Public Civic Private Religion (Craig Martin)


Gearing up for a talk on Moses Mendelssohn, Judaism, and the “rights of man,” I’m reading around in political theory and religion. Finally I got around to reading Craig Martin’s Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere. In the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that Craig is a Syracuse Religion alum, and that Masking Hegemony had its first life as a dissertation on whose defense committee I was a member.

What I learned from Craig’s dissertation and now from the book is just how inadequate the public/private binary is when trying to model the place of religion in modern liberal society. It’s not because there’s no difference between public and private, but rather because the public and the private spheres are mediated by a third sphere, namely the civil or civic sphere, or what is sometimes referred to as “society.” Religion is a civil society institution, occupying a hybrid position that is neither purely private nor purely public.

Masking Hegemony examines the genealogy of liberal religion and liberal claims about religion, starting with John Locke and including contemporary thinkers like Robert Audi, Ann Pelligrini, and John Rawls. The main line of argument is that the idea that religion is or should be purely private in liberal society masks the hegemony of its own operation. As a civil society institution, religion is not purely private, but represents a socializing force for the dissemination of values and interests. By looking at Locke’s essay “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” we can see the way Christianity continues to inform liberal enlightenment values, continues to secure its own place and the place of religion in liberal society.

While Craig is more bothered by hegemony than I am, what I find satisfying about this model is the way it both enhances and complicates debates about liberalism and religion. While Craig recognizes the existence of separate public and private spheres, what he is right to reject is the rigid binary that informs the way these spheres are said to operate in a lot of contemporary liberal political philosophy in the Anglo-American west. By turning our eye back to Locke and his little known essay on education, we are given to see how starting with Locke, the relationship has always been far more complex.

Locke only appears to have advocated the complete separation of religion and state, while actually recommending that the religion of a rational form of Protestant Christianity retains a controlling social interest in its control of the education of children. In our own day, I would add, religion may have lost its dominant position in the education of children, even as it preserves its position in society as paideic community. As I understand Craig’s thesis, I would also add that the civil society character of religion does a lot to explain the hegemony exercised by cultural Protestantism throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in England, the United States, and Germany.

I think Craig gets right the relation between religion and state. They are “different institutions, but institutions whose powers are imbricated. The term ‘head’ identifies something different than the term ‘circulatory system,’ but it would be ridiculous to suggest that there is a separation between the two. No one makes a binary opposition between ‘head’ and ‘circulatory system.’ The powers of the circulatory system extend into the head, and the powers of the head extend into the circulatory system. Similarly, the powers of civil institutions (‘religious’ or not) extend into the state, and the powers of the state extend into civil institutions.” A distinction is made, but not a dualism (p.126).

Where I disagree with Craig has mainly to do with the hermeneutic of suspicion that informs ideology critique as a whole, and his particular use of it. In particular, I think Craig underestimates the public-private border when he calls it “imaginary” (p.157). I would argue that this border is a subtle one precisely because of the third mediating space of civil society that Craig in fact has identified and whose function or circulation he has clarified. The idea too that Locke’s Christian commitments were secured by “little more than” education and upbringing suggests that these commitments were flimsy. Craig will actually have shown the contrary. These commitments for Locke were thick indeed, based on education, the formation of self-evident truths, moral principles, custom, civic desire, a confidence in the basic trustworthiness of Scripture, etc., etc.

It could be that, despite his own better judgment, Craig’s understanding of religion is Protestant-all-too-Protestant, that it is too deeply invested in ideas concerning belief and doctrinal content. Against Robert Audi, Craig does not seem to see that perhaps there is a value in the thin vagueness of liberal conceptions of religion, a power in the operation of empty placeholders. I would argue that liberal vagueness are not so unproductive as they might have seemed during the administrations of George W. Bush.

Part of Craig’s argument is that by not confronting conservative Christian ideology head-on, that liberalism essentially dis-empowered itself. His concern is not so much with the hegemony of liberal religion, but with what he thinks is the ascendant hegemony of conservative religion in our own day and age. He maintains that liberalism, by not directly confronting conservative Christianity, by trying to cordon off religion as something private, and by trying to preserve the neutrality of the state, actually empowers conservative Christianity (see especially chp.5).

Liberal doctrine, I suspect, is more robust than Craig thinks it is.  It might not have seemed that way after Reagan and under Bush-Cheney. But with the religious right knocked back on its heels in “the age of Obama,” with the installation of a new liberal Pope in Rome, with the withering of opposition to gay marriage, it might well be that liberalism is not the dead thing its critics on the right and left consider it to be. Vagueness and empty placeholders do a lot to secure a decent and fair place for religion in liberal society. And while it may impose itself on society as a whole, liberal religion remains less intrusive in the lives of individuals than does the conservative religion resisted by liberals and progressives alike.

At issue is whether you trust liberal democracy. Craig doesn’t. Part of his argument rests on the reasonable suspicion that the protections built in by a majority to secure the rights of a minority are always suspect precisely because they have been “rigged” by that same majority (p.164-5). In contrast to the more radical political position staked out by Craig, I am unable to identify any known constitutional alternatives that are better than ones built on the often fraught and antagonistic coupling of majority consent and individual rights, a public-governmental-state apparatus formally neutral in relation to religion, if not in relation to values and moral content, the separation of powers, the separation of spheres, and the formation of robust and competing civil-society spheres regulated by law, public opinion, and the idea and practice of public citizenship.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Public Civic Private Religion (Craig Martin)

  1. efmooney says:

    Just a tease of a question: if Tim Tibow kneels after scoring a touchdown on national TV, is that act public, private, or social?

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