Is Religion Compatible with Liberal Democracy?

Marc D. Stern

The word democracy means only that the people rule. Other than, perhaps, requiring freedom of speech and equal access to the ballot, indispensable requirements of self-rule, the notion of democracy sets no limits on what the people may do in their sovereign capacity.

Our constitutional tradition is not one of pure democracy. The Constitution imposes limits–notably in the Bill of Rights, but not only there–on what democratic government may decide. More generally, the broad American political tradition, viewed over the perspective of more than 200 years, imposes other, non-constitutional, limits on what government may regulate.

In this, the United States is not unique. All liberal constitutional democracies impose restrictions on what private activity government may and should regulate, including, of course, religious behavior, and what values it may assimilate, and enforce, as its own.

There are several broad generalizations that can be made about the role and place of religion in liberal democracies. First, in a liberal democracy, citizenship is not dependent on adherence to an official religion or even a state approved religion. Religion, therefore, is not a constitutive element of citizenship.

This principle is today accepted universally in the Western world. Equally well accepted is that in a liberal democracy the government may not penalize citizens (or more correctly, if less succinctly, persons within the jurisdiction) because they profess a faith that is not shared by a majority of their fellow citizens. It is also settled that in a liberal democracy citizens enjoy the freedom to express their religious views, and to form institutions consistent with those views, without fear of punishment or civic disability.

It is likewise universally accepted that liberal democracies cannot compel the doing of religious acts or attendance at worship services, although there is less than full agreement over the extent of this principle as it applies to children in state-run schools. Whether the state can compel participation in some form of prayer services, and, even if not, what constitutes coercion to participate in religious activities, are sharply disputed questions.

Liberal democratic theory assumes the importance of a sharp demarcation between state and the private sector, although this is probably more important in the United States’ constitutional tradition than elsewhere. This demarcation distinguishes the liberal democracy from fascism or totalitarianism. This division of society into governmental and non-governmental sectors–in American constitutional law known as the problem of state action–means that citizens are permitted to order their own values and act in ways that government may not.

The point is not merely the technical one that private activities are not subject to the restraints of the Constitution. It means that, either as a matter of law or political tradition, much private activity is shielded from public scrutiny or regulation. This principle suggests, among other things, that citizens’ action in a non-governmental capacity may create communities in which religion is the constitutive element, and which are in every way permeated by religious values, even as government is barred from creating such communities.

There is, however, a further complication, one which limits the scope of this protection of the private sector. Liberal democracies generally mandate equal treatment of citizens even in purely private economic and social activities. Broad, enforceable prohibitions on racial, religious, and sexual discrimination by private actors who serve as gatekeepers to important economic benefits are universal features of liberal democracy.

It is assumed–quite soundly–that substantial inequalities of social and economic opportunity are fundamentally inconsistent with a society where individual decision-makers are regarded as having equal worth, a principle undergirding liberal democracy. Not only is the reality of equal worth important, but a citizen’s self perception of equal worth is also essential to the well being of a liberal democratic society. Without it, individual autonomy–the sense of self essential to informed decision-making by the citizenry–cannot exist.

Liberal democracies also assume that citizens should not be lightly prevented from practicing their faith and that the government ought not to interfere with the religious decisions of citizens or their institutions. This last principle is not always observed, at least as a matter of enforceable legal principle. In the United States the principle means only that the government may not single out religious practices for regulation. In the name of equal treatment of religious and nonreligious citizens, the courts have increasingly refused to recognize a special right to exemption from ostensibly neutral government regulation for religious practice, even though the constitutional text surely sounds as if one were intended. However, the principle still enjoys wide, but, I think, rapidly diminishing, popular political support.

