Liberalism beyond toleration: Religious exemptions, civility and the ideological other

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I address the long-standing problem of toleration in diverse liberal societies in light of the progress of same-sex marriage and continued vehement opposition to it from a significant portion of the population. I advance a view that contrasts with recent discussions by Teresa Bejan, Mere Civility, and especially Cecile Laborde, Liberalism’s Religion. Laborde emphasizes the importance of state sovereignty in fixing the boundaries of church and state, emphasizing the priority of public authority and constitutional supremacy. I argue that emphasis on priority needs to be complemented by a recognition of the importance of forms of reconciliation that go beyond ‘mere civility’. Reflections on toleration in the liberal and democratic traditions – including in the canonical discussions of Locke, Rousseau, Smith and Tocqueville, and in more recent political science – have recognized that the health of liberal democracy benefits enormously from the educative and morally formative resources furnished by religious communities. We must hope and plan for the reconciliation of the values of liberal democracy and the teachings of the major religions in society. In that context, a great source of present difficulty is the political polarization that infects and inflects religious differences. For that reason, I applaud aspects of Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Kennedy insists on the equal dignity of gay and lesbian couples, but also requires that the complaints of religious wedding vendors should be listened to respectfully. While progressives constantly urge that we do more to include the other – typically meaning refugees, migrants, racial, sexual minorities and so on – one great challenge in conditions of hyper polarization is to include the ideological other.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)370-389
Number of pages20
JournalPhilosophy and Social Criticism
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Accommodation
  • Civil society
  • Democracy
  • Jack Phillips
  • Liberalism
  • Polarization
  • Religion
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Supreme Court
  • Wedding


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