Something very strange is happening with secularism and religious liberty today. Instead of being used to protect minorities’ freedom to practice their beliefs and curtail government meddling in religious matters, these ideals have morphed into tools of exclusion. Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in Europe, where politicians from Bulgaria to France have invoked secularism to defend bans on veiling by Muslim women. As Belgian politician Daniel Bacquelaine explained in 2010 when his country prepared to pass such a law, forbidding the veil in fact gave Muslim women “more freedom.” In a parallel distortion in the United States, religious liberty has been key in the fight waged by evangelical Christians against same-sex marriage. In a striking example of this phenomenon, last October Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal agencies to exempt believers from anti-discrimination regulations, a measure designed to allow Christian bakers, florists, and others to refuse to serve gay weddings. While secularism has become a pretext for persecuting religious minorities in Europe, religious freedom is increasingly used to justify blatant discrimination in the United States.
But perhaps such perverse dynamics should not surprise us. Perhaps the concept of religious freedom is inherently discriminatory. A new wave of scholarship led by a group of left-leaning historians, anthropologists, and political theorists argues that state-directed secularism or religious freedom almost always breeds injustice. The problem, they argue, is that modern and secular states regulate religion in the first place. In deciding which religious customs are acceptable and which are dangerous, states inevitably impose the majority’s own religious expectations. The path to tolerance and inclusion, these scholars argue, therefore has little to do with religious liberty laws, which will always foster tensions and conflicts. What is required is a broad ethical commitment to accept difference.
A recurring argument in this new scholarship is that secularism and religious liberty—the notions that states should remain neutral so that individual religious beliefs can thrive—are inherently Protestant ideas. This is why, the story goes, these ideas have such paradoxical results: Luther and his students may have claimed that religion was a matter of personal belief, but they also thought that the state had a duty to suppress any communities that argued otherwise.
While this critique may seem like a historical curiosity, it comes with serious baggage. It was originally developed two centuries ago by arch-conservative Catholics, who used it in their attacks against the French Revolution and its ideals of legal equality and democracy. For these reactionary authors, linking the modern idea of religious freedom to the Catholic Church’s historical enemy showed its inherently evil nature. It was also the best way to rebuild a truly conservative and stable theocracy, with clear religious hierarchies.
During the last two decades, such attacks on religious freedom and secularism have enjoyed a renaissance among contemporary theologians. And through them, in an unexpected turn, they have made their way to progressive critics of religious liberty. Highlighting the similarity between new scholarship and old polemics, of course, does not mean they share the same ideological and political goals. Unlike the earlier and conservative opponents of religious freedom, progressive critics are committed to cultural pluralism and equality. But it is nevertheless crucial to understand what progressive and theocratic opposition to religious liberty have in common, and how some of their ideas and assumptions came to converge.
Are they both right that secularism and religious liberty are corrupt beyond saving by virtue of their historical origins? At a time when Trump’s “Muslim ban” in the United States and the surge of right-wing, anti-immigrant governments in Europe has put minorities in particular peril, is the path to “true” religious freedom and equality, paradoxically, to dispense with our modern iterations of religious liberty and secularism altogether? Or can we achieve tolerance and inclusion, not by rejecting these rights and norms outright, but by reforming them to defend a more robust form of pluralism?
The “tainted” origins of secularism and religious liberty
Even before the French Revolution unleashed a wave of anti-clerical violence, conservative Catholics condemned religious liberty as the product of the Protestant Reformation. To many, it was not the ideas of the Enlightenment but the Church’s historic enemies who fueled the revolutionaries’ zealous quest to end Catholicism’s special status as state religion and abolish the clergy’s many legal privileges. The reactionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre spoke for many traditionalists when he claimed in 1798 that the Protestant assault on the Church destroyed the West’s belief in the value of “natural” order and inevitably led to the Revolution’s terror.