Curiously, many civil libertarians who usually pride themselves on the broadest possible reading of the Bill of Rights, insist on a narrow reading of its provisions regarding religious liberty. They fear that protecting religious liberty will allow religion, and religious people, to be above the law. Part of what is at work is a notion of equal treatment trumping liberty. Equal treatment is seen as more important than individual liberty, liberty requiring unequal treatment. But also at work is the notion that government should take no notice of religion, for religion should be a private matter with no public implications.

The insistence on religious equality both in governmental activities–and in the age of the regulatory and welfare state, government occupies a far larger sphere than it did when the Constitution was written–and in the larger society suggests real limitations on religious liberty. On the one hand, liberal democracy assumes freedom of religion; on the other, it assumes restrictions on that freedom, not because a particular religious practice is too dangerous to tolerate (all agree religiously motivated child sacrifice can be banned), but because the very success of free religion is seen as antithetical to liberal democracy. It is from this perception that the frequently heard view that religion is a purely private affair stems–a view heard frequently from liberals, but from libertarian conservatives as well.

The more or less universal acceptance of the liberal democratic attitude towards religion in the Western world has in historical terms come in astoundingly short time. Little more than 200 years ago, these ideas were accepted principally in some parts of the United States and Holland–and some of the states (including Connecticut) did not accept all of these principles until well into the 19th century.

In Europe, these developments came still later and not without substantial resistance by a variety of religious and political forces. The newly formed democracies of Eastern Europe even today are struggling with the question of the extent to which the national church should have a constitutive role in public life. The debate is made more difficult because the "national" church is often the only institution to have survived communism relatively intact.

The breadth of the achievement is quite stunning. It has contributed substantially to the well being of both individuals and the churches, although it must be acknowledged that the latter have not always been quick to acknowledge it.

It is important to bear in mind how new the consensus about the role of religion in a liberal democracy is, because the relative newness of the idea should serve as a caution against insisting with puritanical rigidity on an ideal model of liberal democracy, one that risks alienating the many citizens who are deeply religious and who would be inclined to abandon the project altogether if it were in irreconcilable conflict with their religious commitments. But we must be equally certain not to overestimate the resilience of liberal democracy, and to think that small, incremental departures from principle will not cumulatively harm the public weal.

As I have noted, many have concluded that in a liberal democracy religion is a purely private affair. Persons are, and should be, free to believe and practice what they please, the argument goes, but as the price of that liberty, they may not make religion a public affair, whether public encompasses the government or large social institutions. Surely, public in this context means that the government may not involve itself in religion, or alter its practices and policies to advance religious interests. But the idea that religion should be privatized often means, as well, restrictions on religion in various other non-governmental settings.

The emphasis on individual, not social or communal religion, fits well with the general individualistic themes of contemporary democratic theory and, more broadly, American life. It also is compatible with a long-standing trend in American religious life, which is to emphasize individual over institutional religion.

As a legal matter, the Supreme Court has rejected the most extreme forms of the no-public-role-for-religion position. It recognizes a right to associate–and, more importantly, to refuse to associate–along religious lines. For better or worse, however, when push comes to shove, the right is not often vindicated.

The Supreme Court has also made it clear that as a legal matter religious leaders and institutions have the right to participate fully in political activities. It judges that such participation is not likely to undermine the constitutionally required separation of church and state. Moreover, a ban on political speech by religious institutions would be difficult to square with the secular value of freedom of speech.

This theoretical liberty is, however, limited by a practical reality. Congress has denied tax exemption to religious and other not-for-profit institutions that endorse or oppose candidates for election to office, a restriction that as a practical matter has minimized open religious involvement in political campaigns. Without tax exempt status, most religious groups cannot survive, and thus most are forced to either limit or disguise their direct political involvement.

The United States has no tradition of political parties organized along religious lines, although religion has played a pivotal role in several great social struggles. Those include slavery, equal rights for women, temperance, labor, civil rights, as well as abortion and gay rights. Alexander Hamilton once suggested creation of a religious party for purposes of thwarting Jeffersonian democracy, and the Know-Nothing Party of the mid-19th century came close. We certainly have had nothing resembling European Christian Democratic parties or the religious (and anti-religious) parties in Israel. This non-tradition, too, has minimized the extent of religious involvement in partisan electoral politics.

