Should a government in a pluralist society such as the United States be neutral with respect to religious and secular ideas about the good life? Or should it promote a certain vision? Most Americans, recognizing that a government-sponsored philosophy would conflict with many citizens’ cherished beliefs (and possibly violate the establishment clause), would say that the government should be neutral.

But at the same time, they would want the government to defend and promote certain ideas”about human equality, for example”even if that promotion conflicted with the beliefs of some Americans. We want the government to be neutral, except when we don’t want it to be.

Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor’s recent book Secularism and Freedom of Conscience succumbs to this doublemindedness. On the necessity of neutrality the authors write:

In the realm of core beliefs and commitments, the state, to be truly everyone’s state, must remain “neutral.” This implies that the state should adopt a position of neutrality not only toward religions but also toward different philosophical conceptions that stand as the secular equivalents of religions.

As they rightly acknowledge later in the book, certain restrictions on citizens’ religious beliefs and preferences are nevertheless unavoidable for a society to function. Here’s one example they give of a justifiable restriction on religious freedom:

Religious parents may request that their children be exempted from courses in sex education, ethics, religious culture, or civic education so that they will not be exposed to modes of life and beliefs that contradict or relativize the religious convictions transmitted at home. In such cases the exemptions requested may compromise the realization of one of the important aims of primary and secondary education, namely, to teach tolerance, peaceful coexistence and other civic skills within societies with diverse beliefs and values . . . .

It is more important than ever that the citizens of tomorrow have the knowledge allowing them to understand what is happening abroad and that they develop their capacity for rational dialogue. As a result, an education in tolerance and pluralism will in certain circumstances justify the denial of parents’ requests for exemption and the exposure of their children to subject matter at odds with the beliefs transmitted at home. That sort of restriction on freedom of conscience and parental authority is reasonable and justified as long as a particular conception of the good life is not imposed on children.

Notice the careful wording: They merely want to expose students to other beliefs, impart knowledge of international issues, and enable understanding of various worldviews. Most people, religious or otherwise, would consider these goals unobjectionable. (Indeed, as a Catholic, I wish I had learned more, not less, at school about other religions and philosophies.) It should be possible to give a relatively neutral, even-handed account of what various religions teach, at least if one stays out of the details.

As for parents who object to these classes, Maclure and Taylor specify that restriction on their freedom of conscience is “reasonable and justified as long as a particular conception of the good life is not imposed on children,” echoing their argument throughout the book that the secular state cannot favor any particular vision of the good life.

But is such neutrality possible? Isn’t valuing wide-ranging religious knowledge above parents’ desire to raise their children in their religion itself part of a conception of the good life”one that considers potentially undermining or downplaying religious differences to be worth the price of a (theoretically) more tolerant and cosmopolitan citizenry? Even if a school isn’t “imposing” that belief on children, it’s apt to transmit it in the course of religious education.

As this example shows, judging which restrictions on freedom of conscience are “reasonable and justified” involves weighing competing goods, and deciding how best to balance them requires a certain prioritization of goods. Same goes for some non-religious issues, like freedom of expression. Whether a country criminalizes “hate speech” hinges on what it considers the higher good: allowing citizens to speak freely, even if what they’re saying is generally deemed hateful, or keeping societal peace and encouraging citizens to accept each other’s differences.

That means the government must have its own conception of the good”though perhaps a minimal, vague, and almost universally accepted one”which through its actions and decisions it will communicate and teach to society. Even if the government is not explicitly imposing this conception on schoolchildren, it will certainly shape public policy. Which in turn will shape citizens’ ideas of the good, though more subtly than traditional indoctrination would. The government cannot be neutral.

Earlier in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience , Maclure and Taylor almost acknowledge this. They argue that in a pluralist society, “political stability” and “peaceful coexistence” require a widely acknowledged “range of values and principles that can be the object of an overlapping consensus.” “The aim of relying on common public values,” they explain, “is to ensure the moral equality of citizens so that, potentially, they can all embrace the state’s broad orientations on the basis of their own conception of the good.” There is, in other words, necessarily a state-sponsored orientation toward the good, which helps to maintain public peace and allow all people to exercise their rights as citizens.

It seems inevitable and often beneficial, then, for every government to have and promote some conception of the good. That conception may be minimal and widely shared, but I don’t think we can call it neutral.

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things .

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Articles by Anna Williams

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