Even as religious freedom deteriorates worldwide, many share a growing unease over liberty’s prospects in the United States. And for good reason, given that the cultural dynamics of contemporary individualism justifies this discomfort and should prod continued efforts to keep issues of religious liberty on the front burners.
As explicated by the noted political theorist Pierre Manent, channeling Tocqueville, the ancients and moderns “are like two distinct humanities.” Of particular significance is the relation of individuals to the bonds of community, for the modern democratic experiment conceives of us first and primarily as individuals, thus dissolving the ties that bind, or at least reconstituting them only “on the basis of individual consent.” Any claim to bind the individual independent of their will cannot but be viewed with deep suspicion, even with hostility.
Dissolution of social bonds is a form of liberation “since henceforth no individual can have an obligation to which he has not consented,” and “communities to which men belong in the democratic world no longer command them.” The authority of older institutions, even those claiming to have their command rooted in the form of things themselves rather than mere convention or habit, is dissolved, and the individual is loosed from pious regard for the older structures.
As individuals first and foremost, we experience ourselves as free from “any natural connections” and are the “authors – the artists – of all … attachments.” We are entirely free to determine the extent and meaning of our connections with others, which forces us to ask what, if anything, we have in common with each other, and how those commonalities might govern us.
According to Manent, modern political doctrines fail to ask this basic question, however, “because they affirm that all legitimacy has its unique source in the individual” and consider even the linking between individuals “a more or less unfortunate necessity, something that does not have meaning for man.” Still, any political order cannot but be “a certain way of putting things in common,” and thus some notion of attachment must emerge. Suspicious of what he views as empty or formal principles of commonality such as “civilization” or “humanity,” Manent doubts also “the human bond affirmed as such”; that is, of affirming “that what is common is humanity itself” even if “leaving this fact indeterminate.”
For us, what remains is a duty to respect the “humanity of the other man.” In its Kantian version, this is done out of my respect for the moral law and out of respect for the other’s capacity to do the same—to be an autonomous fellow member of the kingdom of ends. A lovely ideal, but oddly ahistorical, says Manent, since we good moderns accept nothing other than the condemnation to our free self-determination; the “modern individual hardly loves the law. In truth he hates it, and it is hard to see how hatred of and respect for the law” could possibly combine for the modern self.
Rather than the rigor of respect for the law, “we create a sentimental version founded on compassion,” one whereby the older humanism “becomes humanitarian.” Even this is too robust, for sentiment turns into pity or compassion hardly able to distinguish “between man and animals,” as evidenced by the notions of animal rights. There just isn’t enough in sentiment to provide anything common which links us together.
As we’ve come to understand them, the individual is fundamentally separated from others, and while they may perhaps choose to enter into relation, such are accidents and not essential to them. This is, in Manent’s term, a “negative anthropology,” rooted in distrust, separation, and alienation. We are not fundamentally in relation; we are not first sons or daughters, citizens or members; we are not defined by a web of obligations which precede and place us, define and make us.
When it comes to religious freedom, consequently, we tend to consider it as fundamentally negative, as freedom from incursion into our sovereignty, or as a kind of immunity from the power and agency of others, particularly the state’s. On the face of it, such negative freedom sounds merely formal and procedural, a way to keep coercive power out of our personal and social lives while leaving ample room for a robust spirit of religion in society, even religion with thick demands and authority. This is what it sounds like, but does it ring true, or does it cover over more substantive commitments smuggled in unawares?
From the perspective of negative anthropology, the state must, prima facie, view particular religious claims—including the moral and social issues so often intertwined, such as marriage—as without any status as natural or given. While a believer may believe that God established and enshrined in nature marriage in a given form, the state does not—may not—view it in this fashion, or at least may not grant it such status in a merely negative understanding of immunity, for doing so would encroach on the understanding of some while privileging the (religious) understanding of others. Consequently, the tendency is for the state to treat religion and the constellation of related issues as contingent, as matters of choice, and as constructions. What a religious believer might take to be given by God is taken by the state to be a matter of choice.
Now note, the state’s judgment is putatively neutral and negative—an absence of anthropology, an absence of theology, an absence of thick accounts of the good—but this is severely misleading since the state has actually decided in favor of one kind of freedom and against another. In short, it has decided against a religious understanding of freedom, or at least against what I would take to be the mainstream of the Judeo-Christian understanding.
John Paul II, for instance, argued throughout his papacy that any account of freedom viewed as an abstraction or separation from the truth would (a) posit freedom as a kind of indifference and (b) inevitably undercut genuine freedom. If genuine freedom is to live and act in keeping with the true good, then merely having the capacity to choose the bad is not freedom properly understood. Consequently, what is at stake is the difference between freedom understood as a mere absence of constraint (indifference) and freedom understood as choosing the truly good is a difference in anthropology, metaphysics, and ethics. Choosing indifference over the truly good is to embrace an entire vision of humanity and human flourishing and reject another, and is thus hardly neutral or merely ensuring immunity from encroachment. In other words, negative anthropology privileges a metaphysics of the person mostly at odds with the religious commitments of many citizens.
Once this particular world order is privileged, moreover, the prejudice is established and encouraged to view each and every religious-ethical claim as an object of choice from which there should be an absence of external constraint and authority. Consequently, a religious believer positing the universal truth about, say, the nature of marriage, is viewed as treating their private and arbitrary choice as a demand to be placed on other, an incursion against the guaranteed immunity.
Given this prejudice, one deeply rooted at the heart of contemporary individualism and its negative anthropology and sense of freedom, the oddities emerging in the contemporary debates about marriage and contraception are not so unexpected. For instance, since marriage is viewed as a (largely arbitrary) matter of choice rather than a given of nature and nature’s God, the drive to maintain or secure traditional understandings of marriage cannot but be seen as capricious, motivated by animus, and lacking any ground other than tradition and moral angst. Since a decision is already made for a metaphysics of indifference, thick religious claims cannot but be pre-judged as irrational and oppressive, and any public dispute pitting religion against the zeitgeist is already decided against the tradition.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of individualism has become coupled with a politics of recognition nestled within a shell of authenticity. Since ours is a freedom operating not within the space of obligations which give us our prerogatives and agency but rather as immunities, authenticity is more socially obligatory than adherence to anything like a universal and normative moral framework. Insofar as we seek authenticity, we seek ourselves as self-defined, thus embracing the modern individual’s quest to become fully individual, but each does so under no authority other than their own self-understanding and construction. As Charles Taylor puts it, “everyone should be recognized for his or her unique identity.”
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Since self-interpretation is vital to this politics of recognition, another’s refusal to recognize one’s own self-interpretation denies one’s own authority and autonomy. This is particularly true in a negative anthropology of immunity where the other is not to encroach upon what is yours, and the prerogative to self-define and be recognized as such can mean that to not be recognized violates one’s integrity. And since robustly theistic religions, in the end, think that our lives are not ultimately self-defined, their wisdom is unwelcome, something from which we need protection.
If this description is correct, then disputes about the Little Sisters of the Poor or dress codes posted by Hasidim in their stores are less about partisanship or politics and far more about whether human persons exist in membership or alienation. And, somewhat oddly, those who’ve sided with alienation are terribly intent on forcing their vision on us all.