The debate over whether religion has any "public" role in a liberal democracy is not limited to the question of electoral and legislative involvements by religious groups. Consider the following examples, most from the United States, but some from elsewhere. Note that some few involve government; many do not.


  1. A town in Missouri refused to lease school buildings for privately sponsored social dancing, in recognition of religiously based community sentiment that regarded social dancing as immoral.

  2. States refuse to fund abortion because many citizens object to being taxed to fund a procedure they consider (as a matter of religious teaching) murder.

  3. The Boy Scouts insist that every scout assert a belief in God. The Scouts also reject homosexual scoutmasters because their acceptance would be inconsistent with traditional morality. Both policies have been repeatedly challenged as violations of civil rights laws.

  4. Yale Law School refuses to allow the Christian Legal Society to recruit on campus because it discriminates in its hiring, hiring only believing Christians. Yale also refused to accommodate Orthodox Jewish students who seek an exemption from a requirement that they live in a coed dorm, which they claim violates their faith. It readily accommodates the dietary and Sabbath observance requirements of such students.

  5. France and Turkey refuse to allow Muslim girls to attend public schools (or appear in public) wearing religiously mandated scarves, defending their decision on grounds of preserving a secular society.

  6. In Israel, daylight savings time ended somewhat earlier than usual in order to facilitate the practice of Sephardic Jews of reciting early morning penitential prayers before the Jewish New Year. The change brought sharp criticism from secular Jews complaining of religious coercion. One remarked that the change made it more difficult for her to swim at the beach after work.

  7. In a similar vein, religious and secular Jews fight over street closings that make it more difficult for those wishing to drive on the Jewish Sabbath to reach their destinations, but which promote a "Sabbath atmosphere" in neighborhoods in which the overwhelming number of residents are Sabbath observers. In commenting on these disputes, a retired Israeli judge insists that religion is purely a private matter that should be allowed no public expression.

  8. Private landlords in various states refuse to rent to unmarried cohabiting couples, insisting that they should not be required to facilitate sin. Civil rights and civil liberty organizations insist that when one enters the commercial marketplace, he or she can no longer insist on observing religious precepts which disadvantage anyone else. By and large, the courts have been receptive to these arguments, which have created a furious reaction among more traditionally religious communities, who object to being told that they must leave their religious beliefs behind in the economic marketplace.

  9. Georgetown University is in the middle of a battle between students who support the hanging of crucifixes in each classroom, and (priest!) administrators who oppose such displays because they will discourage recruitment of non-Catholic faculty and students.

Some of these cases involve governmental decision making based on religion. None of the cases involves coercing anyone to abandon his or her own faith and none involves coercion by government or anyone else to perform a religious act. Some, indeed, involve coercing religious people with conservative views to abandon their religious practices.

Take the housing discrimination cases. The cohabiting couple remains free to cohabit. Alternative housing will generally be available in the same town. The Boy Scout oath requirement denies a conscientious atheist access to the Scouts, but that hardly denies access to an opportunity without which one cannot succeed in life.

Yale willingly accommodates private religious observance. What it is not willing to accommodate is communal religion, religion that departs from the principle of non-discrimination and that allows the creation of separate religious communities. Allowing the Christian Legal Society to recruit only Christians would be an acknowledgment that essential differences between believers and nonbelievers justifies discrimination in access to economic benefits. Nobody would require the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to hire lawyers opposed to affirmative action. Why cannot the Christian Legal Society hire lawyers who share its religious views?

Allowing students to excuse themselves from coed dormitories on grounds that they are a breeding ground for "immoral" behavior would imply again that egalitarian principles are not acceptable to all and that there are some religious groups that cannot or will not meet on common ground with fellow students, and that students who hold such beliefs must be permitted to create their own religious communities.

