There are at least two issues requiring further consideration in relation to the previously articulated Milbankian framework for religious freedom. The first is the one identified at the end of the last section: namely, how non-Christian perspectives such as liberal secularism are fairly and equally considered in a polity governed according to a Christian framework. A second and related issue is the limits of religious freedom in a polity governed according to a religious framework and specifically whether this framework effectively establishes Christianity as a state religion, actually undermining religious freedom. I address these important questions below, in reverse order.
The Limits of Religious Freedom: Christianity and Nonestablishment
One question is how this framework might regulate the expression of particular perspectives, especially odious or violent ones. Is there complete freedom to express all kinds of perspectives? What about perspectives that incite violence? An initial point is religious freedom is not absolute. When one considers the wide array of religious and nonreligious perspectives, and the implications for public conduct and public policy, it is clear there must be some limit.115 The point of dispute is not the fact there must be a limit, but where exactly that limit lies. The work of Rawls, Audi, and their interlocutors investigates precisely this question. A second point is determination of whether a particular perspective is odious or unworthy of expression is largely a moral question that is evaluated on the basis of one's own perspective. Therefore, disqualification of perspectives on such a basis would amount to privileging some perspectives over others through an evaluation of merits constructed by a particular perspective. Genuine religious freedom must allow the possibility for articulation of perspectives potentially viewed as offensive. These perspectives can then be freely evaluated by people and rejected on their merits rather than by state fiat.
Thus the limit cannot be based on the content of the perspective as such. Rather, the limit on religious freedom must be based on the capacity of the perspective to undermine the virtues that underpin religious freedom, particularly the ability to freely express, debate, and choose particular perspectives. If a particular perspective involves coercion to that or other perspectives, such a perspective is incompatible with religious freedom in the Christian framework. Recall the law of love as the governing principle of political discourse. The law of love has, at its foundation, revelation producing persuasion and the rejection of violence through coercion. Hence the law of love internally regulates the different perspectives comprising political discourse to manifest the refusal to engage in violence. In this way the refusal of violence prevents coercion and facilitates persuasion, or true freedom.
This argument raises a further and very powerful objection. The objection might be framed as follows. In this article I advocate for the adoption of a Christian framework to produce genuine religious freedom. However, Christianity is itself a religious perspective. Therefore, the article is effectively arguing for the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, for it is Christian doctrine (the Trinity, revelation, incarnation, the law of love) that informs and governs the political apparatus facilitating political discourse. And the establishment of a particular religion as a state religion in this way by definition undermines religious freedom because people have to engage in the Christian framework using Christian virtues to participate. Following from this, it is disingenuous to claim this framework allows religious freedom because the framework itself is a religious perspective: Christianity.
A cogent and consistent response to this objection is critical for the framework I proffer. First, it would be a mistake to conclude that I am advocating for the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, or that the framework would result in the establishment of Christianity as a state religion. The polity envisaged is not a theocratic society based in something like canon law. Rather, it is both the model for an ideal society and a way of living within a given society, characterized by love. The aim, ultimately, is to exist harmoniously within a community of difference.116 I am advocating for a Christian ontology within a state—a Christian approach that may redeem and transform conceptions of political discourse. The fact one can redeem the other implies there is still a distinction between the two—Jesus's kingdom is not of this world, it is a heavenly peace that may be brought to the earth of political discourse to the extent that we participate in the divine being in the way explained above.117
The second important point to recall is the argument that all perspectives are theological. The objection as framed assumes there is some neutral perspective that can form the foundation for governance in contrast to the religious Christian perspective. Though some have claimed secular liberalism is such a perspective, it has been explained above that secular liberalism is in fact a theological perspective. In short, there is no neutral perspective and therefore this aspect of the objection loses much of its force. There must, nevertheless, be some governing perspective or framework for regulating human interactions and political discourse. The question is consequently not which perspective is neutral (for there is none), but which perspective is most desirable in the sense that it will result in true religious freedom. I contend that the answer to that question is Christianity. Without imposition of the Christian religion on others, a Christian framework uniquely allows the peaceful coexistence of difference, including different views.
