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How Far is Too Far?

How Far is Too Far?

In the sixth in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin examines the vexed issue of pluralism and wrestles with the limits of diversity. 31/08/2021

In 2003 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Constitutional Court of Turkey’s right to dissolve a democratically elected Islamic party, the Welfare Party. It asserted that ‘sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy’ and that even to campaign for the introduction of Islamic personal law was incompatible with liberal democracy. [1] These sweeping judgments about Islam were roundly (and rightly) criticised by dissenting judges in the case. But the case put a fierce spotlight on the increasingly difficult question of how and where to set the limits of acceptable pluralism in a liberal democracy marked by escalating moral and religious diversity. 

On the one hand, liberal democracies are committed to allowing extensive freedom for the expression of a wide diversity of beliefs and practices. Liberal societies pride themselves on their ability to secure legal space for people and organisations to manifest their religious and moral convictions in the public realm and not only in their private lives or behind the doors of a religious building.  

The American political philosopher William Galston calls this ‘expressive liberty’. [2] He is a foremost defender of what he calls the ‘diversity state’, [3] one in which expressive liberty is enjoyed to the fullest possible extent. He is thus a forceful critic of those forms of liberalism and secularism that would shut down diversity, forms in which ‘constitutional uniformity crushes social pluralism’.  [4]  

On the other hand, liberal democracies cannot permit public beliefs or practices that would cause the dissolution of society or the collapse of the state. They do not, as Galston reminds us, permit ‘free exercise for Aztecs’ (who practiced human sacrifice). [5] Liberal democracy is not a wild–west libertarianism in which absolutely anything goes. While liberalism is based on an agreement to allow difference, ‘it is not a suicide pact’: liberal institutions ‘are not debarred from securing the conditions of their own existence’. [6] Plurality must be both facilitated and limited so that it protects what liberals regard as non–negotiable claims of justice.  

Christians committed in principle to something like a ‘diversity state’ also confront the question of where they would set the limits of acceptable pluralism. [7] Like secular liberals, they will robustly affirm as much expressive liberty as is compatible with a stable political order. For them, this affirmation is grounded in Christian moral theology. [8] Such a theology argues decisively for maximum religious freedom, and more broadly, conscientious freedom for all (‘freedom of religion or belief’, as the law calls it). The citizen asserting conscientious freedom from some onerous state obligation is, as Ian Leigh puts it, ‘seeking to avert the moral harm that would follow from being compelled to act against their conscience’. The state’s deference to conscience claims ‘allows the individual …to integrate their beliefs and their actions, so avoiding the need to partition the two or…to closet expressions of the core of their personhood’. [9]  

Because Christians recognise the need to protect that ‘core’ in themselves, they will (or should) readily acknowledge it in others. If there is freedom for the public manifestation of Christian convictions, there should, prima facie, be equivalent space for secular humanist, Islamic or Buddhist manifestations. The outcome will be that some conscientious convictions and practices which Christians may find profoundly objectionable, even harmful to human flourishing, will be legally protected by the state. [10]  

Admittedly, some Christians can at times seem reluctant to accept this logic. I recall a senior Christian lawyer, in response to an argument that legal freedom for Muslim conscience was as valid as that for Christian conscience, declaring: ‘I refuse to support the promotion of falsehoods’. But that, of course, is exactly what defending conscientious freedom amounts to. And from a Muslim, or secular humanist, standpoint, that is what religious freedom enjoyed by Christians involves. 

As well as defending a generous expressive liberty, Christians will, like secular liberals, urge on the state duties of justice that may limit such liberty. Christians also hold this view for theological reasons, since ‘justice’ is what, in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, states are divinely authorised to deliver, even though determining its contemporary meaning is far from a simple matter. [11]  

We can expect at least some areas of agreement between Christians and secular liberals on what freedom and justice imply and how they should be balanced by the state. For example, both would likely agree on the need to override a claim by Jehovah’s Witness parents to deny blood transfusions to their children, or to prevent Muslims (mistakenly) invoking shari’a law to justify forced marriage. [12]

 These decisions do indeed expose some of our fellow citizens to the ‘moral harm’ of being prevented from acting in accordance with their conscience – or suffering the adverse consequences, such as losing a job, or, at the extreme, even going to prison. Both Christians and secular liberals need to be honest about the moral harms they are thereby willing to have the state impose on some of their fellow citizens.  

At times, Christians will also find themselves in such a position. One example was the local authority employee found to have acted unlawfully by using her work email account to criticize same–sex relationships on theological grounds to the head of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. [13] She had to suffer the moral harm (however slight, we might think) of having to submit to the authority’s right to control how work email is used, overriding her claim to freedom of religious expression. 

In reflecting on where the state should set the limits of pluralism, Christians would likely permit both more and less freedom at different points than some secular liberals. They would, for example, allow more freedom for the Cathedral that wanted to define its overall mission as one of ‘hospitality’, but found itself told by the Charity Commission to divide its activities into the ‘religious’ on the one hand, and the educational and charitable on the other, in effect requiring it to ‘rewrite its theology’. [14] And it would permit more freedom for defenders of traditional sexual ethics to express their views civilly in public settings without being charged with a public order offence. But it would allow less freedom than would some versions of secular liberalism for corporations to manifest a faith in the efficacy of unlimited capital movements, and less freedom for parents to place their family planning preferences over the lives of their ‘unwanted’ foetuses. 

‘Christian’ and ‘secular liberal’ views of freedom, justice and the limits of pluralism are, of course, only two among a much broader array of standpoints in society today, and they themselves display much internal diversity. I have only sketched a few details of this complexity. We are faced with an increasing plurality of highly assertive and competing accounts of the limits of pluralism. This makes addressing the question of where to set the limits of diversity increasingly fraught. If democratic debates over this issue are to do better than they currently are – and they urgently need to – protagonists on all sides will need to cultivate three essential civic virtues: convictional clarity (what are my red lines?), attentive listening (is there a genuine issue of justice driving my opponents?) and negotiating dexterity (how can we edge towards a workable agreement?).  

Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM.  


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[1] Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) v Turkey (2003) EHRR I, para. 123

[2] Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 110.

[3] ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’, Ethics 105 (1995), 521.

[4] Liberal Pluralism, 20.

[5] Liberal Pluralism, 23.

[6] Liberal Pluralism, 126.

[7] See Jonathan Chaplin, Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM, 2021).

[8] See Nick Spencer, How to Think About Religious Freedom (Theos, 2014); Roger Trigg, Free to Believe? Religious Freedom in a Liberal Society (Theos, 2010).

[9] Quoted in Chaplin, Faith in Democracy, 132.


[11] For a helpful guide, see Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice and Society: Law and Legality in the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2012).


[13] Haye v London Borough of Lewisham [2010] ET 2301852/09

[14] Francis Davis, Elizabeth Paulhus and Andrew Bradstock, Moral But No Compass: Government, Church and the Future of Welfare (Matthew James Publishing, 2008), 55.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

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Posted 31 August 2021

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