Work undertaken by Oxford Political Theory Network members on the theme of public life and religious diversity has two objectives: first, to initiate a renewal in the way political theory approaches religion; second, to strengthen the dialogue between theory and action in this domain. These two goals neatly complement each other as political theorising around religion and politics needs to evolve by constantly reflecting on new practical challenges.
In the past two decades, there has been much talk among political theorists about the role of religion in the public sphere. Discussions of public reason and its limits, secularism and disestablishment, the nature of toleration, and the scope of religious exemptions have been productive. For many theorists, however, the fundamental worry remains: can the tensions between the demands of liberalism and democracy and the obligations of faith be negotiated? Or will containing – or constraining – religion within the bounds of a liberal polity always infringe upon the freedom of conscience ostensibly at liberalism’s core?
The increasing diversity of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices; the phenomenon (and fear) of ‘religious extremism’; the complex interplay between religions, gender, and sexuality; and the many different ways that social institutions engage with religious practice, all call for new thinking in political theory.
In September 2017 the Department hosted a conference aiming to re-evaluate established debates and look forward by asking innovative questions. Topics for discussion encompassed childhood vaccination, circumcision, the limits of free speech, and religious diversity in school and in the workplace. We hear of more and more controversies involving religious dress or symbols at work, or clashes to do with daily prayers, holy days, conscientious objections to occupational requirements, proselytism, special dietary requirements, and so on. The conference brought together specialists in Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic thought, University colleagues from a range of disciplines and departments, and eminent practitioners, including lawyers, political activists, and peace-builders. This allowed us to discuss real-world political and religious dilemmas, to consider concrete applications of research, and to reflect on the broader historical, theoretical, and sociological contexts in which these controversies become conflictual.
In May 2018, we held a symposium on Professor Cécile Laborde’s new book, Liberalism’s Religion. The book takes stock of theoretical innovations in the field over the last twenty years and proposes a new framework for reconsidering the nature of the secular state, the connections between liberalism and Christianity, the special status of religion in politics and law, and the implications of state sovereignty for religion. The symposium featured papers by academics of the Oxford Political Theory Network (Teresa Bejan, Paul Billingham, David Miller, Elise Rouméas, Zofia Stemplowska, Stuart White, and others) thus confirming the cutting-edge quality of the work pursued in Oxford around foundational issues in political theory and religion.
Our role as theorists is to propose conceptual and normative tools for understanding the logic of religious accommodation and resolving potential conflicts, always considering how these theories might be applied in practice. The specific contribution of political theory is that it brings together ethical and philosophical analysis with critical consideration of the nature of the political and social powers that underpin conflict and consensus.
We are grateful to Sekyra Foundation, Harris Manchester College and Nuffield College for their support of Oxford Political Theory Network’s work on political theory and religious diversity.
Elizabeth Frazer is Associate Professor of Politics at DPIR and Official Fellow at New College