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  • Democracy After Secularism
  • Ian Ward (bio)

My contribution to this symposium of The Good Society is a philosophical promissory note. It asserts, without demonstrating entitlement to, a number of claims about religion and late-modern democratic politics, claims whose value I am attempting to redeem in a larger work.1 For present purposes, it is my hope that readers will find them plausible, but only to the degree necessary to elicit spirited conversation.

My principal claim is that commonplace understandings of democracy and secularism in contemporary political theory need to be critiqued together, and that the juxtaposition of the two terms suggested by "After" is an especially fruitful starting point for such an exercise. I use the term "after" not in a chronological sense, as if I wanted to designate one period of time that followed another. This usage does have considerable currency in discourse about religion and politics, particularly surrounding talk of the "return" or "resurgence" of religion in the wake of the decline of an "age of secularization." I believe, however, for reasons that will become clear in what follows, that scholars ought to greet such talk with considerable skepticism. Instead, I want to use it in a manner evocative of that employed by W. E. B. Du Bois' masterpiece of democratic theory and religious studies, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois' manner of philosophizing involved moving dialectically between what he called the "thought"—the dominant received view about some matter—and what he called the "afterthought"—a critical perspective that is tacitly implied by, and in turn undermines, the dominant manner of thinking.2 What would it mean, in this context, to treat secularism as the "thought," and democracy the "afterthought?" In other words, what do secularism's explicit avowals imply about democracy, religion, and the public sphere? What might a self-critical philosophical inventory of these implications look like? And what could such an inventory teach us about the ethics of democratic citizenship under conditions of religious pluralism and globalization?

My answers to these questions strike both critical and constructive notes. On one hand, I argue that secularism, as a kind of analytical frame, narrows and flattens our perceptions of the political complexities, possibilities and risks associated with religious diversity in public life. On the other, I propose an alternative picture, one I hope will broaden and deepen these perceptions. This alternative demands a fundamental reorientation of certain anxieties of citizenship: away from religion, constructed as an object of political fascination and fear, and toward intelligent discernment of patterns of domination, whose dimensions—religious and secular, public and private, global and local—are more complex, interwoven and fine-grained than usually appreciated. What follows is simply a cursory overview of the scholarly landscape such a contribution to political ethics traverses.

Religion and Anxieties of Late-Modern Democratic Citizenship

One of the most salient facts about democracy is that it is marked by complex and fluid patterns of religious difference. This fact is at once obvious and striking. Its obviousness becomes apparent enough through a casual glance over the contemporary global democratic terrain. A French President enters the National Assembly—the first such occasion in nearly two centuries—to declare the wearing of the burqa a threat to the integrity of the Republic. Malaysia is shaken by an intense controversy over the long-standing practice of that country's Malay and Arabic-speaking Christians of employing "Allah" to designate "God" in their bibles. The politics of India, the world's largest democracy, continues to be transformed by the Bharatiya Janata Party's political mobilization of Hindu nationalism. Lebanon's electoral politics are organized and contested along confessional lines. Poland's postcommunist democracy is being shaped, in large part, in the crucible of disputes about the Roman Catholic Church's role in that country's past and future political life. Canada, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are currently sites of bitter and divisive debates concerning the presence of small Muslim minorities in their midst. Turkey's efforts to join the European Union have challenged notions of Europe as a secular descendant of Western Christendom. And in the United States, it is hard to...


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