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The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere
A new academic book on religion and politics is published with contributions from Judith Butler, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Tayor, and Cornel West.

By Craig Calhoun

Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from the afterword by Craig Calhoun in a new book, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, a Social Science Research Council volume edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and just published by Columbia University Press. The book includes chapters by four major thinkers about public theology, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West. The article appeared at The Immanent Frame. I have commented on this article in this blog item.

It has now been twenty-five years since Richard John Neuhaus wrote The Naked Public Square—an effort to understand what lay behind renewed religious mobilization on the right. Neuhaus did not think the public square was actually “naked”; in fact he thought this an impossibility, for there could be no such thing as engaged democratic public life that didn’t depend on and connect to citizens’ deeper moral commitments. In the U.S., he argued, public life would necessarily involve religiously motivated and religiously framed participation, because a democratic public sphere was necessarily open to all citizens and open to them in terms they themselves had a central role in defining—and, in America, religion was important to most citizens. But, Neuhaus suggested, when so many believe in a public sphere stripped of religion, they actually, ironically, cede much of the democratic impulse in the public sphere to groups like the then prominent Moral Majority of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The peril in this is not simply that the Moral Majority is conservative. It is that “it wants to enter the political arena making public claims on the basis of private truths.” As Neuhaus continues: “The integrity of politics itself requires that such a proposal be resisted. Public decisions must be made by arguments that are public in character.” This is precisely the issue taken up in the present volume, most directly in Jürgen Habermas’s opening contribution.

Neuhaus’s argument was a call from a conservative but centrist position in American politics to recognize the power of religion in the public sphere. Such calls came earlier in the United States. But even in Europe—where religious practice declined most and secularization theory seemed most to apply—the issue of public religion is now very much on the agenda, partly because of anxiety over migration and Islam. It is often framed as contestation over the heritage of the Enlightenment. Many misleadingly assume the Enlightenment was essentially secular. And certainly there was a largely secular branch of eighteenth-century philosophy that had huge historical influence, not least when amplified by the anticlericalism spawned in France by the alliance of the Catholic Church to antirepublican reactionary politics. But the Enlightenment was also a movement among religious thinkers. Jonathan Israel calls this the “moderate” Enlightenment. The term is apt (though not Israel’s implication that the “radical” Enlightenment was simply a more extreme and thereby purer, less compromised version of the same thing). The project of religiously informed public reason was understood to depend on a certain moderation not of faith but of enthusiasm. This was the term—along with fanatic —used to describe Puritans and others in seventeenth-century England who insisted with absolute confidence on what was revealed by their “inner lights” and brooked no public compromises. The ideas of the enthusiasts as well as religious moderates and both monarchists and antimonarchists all circulated in a vibrant public sphere made possible by a combination of preaching and other oral performances and printed circulation of sermons, pamphlets, and other texts.

Those who developed the idea that the public sphere was central to modern, especially democratic, society often described their own work as enlightenment—advancing the intellectual maturation of humanity—and in these terms they embraced resistance to enthusiasm. Emphases on education, discipline, and orderly conduct of public debates shaped elite views of how the public sphere should advance. Sometimes these became matters of class distinction; liberal elites feared the debasement of public life if nonelites were admitted. The inclusive ideal of publicness has recurrently confronted arguments that exclusion was in fact necessary. Some of these have centered on religion. But, equally, religious thinkers have often held that public reason is not only an arbiter of policy decisions but also a vital means for advancing all sorts of understanding, even of religious convictions and their implications. Religious voices have remained active in the modern public sphere, sometimes in pursuit of enlightenment and sometimes in reaction to the Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment secularism. Even in Europe, secularization of public political debate only became pronounced after World War II.

Nonetheless, in both academic and public understanding, both the Enlightenment and the birth of the modern public sphere came to be understood in overwhelmingly secular terms. Jürgen Habermas’s classic book, to which we owe today’s commonplace usage of the term public sphere, is an influential case in point. Habermas offered a genealogy in which the eighteenth-century literary public sphere informed the development of a public sphere of rational-critical debate that gave individuals in civil society a way to influence politics. He generally ignored religion in his historical account of the public sphere, as he has acknowledged. And, until recently, religion did not figure in his further considerations on communicative action and the organization of modern society. So it is significant that Habermas in the last decade has begun to argue that finding ways to integrate religion into the public sphere is a vital challenge for contemporary society (and theories of contemporary society). His work is appropriately a point of departure for the discussions in this book.

