A Debate on the Public Role of Religion and its Social and Gender Implications

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The paper offers a revision of the thesis of the “de-privatization of religion” first presented in Public Religions in the Modern World in response to two new challenges: (i) the global imperative to develop comparative analytical frameworks which are applicable beyond Western Christian contexts; and (ii) the need to place the politics of gender equality and the related religious/secular debates into the centre of any discussion of “public religion” anywhere in the world today.

The paper offers, first, a critical reconstruction of the particular Western Christian genesis of the religious/secular system of classification of reality, and its subsequent globalization, in order to facilitate a less Western-centric comparative historical analysis of processes of secularization beyond the West.

Next, the paper questions previous attempts to contain public religions within the public sphere of civil society, without allowing them to spill over to political society or the democratic state. Reflecting upon the complexity of institutional arrangements one finds in existing Western democracies, the paper argues that the secular separation of religion from political society or even from the state are not universalizable maxims, in the sense that they are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for democratic politics. The free exercise of religion is the primary, fundamental and necessary democratic norm, while the secular principle of separation and “no establishment” is a secondary conditional norm whose instrumental purpose is to facilitate the free exercise of religion of each individual citizen. The paper adopts Stepan’s model of the “twin tolerations” as a more flexible framework able to encompass better the wide variety of institutional patterns of relations between democratic political institutions and religious institutions across religions, and across national and civilization contexts.

It is neither possible nor advisable to restrict empirically or normatively the religious politics of gender equality to the public sphere of civil society. What is desirable is to subject religious discourses legitimating patriarchal customs or discriminatory gender practices to open public debate and to political contestation. But this in itself is a form of de-privatization of religion that thrusts religion necessarily into the political arena. What makes blatant gender discrimination and patriarchal practices objectionable is not the fact that they may be grounded in religious discourse, but the fact that they violate basic democratic and legal norms of equality. The democratic solution cannot be to outlaw religious discourse or patriarchal norms, but to subject such a discourse to public debate and to subject collective norms to legal-political democratic processes.

The second part of the paper offers a framework for a critical analysis of the religious politics of gender within the comparative context of Catholicism and Islam as religious regimes and as discursive normative traditions.

Without questioning the need of subjecting all religious traditions to external secular feminist critiques, the paper stresses the need and effective relevance of internal feminist religious critiques, that is, from within the normative claims of religious traditions, particularly in those contexts in which religious traditions and institutions may have discursive hegemony.

The paper distinguishes three different sets of issues in the religious politics of gender: (i) the gendered religious division of labour and power relations within religious regimes; (ii) sexism and the andocentric images of women within religious traditions; and (iii) women as religious subjects, historical agents and political actors, and their roles in the contemporary reproduction and transformation of their religious traditions and in the insertion of religious discourses, resources and practices in the contested politics of gender equality.

José Casanova is Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, United States.