Laborde Moffett Lecture: A Summary

Monday, May 6, 2019
by Julie Clack

Cécile Laborde, the Nuffield Chair of Political Theory at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy, delivered the spring 2019 James A. Moffett '29 Lecture in Ethics. Laborde spoke on “Who Needs Secularism? India, Liberalism, and Comparative Secularism.”

Laborde began the lecture by acknowledging that academic liberal political theory has the propensity to hail the American separationist model as “the paradigm of liberal democracy.” However, this assumption implies — unfairly — that “the rest of the world tragically falls short of liberal standards.”

Within the last 30 years, the field of comparative secularism emerged as a response to this question, aiming to help scholars better think about different kinds of secularism, and what kind of secularism is required for a liberal democracy. Yet while comparative secularism has successfully put to rest the idea that a state’s status as a liberal democracy should be measured using the U.S. separationist model as the benchmark, it has not provided criteria by which scholars can assess the normative adequacy of such diverse secular arrangements.

As her lecture title indicates, Laborde offers post-1947 India as an example of non-U.S. secularism. According to Laborde, India is the largest secular democracy in the world. While the great majority of its population are Hindu, 14 percent are Muslim, making India the third-largest Muslim country in the world.

“Following the end of British rule and the trauma of partition, the founders of the newly independent nation sought to reassure Muslims that India would not be a Hindu state. They converged on a rejection of what was pejoratively called ‘communalism,’ championing instead a secular national identity that both recognized and transcended religious identities.”

However, formal disestablishment – US separationism – was rejected so as not to stand in the way of reform of the most illiberal practices associated with Hinduism – notably around the status of women and the lower castes. In parallel, rights of religious collective autonomy were granted to Muslims – in particular the preservation of Islamic personal law (Sharia)  - as a way to recognize their status as a constituent group of the new nation.

As is the case with any government, India’s efficacy as a secular state has been, and continues to be, subject to scrutiny. Some of this scrutiny, Laborde and others argue, stems from the lack of normative criteria that are not based in Protestant conceptions of religion or the Western history of secularism.

In order to adequately assess secularism in countries like India, Laborde argues that we need to reframe the questions we ask about secularism and liberal democracy. Rather than asking, “Is this state secular? Does it respect separation between state and religion?”, we should instead ask, “Does the state adequately protect liberal ideals?”

Laborde offers the principle of minimal secularism as a framework through which to ask these questions and suggests that in order to better evaluate states like India, we ought to examine their efficacy in upholding three primary ideals: public justification, equal inclusion, and personal liberty.

Laborde noted that while minimal secularism maintains that “entanglement of state and religion is problematic for liberal legitimacy, it remains agnostic as to whether a wall of separation is in practice the best way to achieve its ideals.”

Because minimal secularism “does not make a fetish of Western style of state and religion,” Laborde added, it “therefore allows a variety of permissible arrangements,” including India’s non-U.S. secularism.

Importantly, Laborde cautions against “the ethnocentrism of comparison,” or the temptation to judge our own society by its ideals (of religious freedom, democratic equality, human rights), while judging other societies by their practices. “The ideals of Indian secularism might be frustratingly under-realized, but it doesn’t mean they have no purchase on lived reality,” she said.

Laborde concluded her talk by highlighting some of the ways in which India strives to uphold these ideals of minimal secularism to confront “inter-religion and intra-religious domination.” Indian secularism may fall short, Laborde concedes, but it is not because it fails to maintain an ideal of separation; rather, it is because efforts to ensure equal inclusion and personal liberty have been ineffective or mistargeted.

The Indian case holds broader lessons for western secularism too. Well-known constitutional decisions, such as Shah Bano, epitomize the inherent tension between the two secular ideals of equal inclusion and personal liberty, as well as the difficulties involved, for secular courts, in abstaining from defining what is and what is not ‘religious’.

Ultimately, Laborde hopes that the principle of minimal secularism can provide a transnational framework of normative comparison, or at least normative dialogue, that will help scholars compare different forms of secularism more constructively. The large and engaged audience, including a number of scholars from the Institute for Advanced Study as well as those gathered to attend a conference which Laborde’s talk also served to keynote, demonstrates the originality and interest of this project. 

Video recording of Moffett lecture here.