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on democratic secularism Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006



On Democratic Secularism

William Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ:   Princeton University Press, 2004)

Brian Goldstone
Duke University


1.   To what extent can the current proliferation of critiques leveled at the varieties of secular liberalism be similarly directed toward recent, more "radical" articulations of democracy?   Must democratic theory necessarily fall prey to the disciplining (and oftentimes violent) maneuvers of a secularism that would ultimately dictate the form public religious expressions can take?   According to a number of influential political theorists, democracy and secular liberalism are not synonymous concepts, and therefore should not be talked and written about as if they were.   Some theorists, such as Sheldon Wolin (2004) and Romand Coles (2005), propose such a distinction by distancing what they call "radical" or "fugitive" democratic engagements from the calculus of state power - a move liberals neither find desirable nor seem capable of.   In respect to the contemporary geopolitical moment, whereby, in the words of Alain Badiou, "it is somehow prohibited not to be a democrat" and interventions are routinely conducted by "meddling democratic marines and paratroopers," the need to draw such distinctions becomes rather acute (and this is, incidentally, precisely the distinction - between democracy and the liberal state - that Badiou wishes to draw as well) (Badiou 2005: 78).   If democracy is to be rescued from its current associations with militaristic compulsion and xenophobic patriotism - to say nothing of its more than casual affinity with global capitalism - it must simultaneously be rescued, the argument goes, from its association with political liberalism and the centralized, bureaucratic state it helped to create.  

2.   "When democracy is settled into a stable form," writes Wolin, "such as prescribed by a written constitution, it is also settled down and rendered predictable.   Then it becomes the stuff of manipulation:   of periodic elections that are managed and controlled, of public opinion that is shaped, cajoled, misled, and then polled, and of a legal system that dictates how much democracy is to be permitted."   Thus, he proposes that we view democracy as "an ephemeral phenomenon rather than a settled system" (Wolin 2004: 602).   But if Wolin and Coles wish to distinguish democracy from political liberalism largely along these lines, others have recently brought issues of religiosity to the fore, arguing that liberalism by no means exhausts the conditions under which religious beliefs can be held and even flourish within democratic societies.   It is in this milieu that two prominent theorists, William Connolly and Jeffrey Stout, have set out (albeit in some dissimilar ways) to distance themselves from liberal conceptions of public reason, and in doing so to reevaluate democracy's relationship with the secularism so often affiliated with it.  

3.   In my readings of both Connolly and Stout, however, we are presented not so much with a fundamental overturning of secular presuppositions, as with a more-inclusive, less-Rawlsian conception of the democratic interplay between religion and politics - a conception which nonetheless remains, I would argue, deeply indebted to both secular and liberal reasoning.   Notwithstanding their many differences, both theorists seem to agree on at least one thing (though neither would put is so plainly):   that the entry of religious reason into the political realm requires either a degree of self-disciplining on the part of its participants, or assumes that political subjectivities have already been remade and reformed to such an extent that this self-disciplining is no longer necessary.   For his part, Connolly (despite his oddly-named Why I Am Not a Secularist ) does not really deny this.   On the one hand, he argues that the secularity embodied by thinkers such as Kant, Habermas, and Rawls has oftentimes fallen prey to its own version of intolerance, ultimately reinforcing the impression that secularism is the only acceptable form of political belonging.   "The historical modus vivendi of secularism," he writes, "while seeking to chasten religious dogmatism, embodies unacknowledged elements of immodesty in itself" (19).   This realization does not, however, lead him to dismiss secularism outright.   Once it has been washed clean of its residue of Enlightenment prejudice, Connolly finds at the core of secularism not an injunction limiting the role religion can play in political reasoning, but rather an ethic detailing the character of public discourse, the role of religion and nonreligion in public life, and, more specifically, the terms of conversation among an array of metaphysical claims in contemporary pluralistic societies.    