Consider as well the scarf cases. It is hard to credit the fear that the personal act of covering one’s head from a sense of modesty threatens the creation of a theocracy, even given the decidedly anti-clerical understanding of church-state separation in France. In the case of France, certainly, anti-Moslem prejudice cannot be excluded. Accommodating scarves would, however, threaten the notion (read broadly) of religion as a purely private matter. And what are we to make of the Israeli daylight savings case? Is it really true that religious forms of human activity cannot be given any consideration by government?

I think something revealing is at work in these cases. It is the notion that religion is purely a private affair that has no place in the larger public arena, even where its appearance does not threaten any of the principles I outlined before as essential to a liberal democracy. The people who advocate a private role for religion are not necessarily bigoted. They do not necessarily sanction, and might well, and often do, protest efforts to punish believers because of their beliefs. They may even be quite religious themselves. Still, the forced confinement of religion to purely private and intimate settings is inconsistent with liberal democracy, at least that much of it that depends on the existence of a vibrant private sector where citizens are free to put into practice their own vision of the good life. It does not follow that there should be no limits on "public" religion.

Let me expand, first, on a controversy over the role of religion in politics. The dispute is largely confined to academics, though it does surface from time to time in public debate. Are citizens or legislators permitted to cast votes based on religious beliefs? As to citizens at least, this is not a legal question, since citizens are legally free to cast their votes for any reason they choose.

The question is whether there is a moral duty of citizenship in a liberal democracy to act as a citizen without regard to one’s religious beliefs. Professor Bruce Ackerman thinks that such a duty exists. John Rawls thinks it exists at least as to crucial constitutive decisions. Others are not so sure. After much hesitation, Professor Michael Perry of Wake Forest University has now concluded that no such duty exists. Professor Robert Audi, in an essay in a book entitled Religion in the Public Square, has suggested that such a rule should apply only to coercive legislation, but not otherwise. Professor Kent Greenawalt of Columbia Law School believes citizens should make political decisions based on rational secular reasons, but that in those cases where decisions involve ethical values not given to rational resolution–abortion or animal rights–religious reasons are as acceptable as any other ones.

I am plainly not going to resolve this dispute. There is much to be said for a rule that requires citizens to at least try to carve out a secular space, not too closely tied to particular religious views, in making decisions about how their government should act. On the other hand, I am skeptical of rules that are wholly unenforceable, even by individuals sitting in judgment on their own consciences. I know it is impossible for the deeply religious person to ever be sure that his or her views on some civic issue are unaffected by religious teachings. And I am not certain they should be required to do so. But for present purposes, it is revealing that so many prominent thinkers are prepared to exclude religion from having any impact on the community.

Consider again abortion. Many Catholics insist that the Church’s opposition to abortion is not religious and is not based on revealed truth but on natural reason. Some years ago, Ronald Dworkin wrote a book in which he claimed that no rational person could believe the fetus was human and that therefore restrictive abortion laws were necessarily religious, and hence unconstitutional. Who decides, with regard to the proposed duty to use secular reasons only, who is right about whether a view is secular or religious? At least on the American scene there is hardly a disputed church-state issue that cannot be recast in arguably secular terms.

The question is not so easily avoided elsewhere. One can easily argue that the debate in Israel over recognition of marriages not sanctioned by Jewish law can have no secular justification. But that would be wrong, for a secular justification is that recognizing civil marriage would inexorably lead to the birth of children who many other citizens would regard (on religious grounds) as illegitimate and refuse to marry. Can one not argue in secular terms that a nation has an interest in not encouraging the birth of such children? This may or may not be a sufficient argument to justify the restriction–and one could easily challenge the morality of a rule of religious law that visits the sins of the parents on the children–but it is assuredly a secular argument. In short, I think the arguments for a rule of secular citizenship would not accomplish much, and it would come at the price of limiting the political autonomy of citizens with particular religious views, itself of questionable validity in a democracy where decisions flow from the people.