Habermas’s argument is an elaboration of the fundamental premise that the public sphere of a democratic society must be open to all. It is imperative to include religious citizens both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of urgent practicality. Religiously informed actors, including Christian fundamentalists in America and Islamists in Europe, matter so much in contemporary political life that we endanger the future of the democratic polity if we cannot integrate them into the workings of public reason. Further, Habermas sees political liberalism as in need of new moral insights and commitments and recognizes religion as a potential source of renewal. Such renewal should not take the form of a direct appeal to religious doctrines or comprehensive worldviews in ways that foreclose public debate. His opening examination of Carl Schmitt’s political theology is precisely an attempt to put to rest the notion that political authority can derive either directly from religious revelation or from the self-founding sovereignty of an absolutist state. Insisting on a homogeneous mass society as the basis for the constitutional state, and relying on the shifting moods of such a society for political motivation, can only in the most superficial sense be seen as involving democracy. Schmitt’s approach is both impossible, because society has become irretrievably pluralist, and directly authoritarian despite its democratic disguise. Political religion could have similar implications. What prevents this is commitment to public reason—and on this Habermas is in accord with Neuhaus. Religious and nonreligious citizens meet as equals, and religious ideas inform the public sphere through argument rather than through simply dissemination (let alone topdown authority).

Because the public sphere is for Habermas a realm of rational-critical argumentation and propositional content, admission is a matter of ability and willingness to participate in open debate. He worries that religious commitments inhibit this, both because faith or revelation are reasons that can’t hold weight for those who don’t experience them and because religious ideas come in language that is not accessible to those outside particular traditions. Accordingly, he calls for the potential truth contents religious people bring to public discourse to be “translated” so that they are stated in ways not dependent on specifically religious sources. Translation should not be a burden only on religious citizens, but an ethical obligation for nonreligious citizens who should seek to understand what is said on religious grounds as best they can. But not all that religious citizens have to say is “translatable”; the residuum can be allowed in informal public discourse, but an institutional filter must exist to keep it out of the formal deliberations of political bodies.

Habermas’s arguments leave the worries that the translation proviso is necessarily asymmetrical and that the call to recognize explicitly religious voices in the public sphere is at least partially instrumental—a call to include ideas because they are useful while implicitly doubting that they may be true.

Charles Taylor’s approach speaks to each of these worries. Taylor approaches religion in the public sphere indirectly, as it were, through competing meanings of secularism. He has addressed other dimensions of the topic in A Secular Age. Here his focus is specifi cally on what sort of stance toward religion is required of a modern democratic state with a diverse population. He agrees with the notion that states must achieve neutrality, but sees two problems with most discussion. First, there is the tendency to fixate on religion, as though it posed radically different questions from all other sorts of differences among citizens. It doesn’t, suggests Taylor. And the issue is not just a misunderstanding of religion but also a misunderstanding of the relationship of both culture and personal agency to public reason. Deep differences requiring translation—and perhaps further work to reach common understandings—are not limited to religious differences. Reason is always rooted in culture, experience, and what Taylor has called “strong horizons of evaluation” (that citizens seldom make fully explicit in either public reason or their own private reflections). “The point of state neutrality,” he writes, “is precisely to avoid favoring or disfavoring not just religious positions, but any basic position, religious or nonreligious.”

Taylor’s second point follows from this. Given the importance and variations of deep commitments that orient citizens, there is no solution to be found by means of an institutional arrangement demarcating where deep values may be asserted and where they may not. At best, formulae like “the separation of church and state” are shorthand heuristics. But much more important for democratic societies is exploring ways to work for common goals—like liberty, equality, and fraternity. Constructing a democratic life together may depend more on being able to engage in such shared positive pursuits than on any institutional arrangement (or, indeed, agreement on all the reasons to engage in common pursuits). This also suggests that we should not understand the public sphere entirely in terms of argumentation about the truth value of propositions. It is a realm of creativity and social imaginaries in which citizens give shared form to their lives together, a realm of exploration, experiment, and partial agreements. Citizens need to find ways to treat each other’s basic commitments with respect; fortunately they are also likely to find considerable overlaps in what they value.

Like Habermas, Taylor is concerned with identifying ways in which the public sphere can help to produce greater integration among citizens who enter public discourse with different views. Habermas stresses agreement and clearer knowledge while Taylor stresses mutual recognition and collaboration in common pursuits. But both see excluding religion from the public sphere as undermining the solidarity and creativity they seek. In different ways, Judith Butler and Cornel West ask about the limits of optimistic visions of the public sphere in which harmonious integration is the apparent telos.

Butler emphasizes occasions when it is impossible to achieve intellectual (or political) integration, including agreement on truth and value. Religious sources of ethical insight may matter enormously precisely when deliberation in the public sphere fails. Deep differences may remain—and remain troubling and troubled. Religion may provide a guide to action in the face of divisions it cannot undo. This is true especially when the realities of state power and geopolitics bring people into the same place, not necessarily by choice, and into social relationships, though they do not understand themselves to constitute a single people or polity. Pluralization is not always a challenge to be overcome.