In the campaign against the French Revolution and its legacies, Catholic polemicists directed their ire at freedom of religion. Rivers of ink were poured to explain that the right to practice one’s religion freely without state coercion was not the product of modern neutrality, but rather of Luther’s own erroneous teachings. In this line of thought, by encouraging believers to read and interpret the Bible by themselves, Luther and his students made religion a personal matter. Their ultimate goal was to force religion out of the public sphere, strip it of its communal elements, and empty it of any claim to higher truth.
Protestants were therefore the godfathers of secularism as we know it today: with a modern, neutral state to ensure that religion was removed from the public sphere, a plurality of religious beliefs could be expressed in private. This was of course something conservative Catholics had no doubt would breed nihilism and anarchy. For them, religious liberty never really meant to establish peace and equality between different faiths; it was simply a facade for a diabolical plan to end Catholic Christendom. Well into the twentieth century, influential Catholic writers such as Jacques Maritain lamented the Reformation and its alleged notions of religious freedom as the source of modern evils, especially liberal “decadence.”
But things began to change dramatically in the 1930s, when the trauma of facing Europe’s totalitarian regimes propelled Catholics—progressive and conservative alike—to rethink their alliances. Compared to Hitler and Stalin, Protestants suddenly looked far less threatening. In the early years of the Cold War, Catholics started to shed their opposition to both Protestantism and religious liberty. These campaigns reached a successful conclusion in the 1960s when the Church (in the Second Vatican Council) declared Protestants “our separated brethren” and formally accepted religious liberty.
By the twilight of the twentieth century, religious liberty had become so widely accepted that it became a mutual battle cry of both conservative Catholics and evangelicals, especially in the United States. These allies in the evolving culture wars invoked freedom of religion in causes ranging from opposition to abortion to censorship of nudity and pornography. This new consensus received its most forceful articulation in 1994, when a group called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” published a passionate statement against the United States’ ban on religion in public education, which fostered “moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism.” Signed by dozens of church leaders and prominent theologians, it claimed religious freedom was always a cherished Christian principle, which the churches would forever defend. After centuries of animosity, it seemed religious liberty and accommodation to Protestants had become a Catholic consensus. But as it turned out, under the surface, new doubts were brewing.
Catholic attacks on liberalism and privatization of the sacred
Over the last two decades, a new generation of Catholic and Catholic-inspired thinkers, mostly coming from Britain and the United States, has sought to free the Church from what they see as the residual effect of anti-totalitarian thought. Religious liberty, they claim, was a compromise designed to protect believers from Nazi and, later, communist persecution. With the Cold War over, the idea had outlived its usefulness. While these new writers, who sometimes call their movement “radical orthodoxy,” never mention earlier Catholic polemicists, they too seek to discredit religious liberty—and liberalism as a whole. And the path is again through historical stories that tie them to Protestantism’s heretic legacy.
The first prominent writer to point in this direction was the British theologian John Milbank, whose idiosyncratic politics includes both left-wing disdain for neoliberalism and right-wing opposition to minorities’ rights. Milbank has denounced any Christian accommodation with what he calls “secular politics” and “secular reasoning.” Believers should support democracy, to be sure, but they should not accept their religion’s relegation to only one among others in a pluralist society. For Milbank, all ideologies that supported secular politics, whether humanism, liberalism, or socialism, were unified in their quest to create a new, rational, and autonomous individual. But by doing so, he argued, they cut off Europeans (and by extension, Americans) from their Christian heritage, left them isolated and spiritually impoverished, and ultimately led to our era’s major ills, like capitalism and nationalist populism. As he put it, the West has to choose between “religion and nihilism”—and so, must once again enshrine Christianity as a privileged religion. “It is not deplorable,” he wrote in 2017, “that our Western sense of what valid religion consists in is an inherently Christian one.”
