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Challenging Christian Liberalism: Religious Minorities and the Public Sphere


The liberal democratic state does not have an adequate way of talking about, or engaging with, religion today. In this dissertation I argue that religious minorities are expanding the scope of the liberal democratic public sphere through a series of contestations. I draw on three case studies in Canada and the United States to argue that the framework of the liberal public sphere is decidedly Christian in orientation, and that religious minorities are making this evident through their interventions in public arenas. I develop a critical analytic based on Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, drawing on Habermas’s critics as well as the work of Foucault. I retain the notion of the public sphere but emphasize the role of dissensus, rather than consensus, in achieving the liberal goal of equality. I argue that the public sphere is not a neutral arena for public deliberation, because it has historically privileged Christian forms of expression.

I then use my critical analytic of the public sphere in order to perform a close reading of three case studies in which religious minorities intervene in the public sphere. I look at cases of Mormons in the American spheres of politics and popular culture; changing notions of reasonable accommodation in the Canadian province of Québec, and legislative challenges by Muslims and Sikhs to uphold the right of religious expression; and atheists in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. who argue that their brand of atheism is either a church or a creed requiring accommodations from the state.

Rather than dismissing religion as a matter of private concern, scholars seeking to understand the contemporary role of religion in the state ought to take seriously the public expressions of religious minorities. These interventions reverify the citizenship rights of religious minorities, on the one hand, and lay bare the Christian Liberalism of the public sphere on the other.

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