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Political Theology’s Special Issue: Religious Diversity, Political Theory, and Theology

The journal Political Theology recently released a new issue, 21:4, guest edited by Paul Billingham and Jonathan Chaplin. It is part of an initiative to gather political theorists interested in religion and scholars of religion interested in political theory, and it is being published in coordination with a special issue of the journal Social Theory and Practice.

Normative questions concerning the political implications of the deepening religious diversity of both Western and non-Western societies abound. These range from fundamental questions such as whether liberalism mandates a “secular” public sphere and how states should respond to resurgent religious intolerance to narrower ones such as the justifiability of legal exemptions that a liberal democracy might afford to religious minorities. Extensive literatures in both political theory and theology have been generated in response to such questions. Yet these literatures have mostly remained firmly within disciplinary silos. Political theorists operating within the (mainly Western) secular discourses of liberal democracy have developed highly sophisticated accounts of how liberal democracies can best respond to religious diversity, and how religious citizens can come to endorse – or critique – liberal democratic institutions and laws. Yet they have done so largely without interacting with the substantial work on these themes produced by theologians or other religious thinkers. Equally, few theologians working on political issues engage extensively with debates within political theory, or are sufficiently appreciative of the work of secular theorists. In general, the interactions between political theorists and theologians have been limited in scope and depth.

This special issue seeks to help remedy this deficit by bringing together political theorists and theologians engaged with normative questions raised by the public treatment of religious diversity. It falls within a broader project entitled ‘Religious Diversity, Political Theory, and Theology’, of which this issue, ‘Diverse Religious Responses to Pluralism’, is one part. The other is a forthcoming companion special issue in a leading journal of social and political theory, Social Theory and Practice. Both special issues include contributions from both political theorists and theologians. We (Billingham and Chaplin, guest editors) hope that publishing special issues in both a political theology and a political theory journal will open up new conversational possibilities between these two fields

This special issue explores diverse theological or religious responses to the public implications of religious diversity. Of necessity, the range of traditions considered is limited: the articles address responses from Christianity, Islam and Judaism, religions which are both monotheistic and salvationist. In his article, Mohammad Fadel reminds us of a familiar objection against invoking such religions in any project of accommodating diversity: “Enlightenment political thinkers, and their liberal successors in the post-World War II era, have long viewed exclusivist salvation religions as a potential threat to the civic peace that rational politics demands.” As Rowan Williams puts it, this obstacle reveals a wider “presumption that a rational secular state is menaced by the public or communal expression of religious loyalty.” 

Yet the long-held secular liberal assumption that most religious traditions, especially “orthodox” or “conservative” ones, are inherently inimical to the accommodation of religious diversity is no longer sustainable without major qualification. Nonetheless, there remains a great deal of fine-grained work to be done on precisely how such traditions frame and address such accommodation. What specific resources of religious thought or communal practice are available to inform both the intra-communal and the wider public accommodation of religious diversity? And, even more fundamentally, how is the “problem” of “religious diversity” experienced and understood within diverse religious traditions in the first place? 

As the following four articles indicate, the trajectories of reflection on these questions have been fascinatingly different across Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Following the experience of fifteen hundred years of European public hegemony in which the acceptance of religious plurality was highly constrained, Christianity has, especially over the last century, sought to reframe questions of religious diversity in terms of a post-Christendom account of the toleration or affirmation of public plurality. This is exemplified in Luke Bretherton’s article, which formulates the question as, “how can I keep faith with my distinctive commitments while also forming a common life with neighbors who have a different vision of life to me?” Bretherton frames the question not in the rather narrow terms of “toleration” but in the light of a broad “consociational” theory of politics, at the heart of which are reconfigured notions of “democratic citizenship” and “sovereignty.”

By contrast, contemporary Islamic thinkers have found themselves mining pre-modern reflection arising in majority-Muslim societies in order to secure resources for addressing public religious plurality in both Islamic and other societies, especially those where Muslims form a minority. Mohammad Fadel’s article shows how (Sunni) Islam has, in fact, long had to confront the challenges of religious plurality, primarily within the Muslim community itself. The tradition’s recognition of the importance of “civic peace” as a goal has served to relax demands for perfect adherence to truth and virtue as a condition for civic membership, even while religious groups must, in order to survive under conditions of pluralism, continue to police their particular doctrines of salvation.

Differently again, Jewish thinkers have typically approached the question through the lens of the centuries-long struggle for minority Jewish survival within dominantly, and often oppressively, Christian (or other) societies. Julie Cooper explores the theme through a close study of twentieth century Jewish debates over the legitimacy of Spinoza’s excommunication. What emerges from this intriguing inquiry is further confirmation of the charge that contemporary secular liberal framings of “religious diversity” themselves adopt contestable assumptions about the legitimacy of modern states to determine what counts as “religion” and what is its permitted public scope.

Elizabeth Phillips’s ethnographic study of a unique instance of transformative pedagogy in the context of a UK high security prison shows how religious and other forms of diversity can come to be experienced in surprising ways in what (to outsiders) might appear an unlikely setting – with enriching and challenging consequences for diverse participants. Phillips shows how fresh light is shed on this practitioner experience by viewing it through the lens of Rowan Williams’s theological account of “interactive pluralism.”

Four scholars with expertise in Islam, Judaism and Christianity then respond to the issues raised in the articles (two opting to focus on just one, the others responsing more broadly). Responding specifically to Bretherton, Anne Guillard affirms his proposal to frame democracy in a more inclusive way while exploring how to make it yet more religiously capacious by exploring the structure of a political community itself. Roxanne Euben complements Fadel’s account of Islamic responses to religious diversity by drawing attention to the intriguing Islamic ‘ethic of travel’, a telling instance of Islam as lived rather than as formulated by scholars. Daniel Weiss responds to Cooper by highlighting pre-emancipation conceptions of the Jewish community that are neither modelled on the “territorial nation” nor concede a retreat into privatized “religion.” Cathleen Kaveny brings an illuminating legal perspective to bear on all four articles, pointing out how attempts to foster and protect religious diversity in public settings should attend to the often unrecognized legal framings required to make them possible.

The companion special issue in Social Theory and Practice (STP) concentrates on what has been the central focus of much discussion of religion within political theory, namely public reason – which is why that topic is not addressed in detail here. There is now a vast corpus of writing in (mostly liberal) political theory exploring the supposed nature and imperatives of public reason and its implications for the invocation of religious reasons, for the wider duties of religious citizens, and indeed for the nature and legitimacy of liberal democracy itself. The contributors to the STP special issue include prominent figures within that debate. Yet while public reason liberals often express confidence concerning the possibility of an overlapping consensus on their principles, they seldom interact with the political theologians who might illuminate the prospects for, and challenges faced by, this proposal. The articles in the STP special issue seek to engage in just that type of interaction, with a focus on Christian theology in particular, and in relation to concrete political issues (war and healthcare) often overlooked in public reason discourse.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge an element of tragic poignancy surrounding (and delaying) the appearance of this special issue. As Elizabeth Phillips notes in a Postscript to her piece, as the issue was being finalized, an event to celebrate the prison education programme that is the focus of her article suffered a violent attack. We therefore dedicate this issue to the memory of her two colleagues who lost their lives that day: Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt.

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