It has fallen to a younger American Catholic theologian, William Cavanaugh, to carry these ideas outside academia. Cavanaugh allows that appealing to religious liberty may be legitimate as part of a legal strategy to expand Catholic influence in society (in 2012, for instance, he signed a statement that invoked the term to oppose the demand that employers provide contraception as part of their workers’ healthcare coverage). Yet he also warns that religious liberty poses a stark threat to the Church. By embracing the language of rights, Cavanaugh wrote in his 2016 book Field Hospital, Catholics accepted that religion was a strictly private matter, thereby limiting their ability to mold state laws. Such a compromise might, for example, prevent the state from forcing Catholics to provide contraception, but it could not justify banning contraception altogether (assuming that would be politically feasible). For Cavanaugh, embracing the right to religious liberty therefore inadvertently crippled Christian politics. As he recently put it, “we need more than an appeal to freedom of belief . . . we need a robust defense of the idea that our God is the God of all creation,” and whose laws should shape every citizen’s life.
While these ideas received considerable attention, what has often gone unnoticed is how heavily even the new theologians rely on the old anti-Protestantism. Milbank argued in 2006 that “the Protestant Reformation completely privatized . . . the sacred,” leading to today’s spiritual “wasteland.” Cavanaugh similarly lamented in 2016 that it was the Reformation that tragically produced “the modern conception of rights as inhering in individuals.” Religious liberty, both argue, was never simply a manifestation of tolerance. Under the guise of equality for all faiths, it was a devious effort to force all religions into being more like Protestantism, ultimately leading to nihilism. In Milbank and Cavanaugh’s view, Protestants (and anyone who subscribes to modern liberal ideas) are spiritual sleepwalkers, aimlessly wandering through the world with little direction and no conviction. With such statements, Catholic thought had come full circle, and returned to its old roots. But this was not just a Christian story. Soon, such ideas would enjoy resonance in surprising new circles.
Progressive critiques of secularism
Just as “radical orthodoxy” writers unleashed their blistering attacks on secularism and religious liberty, some voices on the left began to question these concepts as well. Much like anxious Christians, these left-leaning critics were concerned with how secularism might diminish the place and practice of minority religions in the West, though in their case, the focus was Islam. This was a response to post-9/11 developments, when Europeans increasingly invoked secularism and freedom from religious influence in an expanding campaign to ban Muslim customs like veiling and circumcision. American leaders proclaimed “liberation” of Muslim women to excuse their catastrophic adventures in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. The entanglement of the rhetoric of secularism and freedom with ugly geopolitical ends led many progressives to wonder whether the two could ever be separated from the West’s long history of imperialism, intolerance, and violence.
According to scholars from this critical camp, using secularism to discriminate against minorities was the inevitable product of the West’s very conception of the place of religion in public life—namely, that it should have none. Talal Asad, the most influential proponent of the left’s critique of secularism, explained in his 2003 book Formations of the Secular that Western secularism was built on a rigid vision of religion as a matter of personal faith. This, he argues (like earlier Catholic critics), is incompatible with Muslim practices that express belief through external and collective symbols—such as veiling, building of minarets, or celebrating holidays like Eid al-Fitr in public spaces—all of which came under attack in the post–9/11 era and made the West a hellscape for Muslim minorities. Other prominent historians and political scientists made similar critiques that tried to expose the politically selective ways in which secularism—ostensibly a neutral, universal, and peaceful way to manage religious affairs—was used to discriminate against groups that did not conform to its definition of appropriate religious practice. This was true both in the West itself, they claimed, as well as anywhere Western governments and organizations had imposed this particular understanding of secularism or religious freedom.
While the new critics on the left have rarely acknowledged it, they ironically borrow some of their conservative counterparts’ anti-Protestant arguments. Take, for example, political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s brilliant Beyond Religious Freedom (2015), a progressive frontal assault on European and American foreign policy. According to Hurd, when Western governments and NGOs rush to protect minorities abroad in the name of religious freedom, as they occasionally have done for the Ahmadis in Pakistan or the Alevis in Turkey, they impose their own narrow understandings on others. In doing so, they transform local conflicts over economic resources or political hegemony into religious battles, turn minorities into apostates, and ultimately make matters worse. For Hurd, a key cause for this mess is the West’s embrace of the Protestant belief that religion is a private affair. A similar type of argument is on display in anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age (2015) and historian Joan Scott’s Sex and Secularism (2017), which powerfully explore how secular states like France and Egypt discriminate against their minorities (Muslim or Bahá’í, respectively). Both books claim that Protestant-inspired thinkers and missionaries are responsible for these injustices because they exported, in Mahmood’s words, their “privatized conception of religion whose proper locus was the individual, his conscience, and personal experience.”