Matters are more complicated with regard to legislators. They are plainly not just citizens but citizens who exercise governmental powers. May they exercise those powers with religious motivations? Here the question is not only one of what should be, but law. If it can be shown that a legislator (or a majority of legislators) acted out of a religious motive, should the result be invalidated? My impression is that most legislators make the attempt to legislate only for secular reasons, although the Alabama legislature frequently tests my faith.

But what if they do not? The Supreme Court is of two minds on the subject. On the one hand it has been reluctant, for reasons not peculiar to religion, to question legislative motivation. On the other, it has said that where there is clear proof of a religious motivation (or purpose-the Court is not clear which it means) it will invalidate the resulting legislation. Justices Rehnquist and Scalia have written scathing criticisms of this rule, but it remains the law. Justice O’Connor has defended the rule, pointing to the importance in a secular democracy of insisting that government act only for secular reasons. Several considerations support that view.

Advocates of a private role for religion insist that for a liberal democracy to function there must be the possibility of shared "political" and social conversations. That is, discussions of public policies must be accessible to all. An argument in a democracy about which of two flatly contradictory things God said cannot be resolved. What God said cannot be debated in a meaningful way in a secular legislative body or by a pluralistic community acting in corporate fashion.

Unless we are to allow ourselves to dissolve into separate faith communities, held together by only God knows what, we must forge a common ground where a common language can be employed and common values can be implemented. Moreover, religious views often cannot easily be compromised, for religious arguments, reflecting absolute truths revealed (in Western religious thought) by God himself, do not lend themselves to resolution, debate, or compromise. But (moral) compromise is both essential to a functional democracy and quite difficult for many religions to accept.

Again, consider the intractable abortion debate. In over 25 years since Roe v. Wade, we are about where we were the day after the decision was handed down. Relief is not on the horizon. The Republic can withstand one or two debates on the scale of the abortion debate, but it could not survive many such debates. It certainly could not survive if most contested issues were contested primarily on theological grounds.

Abortion raises fundamental issues of morality, of the role and place of women, and the permissible role and scope of government. In a democracy, liberal or otherwise, I know of no way to exclude such issues from public debate. And, as Professor Greenawalt of Columbia has argued persuasively, the arguments for choice are no more subject to scientific verification than those in opposition. But even as to abortion, it would be good for the well-being of the Republic if the arguments were, to the extent possible, cast in secular terms, accessible to all, and subject to the constraints applicable to more ordinary debates.

Second, and here I refer to those issues that do not necessarily implicate direct government action (i.e., the discrimination in the rental of housing, or discrimination by the Boy Scouts), we should not underestimate the impact on the equality norm so essential, perhaps indispensable, for a liberal democracy. It has been only a generation, or at most two, since the elimination of the gross social inequalities that relegated certain religious groups–Catholics, Jews, and everyone not a Protestant–to de facto second class status. The problem was not formal legal restrictions, but social and economic ones.

The Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and that proscription plainly applied to protect the candidacies of both Al Smith and John Kennedy. But success was by no means a realistic possibility for John Kennedy until he persuaded Protestants that the Republic would not collapse if the President were Catholic. It was arguably denied to Al Smith because he did not make that case. The problem was social, not legal.

Jews, and to a lesser extent, Catholics, until the end of World War II, faced any number of social and economic restriction in employment, housing, education, and access to various social amenities. The demise of those restrictions, both by action of law and, more importantly, by changes in social thought, has greatly empowered the Jewish (and Catholic) communities. That occurred not only because government became more active in protecting civil rights, but because religion became less salient in screening access to important social and economic institutions.