4.   So while Connolly says he is not a secularist, he nevertheless argues that "secularism needs refashioning, not elimination" (19).   This refashioning of secularism would refuse the nonreligious or nontheistic tendency to elevate its own dimension of discourse to a position of singular primacy while, at the same time, keeping the religious will to power firmly in check - this because a cultural pluralism "appropriate to the times" is unlikely, in Connolly's view, to be housed in the austere postmetaphysical partisanship that purports to place itself above the fray of conflicting positions.   Instead, the need today is to "rewrite secularism to pursue an ethos of engagement in public life among a plurality of controversial metaphysical perspectives, including, for starters, Christian and other monotheistic perspectives, secular thought, and asecular, nontheistic perspectives" (39).   Yet there is at least one unresolved peculiarity in this statement:   secularism is at once being framed as a unique political arrangement - one which would exemplify his "ethos of engagement" - and as a metaphysical perspective, which can and should coexist alongside a number of other positions.   Although Connolly fails to clarify his deployment of these terms, it is the latter (and somewhat less provocative) usage - secularism-as-"perspective" - that retains the most purchase in his text.   This is seen earlier in the book, when he states that "the objective is not to eliminate secularism, but to convert it into one perspective among several in a pluralistic culture" (11, emphasis mine).   This understanding of secularism is important, because it allows him to downplay the epistemic status of pluralism as such - that is, the degree to which cultural pluralism, as a political doctrine, is itself always already a product of secular reason - while nonetheless emphasizing the modesty secularism (and secularists) must cultivate in order to participate non-coercively in such a culture.   Likewise, it allows him to delineate the manner in which religious sensibilities should be fashioned under such circumstances.  

5.   According to Connolly, an ethos of engagement requires the self-recognition that one's identity (be it religious or secular) is just one constituency among others, with the accompanying stipulation that one's "immodest demands of transcendental narcissism" be relaxed   (8).   As he sketches out this picture of democratic pluralism even further, the sorts of religious commitments being sanctioned by Connolly are made increasingly clear.   First and foremost, his vision of pluralism depends on the willingness of "multiple constituencies honoring a variety of moral sources and metaphysical orientations" to engage with each other in some way.   But Connolly goes on to say that such an engagement will only "provide an existential basis for democratic politics if and when many partisans affirm without deep resentment the contestable character of the fundamental faith they honor most" (39, emphasis mine).   When Talal Asad observes that secularism requires that "beliefs should either have no direct connection to the way one lives, or be held so lightly that they can easily be changed," it is hard to avoid thinking that he is highlighting precisely the prescriptive thrust of Connolly's pluralism (Asad 2003: 115).   Connolly, however, is quick to resist just this characterization:

Appreciation of the profound contestability of the fundamentals you honor does not mean that you must forfeit faith in a loving or commanding god, give up secular faith in reason (or one of its surrogates), or adopt my nontheistic faith in the plurovocity of being.   It means that you and I come to terms with our respective inabilities, so far at least, to secure our respective faiths so tightly that all reasonable humans must place either one at the center of public life (8).

But from where does Connolly derive this assumption of our respective inabilities to secure our faiths so tightly?   And, more pertinently, which faiths (or values) are we able to secure to such a degree that the unity of a collective, a community, or a civic nation (an entity Connolly's theorizations continue to reference) remains intact?  

6.   If these questions go for the most part unanswered in Why I Am Not a Secularist , they will be more directly addressed in Stout's work.   Before moving on, though, it might be important to emphasize the significance of Connolly's statements in light of current attempts on the part of the United States and Europe to delineate - if need be through force and suppression- exactly those religious expressions deemed most suitable to liberal democratic (not to mention capitalist) societies.   It is in this light that fundamentalists come to be defined as those who are unwilling to recognize the "contestability" of their beliefs, and subsequently become, following Connolly's own rationale, enemies of democratic governance.   If Connolly would most likely not endorse the militaristic interventions that ensue, we must nevertheless recognize the ways in which his "non-secularist" prescriptions coincide with those of the dominant political powers.    

7.   In his much-acclaimed book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout sets out to overturn, once and for all, exactly this depiction of an exclusionary democracy.   If Connolly wants to "refashion" secularism to make it more conducive to an ethos of democratic pluralism, Stout thinks that such a refashioning is unnecessary and claims that "modern democracy is not essentially an expression of secularism, as some philosophers and many theologians have feared" (11).   Of course, much hinges on what Stout means when he says "secularism," and it soon becomes clear that, as with Connolly, political liberalism will serve as the paradigmatic embodiment of all that "authentic" democracy is not.   Thus, we get a rather thin definition of secularism, apparently lifted from the worst moments of Rawls (1993) and Rorty (1999).   Put simply, secularism "rules out the expression of religious premises [in political deliberation] or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions" (11).   Seeing as how one of the primary tasks of Democracy and Tradition is to offer a corrective to the criticisms of democracy put forth by the "new traditionalisms" of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank - who, according to Stout, have erroneously conflated liberalism and democracy - it is understandable that Stout would want to disassociate democracy from this picture of secularism.   Because, according to Stout, the political culture of democracy does not reflect the prejudiced secularism of Rawls and Rorty, so neither does it reflect the secularism supposedly feared by the new traditionalists.  

