What makes secular government legitimate?

Rembrandt's “Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1668)

The following paragraph, taken from Roger Scruton’s McNish Lecture for the Advancement of Western Civilization, is the most incisive political philosophy I have read in a long time:

“The West’s democratic inheritance stems, I would argue, from the habit of forgiveness. To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the individual as sovereign over his life and free to do both right and wrong. A society that makes permanent room for forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him. Irony – the recognition and acceptance of otherness – amplifies this democratic tendency and also helps thwart the mediocrity and conformity that are the downsides of a democratic culture.”

Drawing as ever on the Judeo-Christian tradition, Scruton argues that forgiveness and irony lie at the heart of modern, secular, western civilisation. I imagine that many secularists of Christian heritage would agree with Scruton when it comes to the recognition and acceptance of otherness, but may feel uneasy with the loaded concept of ‘forgiveness’. But if one allows the autonomy of the individual, then one has also to accept that people will make private judgements about others, while at the same time leaving them to do right and wrong, or simply be ‘other’.

Scruton is known as a conservative philosopher, but some of the ideas outlined in this essay chime with radical and post-Christian thinking. They should also be acceptable to strictly secular libertarians of a leftish persuasion.

Hat tip: Bob from Brockley