During the past generation, the view has arisen that a liberal polity must remain systematically neutral on the widest possible range of moral and religious questions. During this same period, religious fundamentalism has attained an influence not seen in the United States for more than half a century. It is my thesis that these two developments are intimately related and that, considered together, they have much to teach us about public morality in a liberal society.
Early liberal theorists worked to disentangle civil society from destructive religious quarrels. But they nevertheless assumed that civil society needed morality and that publicly effective morality rested on religion. Juridical liberalism, which focused on the exercise of liberty and the limits of government, presumed a foundation of individual moral restraint. While the civil authority in a liberal society need not directly enforce this moral code in most cases, it should certainly encourage that morality—at the very least, by refraining from utterances and policies that undermine it.
This understanding of the proper relation among politics, morality, and religion dominated the American Founding. It suffused Tocqueville's analysis. In clearly recognizable form, it survived well into the twentieth century. In the past generation, however, this understanding came under attack, and the delicate balance between juridical liberalism and its social preconditions was disrupted. Influential philosophers argued that the essence of liberalism was public neutrality on the widest possible range of moral issues.