Liberalism Must Work for Religious Conservatives

3rd September 2018

The best possible society that I can imagine is one which perfectly embodies my preferences. Political, moral, economic, even aesthetic: I have a set of opinions to which I am committed. But I’m a liberal, not a totalitarian. I know that not everybody agrees with me. I recognise that, in order for these policy choices to have value for others, the ideas which underpin them must have resonance. They must be freely chosen. Accordingly, it is prudent to pause before they are enforced on others.

Liberal societies look to the ‘harm principle’ when determining the proper limits of state action. The application of that principle, in particular circumstances, will always be a matter of reasonable debate. If liberalism is to be attractive – and fair – to religious and moral conservatives, it is vital that their concerns are properly taken into account.

The notion that liberalism might have anything to offer to a religious and moral conservative seems, at first glance, to be improbable. But there is no fundamental incompatibility between liberalism and a religious conservatism which operates primarily as a personal struggle against one’s own perceived moral failings, rather than as a coercive programme of government. Moreover, a liberal and secular society can and should be the best, or at the very least, the second best sort of society for such a person to live in. Even if you believe that the best sort of government is one which reflects your view of God’s plan for humanity, you may nevertheless conclude that it is better to live in a society run by those who do not seek to enforce that plan through governmental action and which is guided by the harm principle, than to live under the rule of a sect that treats your conclusions as heretical, and observes no such self-denying ordinance.

In both the United Kingdom and the United States, certain of these issues have been played out in the litigation relating to the refusal to bake cakes carrying gay-themed messages. Although the subject-matter of the litigation is trivial, the principles which underpinned the positions of both sides are not.

In the US Supreme Court, the majority – which included four socially liberal judges – held that the original judgement of the Colorado court had not only failed to manifest neutrality towards religious belief, but had constituted “clear hostility” to them, in a manner which indicated that religious beliefs “are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community”.

In the United Kingdom, a similar appeal is before the UK Supreme Court. That case also relates to the refusal of a baker, with a religious objection to marriage equality for gays, to bake a cake bearing a slogan supporting gay marriage. Notably, the prominent campaigner for equality, Peter Tatchell, has supported the bakers on the principled basis of the primacy of freedom of expression, and on pragmatic grounds, with regard to certain concerns relating to unintended consequences. You can read Peter’s rationale here.

The purpose of this piece is not to take a position on the gay case issue: although I find Peter Tatchell’s argument persuasive. It is rather a more general, and inchoate plea to take the concerns of religious and moral conservatives seriously. At the very least, social liberals – like me – should be able to disagree with social conservatives without dismissing and anathematising them.

The task of creating a framework which works for all participants in a diverse society is not new. Neither is it simple. However, be it gay cakes in Northern Ireland, niqabs in the public space or sex education in schools, moral diversity is not one we can dodge. We need to recognise that a truly liberal and secular society will only succeed if it reflects the concerns of, and is supported by, both the socially liberal and conservative.