Religion and Civil Society

Public Freedom and Religion in the Decentered Republic

Libertad pública y religión en una república descentralizada

We cannot grasp the proper role of religious belief and religious institutions in a free society until we grasp the general conditions under which a free society can exist in the first place. In an ambitious study of public freedom, David Thunder engages in a penetrating critique of statist visions of public freedom, and proposes in their stead a profoundly pluralistic and decentered conception of the free society. Within the context of this ambitious study,  Thunder carves out a public space for a variety of communities and institutions, including communities with a religious inspiration, as legitimate spheres of public freedom that do not stand in need of any special validation by the State.

One of the hallmarks of modern ideals of democracy is that they place a premium on the freedom of individuals both to (i) shape their own lives according to their own lights, and (ii) positively constitute the laws and policies of their own polities and thus exercise some meaningful measure of collective self-government. Traditional republicanism of an Aristotelian-Ciceronian hew (e.g Benjamin Barber) especially values positive public freedom, i.e. access to meaningful opportunities to play a positive role in the shaping of the laws and constitution of one’s polity, as an intrinsic ingredient of human excellence. Neo-Roman republicanism (e.g. Skinner and Pettit) values positive public freedom principally as a means to non-domination, or freedom from the mastery and control of another. Both of these republicanisms, in spite of their differences, coincide in viewing self-government as a quintessentially political function, centralized in political institutions. What Thunder proposes to do in this investigation, culminating in a book entitled Decentered Republicanism: Public Freedom Beyond the State, is to make the case for a new type of republicanism which rejects this premise, and aims to reimagine public life in a way that more fully realizes the ideal of public freedom than either traditional or neo-Roman republicanism.

The hypothesis Thunder wishes to put to the test is that we would be well served in a post-Westphalian world by a reconfigured ideal of public freedom that extends the republican ideal of self-government from the domain of the polity to the domains of civil society at large. Defining features of such an ideal would include the decentralization of political functions, the diversification of forms of participation in public life, the deconstruction of standard notions of national identity and national sovereignty, the empowering of local communities to act on their own prerogative and not exclusively at the behest of state institutions or regulations, and the acceptance of a society marked by an uneasy tension between multiple, uncoordinated coordinating agencies, rather than shaped by a fully coordinated, “top-down” scheme of coordinating agencies. One of the implications of decentered republicanism of special interest to our project is that religious communities may act in the public sphere according to their own distinctive logic and mores, just so long as they operate within a context of rule of law and respect for the basic rights of citizens. They need not embody the full range of social values and ideas of justice held by a majority of citizens who share their political or legal jurisdiction, anymore than a nonreligious association of citizens need embody religious values and ideals in their public life if they happen to be held by a majority of their fellow citizens.

David Thunder implement this research thanks to a Ramon y Cajal grant from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Ref. RYC-2015-18808).


David ThunderDavid Thunder

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Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad

RYC-2015-18808 (MINECO)