Are All States Confessional?

One common refrain I hear among anti-liberals, especially on the Christian right, is that all states are confessional states in the sense that they have deep dogmatic commitments whose sectarian character is either publicly recognized or, in the case of liberal states, concealed by dishonest rhetoric claiming liberal neutrality.

Much like the common refrain on the anti-liberal left that “everything is political,” I think the thesis that all states are confessional is either trivially true or substantive and false. Indeed, everything is political in the sense that life is full of conflict and disagreement with others about how to live well together. But that’s trivially true. On the other hand, if everything is political in the sense that everything involves, say, some kind of legal coercion, then the claim is substantive and false.

If all states are confessional in the sense that they have substantive moral commitments, say to the ideas of liberty and equality, then indeed all states are confessional, but that’s trivially true. No liberal denies it. But if all states are confessional in the sense that they have robust dogmatic commitments, then the claim is substantive and false. Liberal states have moral commitments, but they decline to take sides on a range of important matters, even if they end up taking a side on some issues. The idea is that liberal states are more neutral than confessional states, but not perfectly neutral. But then whoever claimed that liberal states are perfectly neutral? The liberal American state does not take a stand on which theological view is true, instead allowing different theologies to flourish. And in this sense it is more neutral than the classical confessional states. So here the claim that all states are confessional is substantive and false.

I think some who maintain that all states are confessional are essentially arguing that all politics is war, in that only one group or another can rule. And so some anti-liberals who say this are rationalizing actions that make politics war. If all politics is conquest, then the conquistadors can justify their actions. But if politics can establish a degree of moral peace – a peace based on a moral agreement between different perspectives – then the conquistador is exposed as having bad will. For he is prepared to dominate others to serve his political ends. Now, indeed, if politics is war, then such actions are justified. In a war, the game is to win. But if there is another way – the way of peace, which for the Christian is blessed (Matthew 5:9) – then conquest is domination. And, I think, sinful. This is not to say that those who maintain that all states are confessional are thereby sinning, rather that those who use this argument to justify violence sin thereby because the violence isn’t necessary.

Here’s another point I find of interest. Why do anti-liberals so often loudly and fiercely reject liberal neutralism? Some reject it because they think it false and pernicious, surely. But sometimes something else is going on. If liberal neutralism is feasible, then it is a morally compelling idealAnd I think many anti-liberals implicitly recognize this, which is why they often maintain that it is infeasible with such adamance.

I’ve argued that liberal neutralism can be understood in terms of a principle of public justification, and that public justification grounds our ability to establish moral relationships like trust in those with whom we disagree. If I’m right, those who maintain that politics is war undermine our ability to trust one another. This is a grave cost, one that love and respect for our political opponents prohibits us from paying.

3 Comments

  • ohio man Posted January 4, 2020 11:32 pm

    As a post liberal (not quite an integralist), I think we disagree over the triviality of certain conception of liberty and equality.The main example of this is abortion. Under the current Rawlsian framework of human persons, liberty, and autonomy, abortion up to birth for any reason government funded seems like quite a reasonable outcome of the theory. The outcome of this conception of equality and liberty has distarious outcomes, ie the death of 700k-800k children per year. And one could never debate this through public reason since it requires the Rawlsian conception of liberty. This will obviously cause great distress to anti-abortion advocates like myself. This specific deeply immoral outcome of liberal theory points to larger problems in the theory, coming from a natural law perspective, the conception of a political person. This is just from my understanding of Rawls; I have just read his Stanford Philosophy page and parts of a theory of justice in HS.

  • ohio man Posted January 5, 2020 12:05 am

    Here is the article I was basing my assertions on. I meant personhood and not liberty in sentence 5. In sentence, I would add public reason as well as political person upon further review. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10892-015-9190-9

    • Kevin Posted January 5, 2020 10:17 pm

      Jeremy is off on this issue, I think. I have a footnote on this in my first book. I argue public reason’s approach to abortion is indeterminate depending on whether fetuses are persons. If they are (as I think) public justification must apply to them, which will make it easier to publicly justify abortion restrictions. And here the debate is independent of the values of liberty, equality, and worth. Liberalism tells you how to treat people, not how to count them.

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