Butler offers the idea of cohabitation as an alternative, or perhaps a crucial supplement, to that of integrative public reason. It is an understanding of what is both possible and ethically right that she draws from Jewish tradition, shaped by the historical experience of statelessness, subjection, and partial autonomy under states Jews did not control. The ethic of cohabitation thus has an internal relationship to being Jewish—and on this basis criticizing state violence that is at odds with cohabitation must be “a Jewish thing to do.” Butler sees this as more than simply distinguishing “progressive” Jewish positions from others, because it entails taking seriously the limits of any identitarian concept of Jewishness—of identifying Jews with a nation-unto-itself in the manner of much nationalist rhetoric rather than with the position of people always already engaged in relationship with non-Jews.

Cohabitation guides an ethics on which Jews should act independently of whether it is met by a symmetrical commitment on the part of non-Jews, though they may hope that it will be. It is thus a religious contribution to the public sphere that does not depend on agreement but applies in its absence. Its significance comes from underwriting recognition of the importance or at least inevitability of continued life in the same place, even when values, identities, and practices cannot readily be reconciled. It is an understanding of what is materially necessary and an ethics following from this that does not depend on theory or discourses of justice—and may even be impeded by the attempt to ground all action in resolution of claims to justice. Taking cohabitation seriously indicts attempts to base politics exclusively on consensus, even when this is approached as a matter of the most inclusive possible public reason.

Cornel West, blues man in the life of the mind, jazzman in the world of ideas, challenges conceptions of public life limited to rational arguments, ethical consensus, and even cultural harmony. The secular need to hear the music of religion, he says, but also vice versa. Mutual understanding is achieved through empathy and imagination, learning the rhythm of each other’s dances and the tunes of each other’s songs. This sort of knowledge is tested in action, not in propositions; the capacity to understand each other is not derived from arguments. Of course, this partially prediscursive ability to understand each other may be the condition of good arguments in which participants feel they make progress toward knowledge.

West hopes for reconciliation and mutual understanding, but he doesn’t see religion offering this in a neat package. In the first place, he joins the others in this book in suggesting that we live in a multiplicity of different intellectual, cultural, and religious frameworks. We are called to find ways to relate well to each other, ideally to understand each other, but not to erase these differences. Indeed, participation in the public sphere offers not just collective benefits but also the personal good of existence enriched by greater ability to put oneself in the shoes of others. This is not simply an instrumental good conducive to potential agreement; it is valuable in itself. More than this, West insists that the Christian message (at least, and he doesn’t rule out similar messages from other traditions) is not simply a logic of equivalence—Rawlsian justice—but of a superabundance of love. Justice would be good, I think he is saying. It would be a big improvement. We should feel “righteous indignation against injustice.” But in itself justice cannot be entirely definitive of the good.

Perhaps most important, West calls on us to find resources within our traditions, including especially our various religious traditions, to disrupt harmonies that disguise underlying discord. He calls on us to bear witness to suffering (even when we do not yet know how to end it). He insists that prophetic religion has a place in the public sphere, for its very disruptions are calls to attention that make people see realities that make them uncomfortable. Calls to attention are not arguments or propositions that should be subjected to critique; they are performances of a different sort. Prophetic religion is neither consensus building nor simply dissent; it is a challenge to think and look and even smell (funky) anew; it is not a matter of gradual evolutionary progress but of urgency. The demand prophecy makes on us is not that of faith but that of truth—or, rather, potential truth, for the prophet articulates not only the evils at hand but the possibilities of a future in which we are damned for what we have done and a future in which we have the chance to do better.

To say that religion has power in the public sphere is not to say that it can be easily absorbed or that it should be. It is a basis for radical challenges and radical questions; it brings enthusiasm, passion, indignation, outrage, and love. If enthusiasm is sometimes harnessed to unreflective conviction, passion is also vital to critical engagement with existing institutions and dangerous trends. The public sphere and the practice of public reason have power too. And they not only take from religion but also offer it opportunities to advance by reflection and critical argument.

The public sphere is a realm of rational-critical debate in which matters of the public good are considered. It is also a realm of cultural formation in which argument is not the only important practice and creativity and ritual, celebration and recognition are all important. It includes the articulation between deep sensibilities and explicit understandings and it includes the effort—aided sometimes by prophetic calls to attention—to make the way we think and act correspond to our deepest values or moral commitments.


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Date Added: 3/21/2011 Date Revised: 3/21/2011 2:32:17 PM

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