My experience at Birkbeck as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor and its impact on my research

This post was contributed by Professor Michel Rosenfeld, a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Birkbeck’s School of Law

As my semester at Birkbeck is all too soon about to come to a close, I briefly pause to take stock on how my experience has added up to a rich, rewarding and unique contribution in furtherance of my research. I have greatly benefited from exchanges with faculty and students at Birkbeck as well as at other UK universities where I made various presentations as part of my Leverhulme obligations.

For many years, my research has focused on how pluralist societies that are divided along religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural lines can live together in an institutional setting and under laws that they could all genuinely accept as legitimate. In the past, I have conducted separate inquiries within my various fields of expertise, namely legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, and American and comparative constitutional law, on the other. My work has always been interdisciplinary and comparative and I have elaborated a normative pluralist perspective that I have named “comprehensive pluralism”. In the past, I have explored the latter’s implications for each  of my separate fields of inquiry, and more recently, in conjunction with my Leverhulme award and my coming to Birkbeck, I have concentrated on integrating and harmonizing the insights and the learning that I had gathered from my separate areas of inquiry.

Three subjects present particularly difficult challenges to any attempt to balance unity and respect for a plurality of viewpoints and basic commitments within a constitutional democracy. The first of these is the handling of crises that threaten the physical or psychological well-being of the citizenry, such as in the case of global or international terrorism. The second subject is religion, particularly in view of its revival, re-politicization, the growth of fundamentalism, and diversification primarily through migration, which have been prevalent in the last few decades.  This has led to various clashes between secularism and religion as well as among diverse religions, and has raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of constitutional secularism which has long been deemed an essential prerequisite to the success of the modern democratic state. Finally, the third subject is the broad question of justice within a pluralist constitutional society in which people disagree over what the good life consists in and over what political society should require from, and provide to, each of its members.

I have had a chance to explore all of these subjects in my various Leverhulme interventions, starting with my Leverhulme lecture I at Birkbeck on October 31, 2014 on “Constitutionalism, Globalisation and Ethno-religious conflict” in which I addressed all three of the above subjects. At a faculty legal philosophy workshop at King’s College I focused on the subject of justice, and presented a paper entitled “Is Justice All-Encompassing or Subject to Moral Override?” in which I explore the role of justice in pluralist societies where there is wide disagreement about moral values and what should count as the good for all. At the University of Glasgow, I co-taught with Professor Adam Tomkins of that university an advanced seminar class that focused on comparing how the UK and the US have handled the international terrorist threat through legislation and judicial intervention. I addressed the constitutional problems posed by the increased politicization of religion at a faculty workshop at Westminster University where I had a political theorist, Professor Chantal Mouffe, as my principal interlocutor. A few days later, I had a further discussion of the new challenges posed by religion in front of a diverse, interdisciplinary audience at a Public Law Discussion Group meeting at the Oxford University Law School. Finally, in what has thus far proven the most enriching and rewarding experience in terms of my current research projects, on December 5, 2014, a full day workshop was held at Birkbeck in which eight scholars, including Professors Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schutz from Birkbeck, and various scholars from other UK universities and from France and Italy, provided invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions on my paper entitled “Constitutional Theology?” in which I provide a very preliminary analysis of a major issue that I intend to make the subject of a book project:  in the context of the daunting new challenges posed by the revival of religion and post-modern critiques, should modern constitutionalism rooted in the Enlightenment be reconceived as elaborating a theology of its own–albeit one that does not appeal to the transcendent or the metaphysical–or as that which remains distinct from all theology and that may be reframed so as to preserve a its capacity to mediate among competing religious and non-religious ideologies?

I look forward to my last official intervention of this extraordinary semester that I have spent at Birkbeck, the Leverhulme II Lecture on “Post-Secular Constitutionalism“, which will take place on Friday 12 December 2014. In that lecture, I will address certain aspects of some of the subjects mentioned above, and in particular how secularism might best fare in view of the various religious and post-modern challenges it has encountered in the past couple decades. Would secularism fare better in the future by remaining firmly anchored in the institutional framework established by the constitution? Or would it be better off by being recast as one ideology among the many that are deserving of constitutional recognition and protection?

[Note: interested parties can still register for this free public lecture 6:00 – 8:30pm 12 December via Eventbrite]

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