As indicated earlier, the Christian perspective produces a space for political discourse that is characterized by the “fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”; for “against such things there is no law.”118 The Christian virtues are beyond law and yet fulfil the law by their nature, and therefore abide the desirability of peace without the violence of coercion.119 Manifesting this alternative framework for political discourse, governed by love beyond mere legal requirements, will persuade people there is another way to true peace and it is desirable.120 This process can also indicate a way in which those who come from a secular perspective may be equally treated in this Christian framework, rather than existing in a space of alienation or antagonism that would perpetuate the violence we are attempting to avoid. The virtues of secular liberalism can peacefully coexist in this space of differing perspectives, and the next section outlines how. As such, there is no need to finally alienate the secular in articulating the theological.121
The desirability of Christianity is further entrenched by its unique ability to recognize and accommodate difference by peaceful rather than violent means. “Christianity … pursued from the outset a universalism that tried to subsume rather than merely abolish difference: Christians could remain in their many different cities, languages, and cultures, yet still belong to one eternal city ruled by Christ, in whom all ‘humanity’ was fulfilled.”122 Following this Augustinian aspect however, Christianity does not
imply mere mutual tolerance, far less any resignation to a regulated conflict … while it is open to difference … it also strives to make of all these differential additions a harmony … true community means the freedom of people and groups to be different, not just to be functions of a fixed consensus, yet at the same time it totally refuses indifference.123
In this way, Christianity acknowledges the necessity of difference. Rather than trying to deny difference or regulate it with violence, at the ontological level Christian theology seeks a universal harmony of difference through incorporating the virtues contained in a faith united with reason, thereby enabling a community of peace at the political level.124 Christianity can propose its own metanarrative as one option among many, yet as the most desirable one since it can instantiate peace—the harmonious ordering of difference, rather than the violent striving between differences.125
Fundamentally, Christianity requires freedom of religion because love does not compel belief, and Christianity requires nonestablishment for the same reason. While liberal secularism could be seen as establishing the religion of secularism, Christianity does not establish religion in this context because it is a meta-legal approach that facilitates the state creating a space for the harmonious and equal existence of different beliefs, governed by the law of love and the other theological virtues. Even if one assumes Christianity is true with both temporal and eternal implications, it does not follow that Christianity must be compelled, because coerced religion is not true religion and so is impotent. It is mere externality or legalism and this is far worse than nonbelief. Thus Christianity advocates belief as persuasion through revelation, not violent coercion by law or other means.
Recent scholarship setting out the Christian pedigree of religious freedom on the basis of key theological doctrines such as intrinsic human dignity through God's creation of humans in his image, and Christ's assumption of human nature though the Incarnation, underscores this point.126 There is insufficient space to examine this in any great detail but a brief outline will serve my purpose. It is not my task in this article to specifically set out the Christian pedigree of religious freedom, but acknowledging this historical fact is a supporting aspect of the more general normative argument for the desirability of Christian law of love as a governing framework. For example, Shah traces the development of arguments for universal religious freedom in some of the early patristic writers, including Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Lactantius. He notes Tertullian in particular advocated for religious freedom (and first coined the term “religious liberty”) and in an unprecedented, universal way, claiming it is a fundamental human right or privilege of nature that people should be able to worship according to their convictions without religion being compelled.127 Wilken agrees, and more significantly in the context of relying on the law of love, emphasizes that the ultimate source for Tertullian was the Bible. Tertullian's approach reflects the biblical view of the dignity and worth of a human being as the Imago Dei, clearly articulated in Genesis 1:26–27.128
It might be objected that Christianity has also imposed itself through violence in history through the Crusades, Inquisition, and other such events. This cannot be overlooked. None of the above is to say Christianity has not been complicit in violence and coercion through political means, nor to exonerate Christianity's crimes in this respect.129 In such a sense one could even rely dogmatically on the law of love in an ironically unloving way, particularly given the ambiguities of applying love in terms of absolute rules, defining standards and values, and the balance of rationality and emotion. The law of love in this frame could be used to justify almost anything, including to undermine religious freedom.130
To address these objections the law of love as the foundation for religious freedom has been defined as clearly as possible to mean the harmonious coexistence of difference. Peace, patience, generosity, understanding, and forgiveness are its virtues. These virtues, informed by the Christian framework of the intrinsic dignity of the individual, imply freedom should be maximized and not undermined by violence or coercion. As mentioned above, the only criteria for restricting freedom in this context is if the particular conduct or speech somehow undermines these virtues. Furthermore, as William Cavanaugh persuasively argues, it is worth recalling the violent imposition that has regrettably occurred in the past may well be inconsistent with the essence of Christianity and represents a misappropriation of Christian theology for politically nefarious purposes such as military expansion and consolidation/centralization of state power.131 Just as any other perspective can be misused by those in power to further their own agenda without invalidating that perspective, the political misuse of Christian theology to suppress or marginalize other doctrines in other contexts is no reason to reject the orthodox political application of Christian theology as argued here, which is to fully and equally allow the free and peaceful coexistence of different perspectives.132 This is especially so when one bears in mind the ancient Christian origin for the concept of religious freedom for all perspectives.
