Religious Clothing and the Secular State

In this article I propose to make two arguments and express one main claim. One argument argues that if you are a Kantian about all-in ethical obligation, you should choose not to wear religious clothing in public. I call this the Kantian Argument. (Purists might wish me to call this the Kantianish Argument.) The other argument argues that I have a right to make the first argument. I call this the Uniform Argument. The main claim is this: even if you do not accept these arguments, it is desirable for people who have strong religious convictions, and who express those convictions in their dress, to undertake symbolic ways to show respect for the secular state. I call this the Respect Claim.


The Uniform Argument.

Deciding to wear religious garb is not just like deciding to wear a white skirt rather than a blue skirt: it is a public and symbolic means of emphasizing the overriding importance of religion in the identity of members of this group, and of differentiating themselves on this basis from their fellow citizens. When the clothing is worn head-to-foot, and its being worn is mandated by a central religious authority, it may be likened to a uniform in the ordinary sense. I shall in this case speak of “uniform religious clothing”. An ordinary (official or on-the-job) uniform is devised with the purpose of creating a sharp us-vs.-them division between those wearing the uniform and those not wearing it. This is a reflection of the importance we give to the clothing we wear to express important aspects of our roles and status. By and large this action can be justified not only as a good thing for the people in uniform but for the public as a whole. It can be assumed that the wearing of uniform religious clothing by a certain religious group is a benefit to the members of the group – that’s why they engage in the practice – but it cannot be assumed to be a benefit to the public at large. We are therefore entitled to look further into the question of justifying this practice, despite the usual practice of treating decisions about what to wear as a matter of individual prerogative. The further look comes in the Kantian Argument.


The Kantian Argument

Let’s consider a possible world in which everyone in our society wears uniform religious clothing indicative of their religious views. Since everyone has views that pertain to religion, everyone would be wearing uniform religious clothing, but different ones for different opinions. Thus, atheists would wear one kind of clothing, agnostics another, and each sect of each major religion would wear their own special clothing. We would know just by looking at someone, even at a considerable distance, what their affiliation was — who was friend and who was foe. Next, suppose that a person in red uniform-clothing gets on a crowded bus and accidently jostles a person in purple uniform-clothing. Because there has been some recent tension between these two groups the jostled person feels that the contact was deliberate and pushes back. A scuffle develops, quickly magnified by others on the bus taking sides. A full-scale fight ensues. Imagine now that news of this spreads rapidly across the country and people automatically take sides based on religious affiliation. This would be an indication that our society has reached a state of what I will call “ubiquitous tribalization”. All it takes is a match thrown into this situation for a war to start: a war of all against all, destroying our society and the people in it. A doomsday scenario! Something to avoid.

Now, you may say that this is not our current situation and it will not happen because most people in our society will not choose to wear uniform religious clothing. Just look around you: most people wear civilian clothing. True. But this may have ramifications for whether a person should choose to wear uniform religious clothing even now via the Kantian injunction: If you can not universalize a practice, do not engage in it to begin with. Well, you can’t universalize the practice of wearing uniform religious clothing because it raises the risk of ubiquitous tribalization to too high a level, so the injunction is triggered: don’t engage in the practice to begin with. I take this to be a personal injunction: an indication to individuals what practices they are obliged to engage in and to refrain from engaging in. So, if you are a Kantian about personal moral choices and you wear uniform religious clothing, there is an implication here for you.


The Respect Claim

What clothing we wear also serves the function of showing respect. Thus we wear a black suit rather than beachwear to a funeral. Religious clothing also serves this function. For example, I understand that the wearing of head coverings in Judaism and in Islam is a means of preserving ones’ modesty before the eyes of God, thus offering respect to Him.

In a free society, the having and expressing of convictions, including religious convictions, is cherished and protected. This is as it should be. But we are also a secular society, a society in which public decision-making and publicly asserted values are not based on theological principles or sacred books. This is called “secularism”. It is a methodology and can be practiced by people with religious commitments as well as without. Its opposite is what I will call “theocratism”. I believe that secularism in this sense is the right method for public decision-making, though I won’t argue for that here. If it is, then those citizens who show symbolic respect for their religion by wearing uniform religious clothing should also show their respect for the “secular state” – the state that arrives at its decisions via secularist methodology — in a correspondingly meaningful way.

I have said “should” here. As I see it, the meaning of “should” comes in two varieties: as a desideratum (or what is desirable) and as an obligation (or what is required). It is not unreasonable, I think, for governments concerned to defend the secular state to interpret the injunction as obligation, and hence to make laws enforcing it. But it is preferable, I think, to interpret the injunction as a desideratum. This is because the underlying point of my suggestion is to stimulate in an orthodox religious person a reflective attitude toward their allegiance to secular society and how best to observe it: this is unlikely to occur in a constructive way if the observances are legally compelled. So interpreted, it is desirable (though not obligatory) for those who choose to wear uniform religious clothing to choose a way to show their respect for the secular state and to also show solidarity with their fellow citizens. What better way to carry this out than by checking part of your religious clothing at the door when entering a public institution for official purposes, retrieving it on the way out? I am not, of course, asking that religious people entirely disrobe upon entering a government building but that they remove an item of clothing—a hat or a shawl perhaps— to show respect to the institution, as I would do upon entering a church, mosque, synagogue, shambhala center or temple.

I appreciate that for a devout person who wears religious clothing, removing all or some of it to enter a government facility is a major sacrifice. But the degree of honour shown to something in a symbolic observance is proportional to the degree of sacrifice incurred. I do greater honour to the gods when I throw my prize goat on the sacrificial fire than a pair of old shoes. So, as a devout person, you do great honour to your country (when it is a secular state) and its people when you remove an article of your religious clothing when engaged in official business with the federal government. This is a great sacrifice. The question remains, of course, whether the sacrifice is too great. In a free society that is a question for each individual to answer on their own. My own answer would be that the sacrifice is not too great, for however great it might be, the honour it represents is not greater than the honour which your country and its people deserve.

Tom Vinci

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