The restrictions the Boy Scouts impose do not look terribly threatening. But would we feel the same way if those restrictions were race-based? And what if it were not just the Boy Scouts that imposed religion based restrictions? Does it matter if the restriction is limited to a belief in God? What if the Boy Scouts insisted on an acceptance of Christian or Muslim or Jewish beliefs?

On the other hand, it should not be denied that some "secular" decision makers regard religiously constituted communities as uniquely dangerous. Thus, the courts have allowed racial boycotts, but not religious ones. It is hard to explain the decision on any ground other than an exaggerated fear of organized expression of religious power, or the view that communal religious expressions are inherently illegitimate. History does teach that religion can lead to dangerous excess, but religious critics are equally right to point to the dangers of a discourse that is devoid of binding moral values.

A third objection to a public role for religion is that in a diverse society there is no religion that predominates to the point where it is acceptable to impose one religious view on everyone. Although this is a matter of principle, it is also a question of prudence. It is fair to demand that religious groups consider whether it is prudent to impose their views on others when so many others do not share the faith, and are certain to deeply resent efforts by other religious groups to have their way.

Religious leaders and religious believers generally tend to greatly undervalue the resentment felt by other believers or nonbelievers when they are compelled–or believed they are compelled–to observe the religious views of others. Although this is most plainly true when government compels "observance," it is not much mitigated when the compulsion comes from other important social institutions, even if private.

A fourth objection to religious intervention in public affairs, particularly political affairs, is that religious folk are thought to defer to religious leaders, to the point where they are not exercising independent judgment. Western liberal democracy assumes the autonomy of the citizen; religion, or at least most Western religions, assume that the believer is not fully autonomous, that he or she is obligated by God’s command. Short of abolishing religious liberty, however, the sense of being commanded cannot be outlawed, or even directly challenged.

In any event, this argument is singularly unpersuasive. There are relatively small numbers of believers in the United States who blindly follow their religious leaders’ dictates. And as long as the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Springer, Oprah, and Matt Drudge command a high level of loyalty from mass audiences, and politicians actively seek endorsements from Hollywood or athletic celebrities, one is hard pressed to defend a rule against listening to religious leaders.

Finally, in a democracy, which ought to be controlling here, a priori restrictions on what or whom a citizen may base his or her vote are especially doubtful. Still, both because they often don’t have the expertise, and because ex cathedra religious endorsements smack of imposed religion, it is wisest if religious leaders generally refrain from them.

I hope by now many of you don’t know what my answer to the question posed by the title of my lecture is. As you know by now, I find myself pulled in different directions. Since I am only a scholar for this week, I do not feel the need for an overarching, theoretically complete, answer to the question.

I think that by and large, the situation in the United States is healthy and a good approximation of where we ought to be, even if it is not ideal in every respect.

The principles I would lay down are as follows:

  1. Government may not use religion (by which I include atheism) as a constitutive device for holding society together. Religion cannot be used as a prerequisite for citizenship, exercise of the franchise, government benefits, or official status.

  2. Private groups may use religion as a constitutive device, even beyond the confines of the church for purposes of worship, so long such discrimination does not, in either the individual case or taken in gross, threaten the creation of religious castes. In judging whether a particular private discrimination is acceptable, we may assume neither that any discrimination threatens secular democracy, nor that religious liberty cannot ever be bounded by civic needs. And we must keep firmly in mind that the creation of unregulated private space is an affirmative value in a liberal democracy.

  3. Government may not coerce the doing of religious acts, nor should it restrain—absent compelling reason—private performance restraints of religious acts. On the last, current law falls far short.

  4. There should be a strong prejudice against making religion the organizing principle of political or governmental life. It is for this reason that the Hassidic school district in Kiryas Joel, New York, is so objectionable. As a practical matter, it makes religion the central organizing principle of political life, albeit on a small scale, and in pursuit of a good cause.

  5. Religious groups should generally refrain from advancing purely religious arguments for governmental action, but they are free to do so, if they choose. This restriction should not be legally enforced.