Democratizing Virtue: Christianity, Liberalism, and Inclusion
I return to the issue of how this Christian framework equally includes those perspectives that are not Christian, such as secular liberalism. Is it fair, equal, and free that those who are not Christians are asked to participate in political discourse through Christian virtues? Does this not merely reinscribe the problem of alienating and subordinating other religious and nonreligious traditions by elevating Christianity? Many scholars have done work in this space of critiquing secular liberalism as political order, much of it cognizant of Milbank's critique without explicitly advocating a Christian framework as an alternative or response. Instead these broadly propose a more neutral approach that eschews institutional privileging of any perspective for the same reason they reject secularism.133
It is not possible to adequately address all these responses within the scope of this article. It suffices to briefly address Charles Taylor and Rowan Williams to indicate a general kind of rejoinder to such proposals. In response to his characterization that we live in a “Secular Age,” Taylor argues the solution is not the re-institutionalization of Christianity, and he is particularly anxious to avoid any codification or juridification of “charity”: the law of love.134 When we attempt to systematize or fetishize love, rendering it as a simply intellectual process or pure reason, we lose the potency of love as feeling, as a combination of both reason and faith that motivates us to act in ways beyond logical or other externally imposed limits (such as culture, race, religion, sexual identity).135 The law of love cannot become a law in the strict positivist sense because to do so would limit its ability to facilitate a true, harmonious coexistence of difference.
Similarly, Williams shares the critique of secular liberalism developed by Milbank and others, arguing that “programmatic” secularism is not neutral, but an ideological undermining of transcendent imagination that leaves only instrumental or functional approaches that take for granted violent “contests of power as the basic form of social relation.”136 However, his own way forward differs from Milbank's in that he does not advocate an explicitly Christian political framework, which he thinks would be as alienating for non-Christian religions as secularism has been for all religions. In other words, Williams looks toward a situation that moves away from the imposition of either secularism or Christianity. His reasoning is if a major problem with secular liberalism was that it alienated religious traditions by forcing them into a subordinate position in relation to it, is there not a danger that the elevation of Christianity might end up doing the same thing to non-Christian religions?
In this sense Williams advocates a “community of communities,” where the state consistently works with diverse religious groups to use their resources in the peaceful pursuit of the common good.137 Such an approach does not eschew robust argument between competing perspectives, but the argument must be conducted in a way that accords with understanding, courtesy and respect.138 However, this does not actually seem all that different from what I am advocating, which is the peaceful coexistence of different perspectives in the public sphere regulated by the law of love. This entails state cooperation with diverse religious groups without precluding argument between those groups about what the good entails, as long as that argument is characterized by the virtues of love such as honesty, humility, kindness, and forgiveness. Williams acknowledges that the state can “move in and out of alliance with perspectives of faith, depending on the varying and unpredictable outcomes of honest social argument, and can collaborate without anxiety with communities of faith.”139 He even argues this framework requires a “strong theological grounding” because a common theme of religion is it is less prone to violence and coercion because it does not depend on coercive power.140 To the extent this is true of Christianity as I have argued, privileging Christianity should in principle have the effect of creating a more harmonious public coexistence of diverse theological perspectives.
Yet the danger of institutionally codifying and privileging the Christian law of love (that it will alienate other religions by imposing legal limits) identified by Taylor and Williams is one that should not be underestimated.141 In one sense this is broadly addressed above. The article is not advocating official establishment or institutionalization in a theocratic sense. But, as Milbank notes (and Taylor acknowledges), some form of codification or institutionalization is necessary for practical effectiveness.142 A possible solution is the law of love can be privileged without the state officializing or institutionalizing it. It can be implemented by inculcating and democratizing the practice of virtue, as will be outlined more fully below. This allows the law of love to be instantiated in political practice without being legally established, and avoids the twin problems of codifying (that is, limiting) charity and alienating non-Christian views.
