Legally preferential treatment of a religious organization is the legal conferral of a status that is more favorable than that accorded to other religious organizations. This essay introduces and analyzes the contrasting concept of deferential treatment. “Deferential treatment” refers to forms of favorable treatment that are cultural rather than legal. While the problems posed by legally preferential treatment of religion are well known, the problems posed by deferential treatment have received little attention. One problem is that when a religious organization receives deferential treatment, its authorities are not compelled to exercise their power in ways that track the interests of those over whom they exercise it. This leaves those subject to their power liable to abuse. Another is that deferential treatment encourages “benchmark traditionalism.” Benchmark traditionalism is problematic because it is politically unreasonable. These problems with deferential treatment give all citizens, including religiously committed citizens, reason to favor a culture of non-deference.
Let us say that societies are liberal to the extent that they give special priority to the equal protection of basic rights and liberties, including freedom of the press, conscience, and association, together with political liberties. This might seem a relatively undemanding condition of liberalism, but the satisfaction of other important conditions follows from the satisfaction of this one. For example, a society can protect citizens’ rights only if it honors the rule of law. A society that protects the freedom of association has a government that is limited, and therefore allows for a robust and diverse civil society. The condition of liberalism is therefore not as minimal as it might initially seem.
Societies that protect the basic liberties of all citizens create space for pluralism. That space is created and maintained, in part, by citizens’ sustaining a public culture. For keeping government within the limits needed for a vibrant civil society requires citizens’ willingness to repudiate public officials who would overstep them. Civil society flourishes only if citizens observe informal norms of toleration and respect. That liberal societies create space in these ways raises the question of how citizens of liberal societies are to regard their own participation in the ways their societies create such a space.
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