Affect and the theo-political economy of the right to freedom of ‘thought, conscience and religion’

The debate surrounding the accommodation of religious beliefs in secular democratic societies, such as, recently, refusals to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious conscience grounds, tends to overlook two aspects that are highlighted in this paper. First, pitting ‘religious conscience’ against duties under positive law is assumed to be a species of a universal ‘conscience v law’ problematic that the Greeks, say, depicted in plays such as Antigone. Yet, I argue, it is important that Christianism be acknowledged as the original formative context of the (now globalised) use of the term ‘conscience’ to denote an idea of freedom that is tied to the notions of conflicting private and general “wills” as in the case of the freedom of ‘thought, conscience and religion’ per Art 9 ECHR. Secondly, I argue, the related legacy of Christianism is nothing if not one of economic management of such ‘conflicts’. Building on the work of G. Agamben I suggest that from the point of view of bio-politics, all controversies, or even ‘crises’, stemming from the distinction between modern, secular or/and multicultural law and politics and traditional religion (and from disagreements over the ‘correct’ way to structure their relationship) are best seen as part of the paradigm of ‘oikonomia’, a legacy of Christian political theology; affective trust in this paradigm on the part of the Christian/post-Christian subject makes possible an ethos that comprises dogmatism with flexibility; this, rather than convictions about the value of universalist notions of either political or legal Right is the real key to appreciating a regime of qualified rights such as Art. 9 ECHR.