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


By José Casanova and Anne Phillips

September 2009

The present publication features a debate between two leading thinkers - José Casanova and Anne Phillips - on the relation between religion, politics and gender equality.

Religion, Politics and Gender Equality: Public Religions Revisited

José Casanova's paper on "Religion, Politics and Gender Equality: Public Religions Revisited" 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.

Religion: Ally, Threat or Just Religion?

Anne Phillips in her contribution on "Religion: Ally, Threat or Just Religion?" highlights that in feminist, as in mainstream, thinking, there has been a reassessment of the relationship between religion and politics. For much of the twentieth century, it was assumed that religion was at odds with gender equality, and campaigners for women’s rights looked to the spread of secular principles and attitudes as an important engine of change. But the notion that secularism, understood as the complete separation of politics from religion, is the precondition for progressive politics has been challenged by critics of the secularization thesis, including José Casanova. Specifically within feminism, it has been challenged by the importance attached to women’s agency, and the need to respect the choices of religious as well as non-religious women.

Yet religions can and do threaten gender equality, and particularly so when their authority over their members is enhanced by a formal or informal role in the political system. The essay argues that Casanova does not engage sufficiently with the severity of this issue, and that his resolution is too complacent both in its celebration of the democratic engagements of civil society, and its reliance on movements for internal reform. Civil society is not a neutral zone, and the associations that constitute civil society can reproduce social hierarchies and exclusions as often as they contest them. Internal reform, moreover, will be hardest to mobilize precisely where it is most needed.

This paper addresses the relationship between religion, politics and gender equality through four aspects:

  1. what authority, if any, states can cede to religious communities or groups without beginning to threaten gender equality; 
  2. the informal impact of religions on attitudes and lives, beyond any institutionalized power; 
  3.  the possibilities and limits of internal reform; and 
  4. the possibilities and difficulties of alliances between religious and secular groups.

The central theme running through the essay is that religions most threaten gender equality when they are conceived of - and conceive themselves as - corporate bodies, capable of speaking with a unified voice. The key protection for women is a strong politics of individual rights. In arguing this, however, this paper stresses the difficulties surrounding the politics of rights. It is crucial both to recognize the centrality of individual rights and acknowledge the problems in their interpretation and implementation. This is not something that can be resolved at a purely theoretical level. It alerts us, rather, to the political issues.

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José Casanova

José Casanova is one of the world’s top scholars in the sociology of religion. He is a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and heads the Berkley Center’s Program on Globalization, Religion and the Secular. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the New School for Social Research. He has published works in a broad range of subjects, including religion and globalization, migration and religious pluralism, transnational religions, and sociological theory. His best-known work, “Public Religions in the Modern World” (University of Chicago Press, 1994), has become a modern classic in the field and been translated into five languages, including Arabic and Indonesian. His most recent research has focused primarily on two areas: globalization and religion, and the dynamics of transnational religion, migration, and increasing ethno-religious and cultural diversity. In studying religion and globalization, his research has adopted an ambitious comparative perspective that includes Catholicism, Pentecostalism and Islam within its scope. Some of his recent articles in this area include “Public Religions Revisited” (in Hent de Vries, ed., Religion: Beyond the Concept (Fordham University Press, 2008), and “Religion, Politics and Gender in Catholicism and Islam” (in Hanna Herzog and Ann Braude, ed., Gendered Modernities: Women, Religion, and Politics (Palgrave, forthcoming).

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Anne Phillips

Anne Phillips is Professor of Political and Gender Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she holds a joint appointment in the Gender Institute and Government Department. She is a leading figure in feminist political theory, and has written on issues of equality and difference, democracy and representation, gender and multiculturalism. Her publications include “Multiculturalism without Culture” (2007), “Which Equalities Matter?” (1999), “The Politics of Presence” (1995), “Democracy and Difference” (1993), and “Engendering Democracy” (1991). She was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of Aalborg in 1999, and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2003. In 2008, she received a Special Recognition Award from the Political Studies Association, UK, for her contribution to Political Studies. She is currently working on a collection of essays on Gender and Culture, which will be published by Polity Press in 2010.


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