In short, promotion of the theological virtues in Christianity does not restrict or alienate those who do not subscribe to the Christian perspective. True promotion of the theological virtues actually necessarily incorporates and redeems the virtues of secular liberalism. This paradox may be illustrated in the legal context through the law of love itself. The law of love is paradoxically both a commandment of the law and obedience to that commandment—love of God and of neighbor is commanded as the greatest commandment of the law by Christ, and Christ also says that if you love him you will obey his commandments.143 So divine love both presupposes and is the necessary condition for obedience and the law. This paradox of law and love also points the way to how the law of love may prove to be a foundation for legal community: it simultaneously fulfils the requirements of law by obeying the commandments since love does no wrong to a neighbor, and reflexively transcends the law by producing its own obedience. By contrast, merely requiring obedience to law in the form of secular rules or commandments posited by an authority inevitably leads to violence through transgression, for the law requires a standard that can never be attained by natural means. As mentioned earlier, this is the problem of juridification.144
The parallel is displayed in this: as we have seen, secular liberalism produces violence by proclaiming nonreligious neutrality, freedom, and equality while simultaneously promoting and enforcing a non-neutral quasi-religious perspective, undermining freedom and equality. Secular liberalism therefore holds out a standard it can never attain by its very nature. Conversely and paradoxically, the theological law of love fulfils the liberal virtues of religious freedom, neutrality, and equality in conjunction with the Christian virtues of faith, hope, love, humility, and sacrifice by transcending them and acknowledging that all perspectives, including Christianity and secular liberalism, are non-neutral theological perspectives that can be equally articulated and freely chosen. If the liberal virtues of equality, tolerance, and respect for difference are distorted forms of Christian virtues, that indicates the liberal virtues can be redeemed, removed from their secular framework, and (re)placed into their proper theological framework in a way that paradoxically enhances both their Christian and liberal nature. This is consistent with Hyman: “modern liberalism has played a positive role in the unfolding of Christian truth in bringing to light elements of the Christian ethical tradition that had previously, for whatever reason, been obscured.”145
A redeemed liberalism can become part of or even facilitate a theologically grounded public political discourse, and this is also consistent with Milbank's own thoughts. Indeed, in the preface to the second edition of Theology and Social Theory, Milbank acknowledges the debt an honest Christian theology must pay to the liberal insight:
The careful reader will realize that throughout the book the attitude towards “secular reason” is never as negative as it appears to be on the surface. For it is viewed not as what it primarily proclaims itself to be, namely the secular, but rather as disguised heterodoxy of various stripes, as a revived paganism and as a religious nihilism. In each case my attitude cannot be simply oppositional, since I regard Catholic Christianity as fulfilling the best pagan impulses … . It follows that there remains truth in all these distortions and even that … the [liberal] distortions develop better certain aspects of orthodoxy which orthodoxy must then later recoup.146
In fact, Christianity had already created the framework for the modern liberal separation of religion from other disciplines (secularism) through its separation of spirit or divinity from law. The affirmation of the secular therefore did not require emancipation from the religious, and the secular liberal conception of religious freedom is just a more emphatic consequence of this exaggerated separation. It is then possible to “align one's loyalties both to modern liberalism and to Christianity,” for as modern liberalism correctly emphasizes the importance of reason and the distinction between reason and revelation, so Christianity provides the background that indicates immanent (modern, liberal) political structures point towards the transcendent and are informed by eternal virtues.147
Furthermore, the promotion of Christian virtue as governing political discourse does not alienate or restrict the freedom of those who are not Christians. Such virtues (humility, kindness, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, and the like) are universally desirable and universally achievable regardless of one's particular perspective. Rather than Christianity undermining religious freedom in a democracy, it ensures it by promoting practices that facilitate genuine religious freedom and genuine democracy—fundamentally, the refusal of coercive violence and the use of peaceful persuasion. Milbank calls this the “democratisation of virtue,” where “the most important human goods are in principle achievable by all,” which “is itself also a Christian legacy.”148 Milbank argues “that the viability of democracy itself depends upon a continued constitutional commitment to ‘mixed government,’” which is a blend of “the life and implicit wisdom of the social many with the guidance of the virtuously rational few and the unifying artifice of the personal one, under the orientation of all to the transcendent Good and final vision of the Godhead.”149 Moreover, the “Christian democratisation of virtue as charity [love] implies a transfigured version of mixed government that newly promotes the creative flourishing of all and the combined shaping of an earthly city that might remotely image the eternal.”150
In other words, genuine democracy entailing true religious freedom promotes the individual and communal good so that the earthly polity might echo the eternal one. Such democracy is premised upon the universal practice of virtue, particularly love, which peacefully persuades the community to the good. As Milbank later clarifies, “virtue is democratic because its practice is open to all, especially the supreme virtues of love, trust, hope, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and reconciliation, which we have all in the West, whether avowedly Christians or not, inherited from the teachings of the Bible.”151
Therefore the better approach is not a subjective right to religious freedom that can be asserted at the expense of another, but a loving community of expression grounded in virtue that will produce religious freedom through peace rather than violence.152 This is a politics of virtue that eschews selfish, Machiavellian modes of discourse in favor of charity, humility, and sacrifice. We need to act with “more receptive gratitude, more communicated generosity, and in such a way that in turn opens up the possibility of trust and further self-giving on the part of others. … Deeds must be publicly enacted and offered, and the highest outcome of virtuous practice is the reciprocal giving that is friendship, upon which … the human city is founded.”153 “Thus politics is a shared demand for a manifest mutual recognition and regard, since justice and friendship are co-original and inseparable,” and the politics of virtue is then really a superfluous phrase—to act virtuously is really to truly act politically.154 So, just as love does not dispense with the law but rather fulfils it, so the redeemed liberalism does not categorically reject liberalism but recoups its better aspects to facilitate a more loving, virtuous, and peaceful democratic community, and specifically a more loving and virtuous democratic discourse around religious freedom.