Rowan Williams is Not a “Liberal”

One often finds the talking heads on the BBC and op-eds in various papers referring to the “sharia row” as another indication of Rowan Williams’ “liberal” tendencies (surely one of the slipperiest and equivocal epithets we have in religious circles). But if one actually attends to his argument–and his corpus–I think one finds that Williams’ is, in fact, a critic of liberalism. Indeed, the kernel of his argument at the Royal Courts of Justice was calling into question the liberal monopoly of identity that characterizes the (supposedly) “secular” state. One of the hallmarks of liberalism (fostered here in England, as well as the States, by John Locke) is a secularization of the “public” sphere of politics, economics, and the common good, along with a corresponding privatization of religious identity as an affair of the heart–a private and interior matter of one’s “personal relationship” to God. In other words, religion is fine for the weekends, “if you’re into that.” But don’t bring it to work. Don’t let it affect how you function “in public.” In short, you’re welcome to let religion be one of your private pursuits, a kind of hobby. It’s fine to let religion be “part” of who you are, but that religious faith can’t shape or influence you in such a way that it would make a difference in how you pursue life in public.

But for any integral confession (whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim), such a liberal directive would amount to idolatry. God’s election of a people in Abraham and the liberation of his people in the Exodus were not undertaken with the goal of creating a late modern hobby. It was divine action meant to constitute a people who pursue the kingdom of God as their highest and most fundamental vision of human flourishing. The Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection were not just the means for securing a weekend hobby for good liberal citizens; they called into being a cruciform people whose very identity is constituted by their calling to be image bearers of this humiliated God.

I hear in Williams’ argument a refusal of these two aspects of liberalism: a “secular” democratic monopoly on identity along with its corresponding privatization (and therefore triviliazation) of religious faith. In short, the Archbishop is no “liberal.”

Of course rejecting such liberalism does not thereby make him a “conservative” either (recall John Ruskin’s rejection of such binary alternatives). In fact, many “conservatives” are all too happy to accommodate their faith to the shape of the secular state, retreating to some kind of a-political “Jesus-in-my-heart” privatism (which the state is all too happy to permit) and letting their identity as “British” (or “American,” or whatever the case may be) trump their calling as Christians. In this respect, liberal and conservative Anglicans often exhibit the same patterns. [And for the record, I think Tariq Ramadan might just be a good “liberal” Muslim–but I’m suspending judgment on that until I can read more of his work, and have an opportunity to hear him here in York.]