8.   If the American tradition of democracy (on which Stout, like Connolly, bases his study) did in fact entail the exclusion of religion from political life, theologians like Hauerwas and Milbank would, in his view, be justified in denouncing it.   In many ways, then, the overarching attempt of Democracy and Tradition is to contest this conflation of democracy with secularism.   Thus distanced from secularism as such, Stout concedes that democratic culture has indeed undergone a "secularization" of political discourse, but that theologians like Hauerwas and Milbank are not justified in denouncing it.   It is therefore necessary to elucidate the basis on which he opposes "secularism" to "secularization," and to then decide if a distinction along such lines is warranted.   In the end, and despite his best efforts, I think Stout fails to appreciate the ways in which his account of democracy, even in this more "generous" modality, falls prey to a policing impulse toward religion similar to the one highlighted in Connolly.      

9.   While on the face of things my focus on the status of the secular in Democracy and Tradition may seem a bit trivial - the concept is, after all, discussed in only one chapter ("Secularization and Resentment") out of twelve - I would nonetheless insist that its demarcation and resolution remains a crucial component of the text.   The book's principle task is to reconsider the terms of interaction between religion and democracy, which Stout summarizes in the query "What role, if any, should religious premises play in the reasoning citizens engage in when they make and defend political decisions" (63)?   In answering this question, Stout seeks to counter the depiction - promulgated mostly by the aforementioned new traditionalists - that democratic culture remains inherently bereft of moral and spiritual virtues.   Moreover, he challenges the assumption that democracy depends on the establishment of political deliberation on the common ground of free public reason, independent of comprehensive doctrines or tradition.   In other words, he argues against the idea that democracy is somehow intrinsically inhospitable to substantive religious reasoning.   In order to make his case, Stout has to distance democracy from its imbrication with a dominant strand of political philosophy that has, for the most part, rendered religious traditions ancillary to a "free-standing" political conception of justice.   In the end, he argues that democracy is itself a tradition, existing alongside of and in conversation with other traditions, which finally means that "Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece" (3).   The argumentative structure of the book rests on the conjecture that once democracy has been viewed in this different, ostensibly more accurate light - one more resembling the traditions established by Dewey, Emerson, and Whitman than the philosophies of Locke, Rawls and their followers - we will be better equipped to understand the role that religious premises can and should play in such milieus.

10.   The rather innocuous "secularization" with which Stout wishes to describe democratic culture entails neither the denial of theological assumptions nor the expulsion of theological expression from the public sphere.   These attributes, according to Stout, instead correspond to the quite particular ideology of "secularism" put forth by political liberalism.   Employing a theoretical perspective remarkably similar to José Casanova's influential Public Religions in the Modern World (1993), Stout wants to refute the parts of the secularization thesis that presume the marginalization of religion to the private realm, but wants to retain a notion of the differentiation of the public realm from religious institutions and norms (what Casanova calls the "core of the theory of secularization") as both politically expedient and historically descriptive.   In the same way, Stout does not see the need to hold onto the widely-held assumption that this differentiation must eventually involve the decline of personal religious beliefs and reasoning.   He writes:

What makes a form of discourse secularized, according to my account, is not the tendency of the people participating in it to relinquish their religious beliefs or to refrain from employing them as reasons.   The mark of secularization, as I use the term, is rather the fact that participants in a given discursive practice are not in a position to take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are.   This is the sense in which public discourse in modern democracies tends to be secularized (97).

11.   So the substantive difference between democratic secularization and the secularism of Rawls and Rorty mostly has to do with the extent to which, on the one hand, theological commitments can be exercised as a reflection of one's own individuality and, on the other hand, the extent to which these commitments can be brought to bear on public discourse in a religiously plural landscape.   But it is this latter usage - secularization as a public ethic - that Stout emphasizes.   "The theory I offer," Stout writes, "is an account of what transpires between people engaging in public discourse, not an account of what they believe, assume, or presuppose as individuals.   It has nothing to do with their experience of the world as a disenchanted universe, emptied of divine intentions and spiritual meanings" (98).     

