What does it mean to participate in society? In our neoliberal age, whose social and political effects are even more glaring in the pandemic, this is not at all clear. In his book Undoing the Demos: The Stealth Revolution of Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown showed how neoliberalism is not only an economic and political system but also a governing rationality in its own right, a kind of common sense. For many in the United States and around the world, the very notion of public good has become less conceivable. Under these conditions, Brown recently explained, “our freedom rests on our ability to do what we want as individuals.” On the far right, this libertarian ethic has combined with anti-democratic policies and politics to form what Brown calls “authoritarian liberalism.”
We find a paradigmatic example of authoritarian liberalism in the contemporary politics of sincere religious belief. As I wrote in these pages from last year, the sincere belief “names a distinctly American way of being free and to be religious: as an individual, in an unsystematic way and without regard for others. To remain unvaccinated, or to pack sanctuary during the peak of pre-vaccination infection surges, is a personal freedom. And when he is sincere and religious, he is worth protecting, no matter who else might be hurt. Moreover, sincere religious beliefs insulate their holder from criticism. They offer a right to opt out not only from the requirements of democratic participation, but also from the democratic process of deliberation, give reasons and argue. You can always say, when pushed, “Don’t question my faith.”
And yet, I want to suggest that sincerity might offer, perhaps unexpectedly, an ethic worth pursuing. Sincerity could – should be – fundamentally social, not antisocial. Like the anthropologist Webb Keane Explain, when I speak sincerely, “not only do I produce words that reveal my inner state but I produce them for you; I make myself (as the inner self) available to you in the form of external, publicly available expressions. You cannot be sincere on your own. You need to talk to other people. Today, sincere religious beliefs are increasingly deployed in the service of the opposite function. Plaintiffs — at least white conservative Christian plaintiffs whose religious beliefs are recognized as normatively religious — have little to do to explain or defend their beliefs. They just hold them, sincerely. How could our policy be different if the claims of sincerity were an invitation to dialogue rather than a talk-stopper? A chance to negotiate a resolution with each other in good faith?