The surprising blooming of this anti-Protestant streak in progressive scholarship is not simply an accidental similarity, but the product of direct intellectual links. No one exemplifies this more than Talal Asad. Few writers receive more praise in Asad’s Formations of the Secular than John Milbank. In fact, the book reproduces Milbank’s claims about Luther’s terrible legacy to make its point against religious freedom. Following Milbank, Asad claims that Europe’s ancient Christian regimes recognized that people’s spirituality depended on their membership in groups, and thus accepted their right to have religious autonomy—for example, allowing Jews to have their own marriage laws. It was the Reformation that tragically began to unravel this tolerant arrangement, freeing individuals from social traditions, and ultimately leading to secularism and atomization.
In order to achieve true equality, Asad therefore claims, the West would do well to revisit its premodern and pre-secular thinking about religion. Instead of crafting universal laws for managing religion, which in fact privilege Protestant norms and ideas, governments should once again recognize the fundamental differences between groups, and allow each religious community to practice freely, in both private and public. Only then would all religions be on equal footing. Asad never systematically reflected on the irony of using medieval Christendom—with its pogroms and crusades—as a model for a deep inclusion of minorities, or on using Milbank’s hierarchical vision in order to bolster his emancipatory goals. His goal is to critique secularism by exposing its troubled roots; how alternatives might do better is never fully explored.
Ultimately, what progressive critics of secularism like Asad and Catholic opponents of religious liberty share is the belief that their origins make these concepts irredeemable. Equating religious freedom with Luther’s idea of faith as a personal matter, with no place in the public sphere, they maintain, discredits its claim to be nonsectarian and universal, and thus its validity. These works do not consider why non-Protestants (like the modern Catholic Church) ultimately reconciled themselves to religious liberty, and how this suggests that our interpretation of these rights can always evolve. Instead, in their line of thinking, secularism and religious liberty are not concepts that can change over time; they are frozen, forever sullied by their historical origins, never open to reform.
Is secular neutrality possible?
Scholars on the left have challenged the application of secularism for good reason. When states and courts invoke secular principles to justify discrimination against Muslims or other minorities, the idea of just neutrality may well appear as a myth. But would a future that fails to even aspire to religious neutrality be more inclusive?
The political landscape of recent years, from the racism and sexism of Donald Trump to the rise of blatantly Islamophobic governments in Europe, points to one answer. These movements are powerful reminders that the most immediate threat to religious tolerance today is not an individualized conception of religion, but the blatant desire to legally elevate Christianity above all other religions—something that can be achieved by both abuse of religious-liberty arguments (as in the United States) as well as disingenuous defenses of secularism (as in Europe). However, left critics like Talal Asad don’t always distinguish between immediately repressive measures and the historical injustices that have shaped our understanding and practice of secularism today. The scope and severity of contemporary assaults on the rights of minorities suggest that religious freedom is still a right worth defending.
Why should religious liberty be considered so rigid that it could not be freed of its strict Protestant origins? Why can’t our modern norms defining secularism and religious liberty be transformed and expanded to respond to the challenges of a new era? There is no reason why progressive advocates cannot redefine these ideas to include a wider range of practices and groups than they currently do. As the legalization of same-sex marriage demonstrates, even institutions like marriage, which were explicitly designed to exclude certain groups, can be expanded in more progressive ways.
Ultimately, progressives must remake, not discard, the state apparatus of secularism and religious liberty to further the cause of pluralism and tolerance. As with economic or gender relations, state regulation of religious practice too can breed inequality—but it can also be a crucial tool in fighting discrimination. Secularism’s critics are right that laws alone cannot eliminate people’s often ugly distaste for other groups’ rituals and beliefs. But for faiths to be truly equal, what is needed is more secularism, not less, more religious liberty, not its end.
Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a postdoctoral fellow of religious studies at Yale University.