Van Norden Reviews Macedo


Posted May 7, 1995

"Liberal Civic Education and Religious Fundamentalism: The Case of God v. John Rawls?" ETHICS Volume 105 No. 3, (April 1995): 468-496, by Stephen Macedo (Syracuse University)

Reviewed by Bryan W. Van Norden, Department of Philosophy and Religion University of Northern Iowa (VANNORDEN@UNI.EDU)

Macedo's article is the first of five in a "Symposium on Citizenship, Democracy, and Education." Macedo follows Rawls (especially Political Liberalism [Columbia University Press, 1993]) in distinguishing "political liberalism" (PL) from "comprehensive liberalism" (CL), and advocating the former. CL defends liberalism based on "a comprehensive liberal ideal of life as a whole centered on autonomy or individuality." (Amy Gutmann and John Dewey are offered as examples of such liberals.) In contrast, PL tries to "put aside such matters as religious truth and the ultimate ideals of human perfection and attempt to justify at least the most basic matters of justice on grounds widely acceptable to reasonable people . . . " (p. 473). Macedo also stresses that PL is distinct from the "politics of difference" (allegedly defended by William Galston in an article in the same symposium), which advocates maximum diversity for its own sake. A "political liberalism with spine" will rule some things out (p. 470).

Macedo illustrates the implications of PL with a recent court case involving fundamentalist Christian parents who asked that their children be allowed to opt out of a particular primary school reading program that exposed children to a variety of different religious views. The parents charged that this exposure "interfered with the free exercise of the families' religious beliefs by denigrating the truth of their particular religious views" (p. 471). Macedo acknowledges that the "reading program at stake does indeed impose disproportionate burdens on parents attempting to inculcate fundamentalist religion." Nonetheless, since "exposure to diversity is a necessary means for teaching a basic civic virtue, [the appeal to toleration] cannot support a fundamental right to be exempted from an otherwise reasonable educational regime" (p. 485).

In the remainder of the article, Macedo discusses three issues raised by PL. (1) Is PL itself a partisan religious position? (2) Should "exemptions and accommodations" be granted to some who "dissent from the liberal order," such as the Amish and Quakers (p. 483)? (3) Is PL impossible (because the "epistemic abstinence" required by it is untenable) and unnecessary (because the same liberal conclusions can be arrived at without leaving more global issues of truth aside) (p. 491)? Briefly, Macedo's answers are as follows: (1) Yes, PL is "controversial and partisan," just like every other substantive theory. So what? But PL is not religious, since it does not take a stand on how religion should be taught or practiced (outside of the political realm). (2) Yes, but only in cases in which "extraordinary burdens on particular groups may be lessened or eliminated without great damage to the basic integrity of the public order" (p. 490). (3) No and no. PL does make some truth claims; what it does not do is offer "a particular comprehensive account of the truth or the good as a whole" (p. 492). And PL is better able to promote trust among groups with different comprehensive views, precisely because it leaves these disagreements outside of the public realm.

Macedo's essay is broad ranging, lively, engaging, and deals in a challenging way with many substantive and interesting issues. He also does a good job of integrating discussions of high level theory and concrete cases. Finally, he shows great intellectual honesty in not wincing from the conclusion that "some will find the strictures of liberal public reason burdensome" (including some, like fundamentalists, who are increasingly politically powerful in the US) (p. 478). Although I am not a specialist in political philosophy, this seems to me a good article to read to get a handle on some of the "hot issues" of the moment.

Macedo says that the basic idea of PL is that, in political matters, "we should . . . affirm the authority of grounds that we can share with our reasonable fellow citizens" (p. 475). But why should we do this? Why should I choose to be guided in political matters by only a subset of my beliefs (especially if many of my most important beliefs are not among that subset)? "The basic motive behind political liberalism . . . [is] the desire to respect reasonable people" (p. 474). But it is not self evident that "respecting reasonable people" (insofar as the phrase has substantive content) ought to be a major goal, let alone an overriding goal. (And I think Macedo would acknowledge this.) But then we can ask why someone ought to accept it as a goal. I worry that PL cannot justify this goal without assuming a substantial portion of a neoKantian picture of the self, autonomy and morality. Indeed, much of the language in the article sounds neoKantian: "some level of awareness of alternative ways of life is a prerequisite . . . of being able to make the most basic life choices" (p. 486). Furthermore, it seems to me that this neoKantian picture is itself "deeply partisan and not easily defended" (p. 473). My own anecdotal impression is that appeals to "reason" seem "harsh, and crabbed" to most people today. Furthermore, there is a tradition going back at least to Augustine that would deny that we can identify "reasonableness" independent of ultimate normative commitment. (Alasdair MacIntyre, who is absent from Macedo's footnotes, is perhaps the most noteworthy contemporary advocate of this position.)

I am more optimistic than Macedo about the possibility of basing liberalism on an "overlapping consensus" based upon different "comprehensive pictures." Classically, there have been Kantian liberals, Millian liberals, and Deweyan liberals. More recently, it has been argued that there can be Aristotelian liberals, Augustinian liberals and Confucian liberals. (On the last two, see respectively Gene Outka, "Augustinianism and Common Morality," in G. Outka and J. Reeder, eds., Prospects for a Common Morality [Princeton, 1993], and my own "Rosemont's Revisionist Ru: The Prospects for Confucian Liberalism," manuscript.) Macedo worries that leaving "basic political arrangements dependent on radically different rationales invites division and distrust" (p. 493). But asking people to assent to a political arrangement that is alienated from their own worldview also invites division and distrust.