12.   But do theorists like Rawls and Rorty really care about whether or not people hold onto private religious commitments, or are they more concerned, especially in their later works, with securing the public realm from the risk of unresolvable theological disagreements?   Might Rawls and Rorty, the exemplars of Stout's depiction of secularism, be perfectly justified in asking, " Who said anything about 'a disenchanted universe, emptied of divine intentions and spiritual meanings? '" At this point, the imprecision of Stout's characterization of secularism is revealed:   he wants to recuperate his own conception of democratic secularization in opposition to the liberalism so often criticized by the new traditionalists, and so he implies that secular liberalism aims to establish a society free of private religious commitments or, failing that, a society whereby religious commitments are systematically excluded from the public sphere.   But this portrayal of political liberalism, even according to Stout's own nuanced discussion of Rawls and Rorty in an earlier chapter, is largely disingenuous, and furthermore serves to obscure what is in reality a conception of public religiosity that, in its most essential elements, is in no way incompatible with the liberalism he tries to distance himself from.   In sum, the ideological "secularism" attributed to political liberalism is but a decoy which effectively diverts attention away from what remains Stout's own deeply problematic prescriptions regarding public religious expression.  

13.   When Stout says that secularization involves the fact that citizens "are not in a position to take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are," what he means is that one important democratic norm is the recognition of the impossibility of a common theological/religious discourse.   Thus, people are free to frame their contributions to democratic discourse in whatever vocabulary they please, as long as they do not expect everyone to share their perspectives (97).   The implications of this last stipulation are elaborated in a crucial distinction he draws between a person being justified in believing a particular claim, and the manner in which a particular claim becomes justified.  

A person is justified in believing a claim if he or she is entitled to be committed to it, given his or her discursive context and cognitive conduct.   A claim is justified in some discursive context if everyone in that context is justified in believing it (either because they have no relevant reasons for doubting it or because it has already been successfully defended against all relevant reasons for doubting it).   In modern democracies, theological claims tend not to have the default status of being justified in the latter sense when uttered in public settings - for the simple reason that these settings tend to be religiously plural (99).

If Stout's theory of secularization concerns what can be taken for granted when exchanging reasons in public settings, he is, in making the preceding distinction, detailing the kinds of claims that can be reasonably expressed (and thereby respected) in such contexts.   Significantly, this discussion of claims could easily lead one to assume that Stout is laying the groundwork for a radical epistemological critique of the possibility for any public consensus - after all, what sort of claim, religious or otherwise, could withstand his demand that a society of people holding a multiplicity of background perspectives should have "no relevant reasons for doubting it?"  

14.   But he is suggesting no such thing.   Rather, he is arguing that the democratic tradition contains certain claims which can in fact be taken for granted, and certain claims which cannot.   It subsequently becomes necessary, when bringing one's claims into public discourse, to evaluate the degree to which one's claims can be "doubted," and to proceed with the rhetorical and epistemological caution that the findings of such an evaluation calls forth.   On this point, Stout seems to be arguing that theological arguments can and should enter the political realm, but only on the condition that the deep contestability (to use Connolly's term) of their claims be recognized, and then adjusted accordingly.   For Stout, this means that "in most contexts it will simply be imprudent, rhetorically speaking, to introduce explicitly theological premises into an argument intended to persuade a religiously diverse public audience" (98).  

15.   While the criteria for what qualifies a premise as "theologically explicit" remains ambiguous, Stout does seem to allow for religious argumentation in public when doing so involves an appeal to values held across a variety of religious and nonreligious perspectives.   Otherwise, one is unlikely to be listened to.   But a situation such as this itself seems unlikely, for the "religion" Stout so freely admits into political discourse - in contrast to the religion of the new traditionalists and other "fundamentalists" - has already been disciplined by a normative democratic conception of public religion (which only serves to reinforce Stout's depiction of the new traditionalists as hopefully out of touch with the exigencies of democratic culture).   As with Connolly, Stout speaks primarily of the United States and therefore assumes, rightly enough, that his theoretical pragmatism will be heard as more or less reasonable.   In other words, because the religious sensibilities he has in mind have to a large extent already been domesticated by a long process of secularization, he need not spend much time theorizing about more uncomfortable, increasingly common global religious phenomenon (witnessed not only in the prevalence of "political Islam" but also, for example, in the so-called "New Christendom" taking shape in much of the non-Western world).                      

