the themes of Freeman’s argument, including the arrogant and wilful dismissal by some prominent secularists about the logic and coherence of Christian, especially Catholic, beliefs on life, sanctity of the person, etc. He characterises this as the “elected ignorance of religion”, playing on the idea of the ‘elected’ as the guardians of liberal elitism as well as their political cousins. In the teaching of history to school children, accounts of the motivating religious convictions of Australian historical figures is mostly ignored. He calls this “a human rights abuse perpetuated on children.” But there is hope in the centrist voters, who decide elections under Australia’s compulsory voting system, where “there remains a strong commitment to the sort of tolerance that is shocked by ‘cancel culture’.” Conservative philosopher and public policy intellectual Michael Casey, the Director of the PM Glynn Institute, provides an overarching, thoughtful piece: ‘Conclusion: Rethinking Religion in a Secular World.’ He asks: “What happens, however, if religion refuses to be over?” And goes on to address the Freeman challenge, which he describes in part as referring to “those whose attachments to place, attributes of identity, and special relationships of obligation decisively mark who they are, beyond any choosing.” He notes: “Sexuality and gender identification are also seen as attributes of identity which are not chosen.” But this is a rabbit hole to be warily entered. Casey insists that “the encumbered self of religious conviction remains set apart” and argues why this is so.
It is now appropriate to return to an earlier point: Rabbi Saperstein’s grappling with the matters raised by Freeman, which is the highlight of the book. He strongly contests Sandel’s and Freeman’s characterisations of conscience and choice: “the difference between conscience claims and choice claims is not always clear.” In this reviewer’s opinion, Sandel draws a longer than necessary bow to argue that encumbered selves are unable to choose freely. The formation of citizens, in the cultivation of civic virtues, requires a place in community. That the community constitutes us rather than vice versa is not to exhaust meaning, however. Some questions are begged. Ironically, identity politics can enact the Sandelian premise that we are not primarily individuals but members of certain communities. This is a complex field, and it is enough in this work that the right questions are asked. Saperstein posits the question: “…is not the religious conscience approach to religious freedom as likely to result in moral relativism as the rights approach?” This is indeed a rich area of focus which this book can claim as its primary achievement.
Read the book is my strong recommendation to anyone even slightly interested in these matters. This volume draws on local and international authors, with depth and breadth in philosophy, practical affairs, and scholarship in Catholic, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and other traditions.
In sum, this is another impressive volume in the Kapunda Press series commenced in 2018 (in association with Connor Court, publishers) for the PM Glynn Institute of the Australian Catholic University. The series’ general editor, Damien Freeman, is an entrepreneur of ideas, with 9 books (including this one) and another in the pipeline.
The publication noted that “Michael Easson is the Executive Chair of EG Funds Management and has an interest in public policy and philosophy.”
Jim Franklin, the journal’s editor, suggested I write something. I recommended David Cragg write a review of The Write Stuff book and as I knew some of the authors, I picked this book to buy and read.