  6. The frequently expressed view that religion is a matter of purely private, individual belief with no legitimate communal role must be understood as having a basis in a desire to limit the role of religion, often itself rooted in a denial of the possibility of ascertaining religious truth. It is surely not consonant with much of the Jewish tradition and assuredly not with the Catholic tradition, both of which, at least historically, accepted the use of compulsion to enforce religious norms and emphasized the importance of group adherence to religious norms. Neither of the latter groups (and Islam appears to fit here as well) accepts the prevailing American individualistic view of the role of faith. Historically, even leading Protestant figures such as Calvin were perfectly prepared to use the state to enforce religious norms.

  7. The Constitution clearly bars the enforcement of purely religious norms (i.e., kosher food laws). Americans cannot conceive of such enforcement in any event. We are much less agreed on whether the state has any role to play in enforcing purely moral norms (i.e., against adultery, prostitution, or homosexuality). But what of the creation or sanction of larger religious communities in the public sphere? This, it seems to me, is one of the hardest questions Americans face today in ordering church-state relations. Consider, again, abortion. One of the current abortion disputes concerns the right of those who object to abortion to refrain from performing, assisting, advising, or subsidizing it. Pro-choice groups concede that no individual can be compelled to directly participate in an abortion, or, grudgingly, at best, they concede that religious hospitals cannot be forced to provide abortions. How, they ask, can an institution have a conscience–a question that betrays amazing ignorance of religious behavior. But they are completely unwilling to concede that, for example, a Catholic employer should have the right to refuse to pay for health insurance coverage. This, they say, is forcing the employer’s belief on the employee. It eludes them that forcing the coverage of abortion forces the employee’s religious faith on the employer. It may be that compelling employers to provide insurance covering abortion or contraception is a just result, or the most just possible result, but it is not because the employer has no claim at all. The fact that pro-choice groups simply miss the point is reflective of an individualistic understanding of religion, one that grants no legitimate social or corporate role to public, nongovernmental, religion. On the other hand, it is not clear that we would allow religious groups with substantial economic power to use that power to impose religious views on others. Too much of that, and the autonomy and equality that are essential for a liberal democracy are destroyed.

  8. Those who favor a greater role for public religion sometimes do so because they conceive of the world in monochromatic fashion–there is religion and there is anti-religion. Their world outlook leaves no room for secular society, which neither favors nor limits religion. This view, which is held by some, but not many, Americans, and by many other conservative religious people around the world, is inconsistent with liberal democracy as we know it, for it leaves no room for a secular–not secularist, but secular–government.

  9. To the extent that we insist on separation of church and state in the governmental sphere, and that we refuse to allow government to coerce moral behavior in the population by the coercive power of law, we should be prepared to allow religious individuals and institutions a very substantial measure of freedom to create their own religious communities, in which they may put their religious and moral visions into practice.

I don’t think that our society could withstand unlimited efforts to insist on communal religious observance, at least where these observances impact others. As difficult as it is, and at a substantial price for religious believers, I think religious groups in a modern democracy must be chary of insisting on creating religious communities that will adversely impact the broader community. But liberals must recognize that a ban on such communities is both intolerant and inconsistent with the importance of a shielded private sector.

I cannot conceive of a truly liberal democracy that did not tolerate private religious communities, even at the expense of other values. But if too many such communities exist, and touch on too many areas of life, the common ground essential to a well functioning liberal democracy will cease to exist.

The signs of a revolt against the efforts to confine religion to the purely private in the name of liberal democracy are not hard to find. The efforts to amend the Establishment Clause have become more substantial, the attacks on liberalism more pointed and more blatant. There is as yet no consensus to change the foundational rules of liberal democracy. But the portents should not be ignored, nor the discontents brushed aside on the pious hope that secular democracy will prevail. What is needed is a fair evaluation of the restrictions imposed on religion in the name of liberal democracy to ensure that it has not become illiberal.