16.   It is for this reason that we should be skeptical of Stout's attempt to differentiate, at least so far as religion is concerned, his version of democracy from that of liberalism and secularism.   Just as Connolly argues that religious beliefs, when held too tightly and too confidently, pose a serious threat to what he calls the "existential basis for democratic politics," so also does Stout's vision of democracy share with secular liberalism the view that religious identities, at least in their public manifestations, should accept the ultimate unknowability of their claims.   Consequently, they must concede their authority to the nation-state, for it is in the perpetually re-imagined community of the nation-state that some notion of the common good is assumed to reside.   Finally, Stout shares with liberalism the belief that were religious groups to refuse this transfer of authority and instead pursue a strategy of antisecularization, it would most likely be accompanied by "the same dangers that did obtain during the state-forming wars of early-modern Europe and today still plague nations where civic trust, tolerance of religious differences, and constitutional democracy have yet to establish themselves" - that is, it would be accompanied by religious violence (100).     

17.   So whereas Stout's "secularization" and Connolly's "refashioned secularism" is deemed necessary because of the impossibility and undesirability of establishing a common theological basis for society, agreement on a shared set of "democratic values" is, according to Stout, both feasible and desirable.   At the outset of Democracy and Tradition , we are told that these values are embodied in the Preamble of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which together express an aspiration to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."   "Who among us," Stout continues,

does not hope to receive from the government roughly what the Preamble promises?   Agreement on the value of such goods and on the value of attempting to secure them in something like the Constitution's way would seem to be a more promising source of solidarity than resentment and fear (3).

18.   Stout is surely correct when he says that agreement on such goods as delineated by the Preamble will provide national solidarity in a way that, for instance, trying to establish a common theological notion of the good will not.   But like the myriad politicians and editorialists who so piously expound the moral superiority of "the West," Stout unquestioningly asserts the universality of these virtues - and we have no reason to think that he would not similarly consider the rejection of such virtues uncivilized and, perhaps, even worthy of outside intervention.   For nowhere in Stout's text does he suggest that all violence is to be guarded against and morally rejected; to the contrary, his endorsement of the need to "provide for the common defense" leads one to believe that there are certain things for which any participant of the democratic tradition should be willing to fight.  

19.   In Stout's view religious commitments, inasmuch as they fail to overlap with such democratic norms, are not such things.   And it is here that Walter Benjamin's distinction between "historically acknowledged, so-called sanctioned violence, and unsanctioned violence" gains purchase; that is, if the violence of contemporary secularism is ultimately an expression of legitimacy and value - that is, an answer to the question "What is worth killing and dying for?" - then something like the U.S. Constitution must be seen as secularism's attempt to canonize, cement, and normalize these values (Benjamin 1978: 279).   Unlike Wolin and Coles, Stout's unwillingness to detach democracy from the constitutional norms of the civic nation translates into a valorization of exactly that unique form of secular liberalism (distinguished, say, from the secular liberalism of France or Britain) that first brought the American nation-state into existence and allows it to cohere.  

20.   Therefore, if I began this review by enquiring into the validity of conflating democracy with secular liberalism we have seen, at least in relation to the efforts of Stout and Connolly, that such a conflation can indeed be justified.   For if secularism is seen not only as a matter of the withering away of religious convictions or a restriction on public religiosity, but rather as a project that attempts to stipulate the ways religion can go public while concomitantly reforming those sensibilities considered inimical to the norms of liberal governance, it follows that the democracy of Stout and Connolly is paradigmatically secular.   This is not to suggest that the concept of "democracy" has completely outlived its possibilities for truly radical localizations of both value and praxis; in fact, theorists like Wolin and Coles, among many others, continue to gesture toward such possibilities.   It is only to say that in the hands of Stout (whose notion of democracy remains closely tied to the statist norms of constitutionalism) and Connolly (whose idea of pluralism depends on religious practitioners recognizing the "contestability" of their fundamental beliefs), such possibilities go largely unfulfilled.


Brian Goldstone is a doctoral candidate in the department of cultural anthropology at Duke University. His research interests include secularism, political theology, ethics, and questions of value.  


Asad, T. (2004).  Formations of the Secular, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Badiou, A. (2005).  Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker, London: Verso.  

Benjamin, W. (1978).  'Critique of Violence' in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, New York: Schocken Books.   

Casanova, J. (1993).  Public Religions in the Modern World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coles, R. (2005).  Beyond Gated Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  

Rawls, J. (1993).  Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.  

Rorty, R. (1999). "Religion as a Conversation-stopper," in Philosophy and Social Hope, London: Penguin Books.  

Wolin, S. (2004).  Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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