Matters of Ultimate Concern

A new book considers the power of religion in the public sphere. Scott McLemee reads it while bracing for 2012.

May 25, 2011

While waiting for the Rapture over the weekend, I started to read The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, a collection of papers and discussions from an event held at the Cooper Union in New York City a couple of years ago, published by Columbia University Press.

It wasn’t the impending apocalypse that inspired me to pick it up – or even the list of names on the cover, which included such worthies as Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West – so much as a growing awareness that we are on the cusp of another presidential campaign cycle. The election is still more than 17 months away. But as with any major holiday, the merchants start getting their wares out a little earlier each time. The power of religion in the public sphere always becomes especially clear during the campaign season.

In American politics, the presidential candidates’ spiritual commitments are as fair game for scrutiny as their policies. (Trump’s abandoned bid was always doomed, given the clear impossibility of believing that he recognized a power higher than himself.) But arguments over the degree of religious influence on the political process always flare up as well. The debate is never resolved; it can’t be. The space for deliberation is what we mean by the expression “public sphere” in the first place. Belief in the apocalypse involves a desire for all argument to come to a definitive end. That is understandable, in a way. But setting an exact date and time for it has no real effect on the public sphere, as such, apart from the laughter.

The papers and exchanges at the Cooper Union in October 2009 were, for the most part, sober enough. Discussions of the concept of the public sphere tend to be more civil than the actually existing public sphere itself. But we shouldn’t take this for granted. Quite a bit has changed since Habermas introduced the term about 50 years ago -- and the vectors of argument in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere place his initial formulation under a lot of strain.

Back then, it involved a pretty clear-cut understanding of the steady forward march of secularization. The infrastructure of the original public sphere in the 17th and 18th centuries (newspapers and coffee houses, in particular) didn’t just permit disagreement, or even foster it. Operating outside the control of any clerical institution, with the wars of religion in Europe as a fresh memory, the public sphere created a new ethos – the spirit of what Habermas calls “rational-critical debate.” Argument became persuasive through its logic, not through some appeal to authority (divine or otherwise) on the part of the person making it. Whether or not anyone involved was reading Voltaire, this was the Enlightenment in the streets.

The critique of Habermas’s work on the public sphere is a cottage industry. Its model of open and unrestrained argument tends to overlook the reality that plenty of people were always excluded, whether for being the wrong race or sex, for example, or not having enough money to get in the door. What’s interesting about the papers in the new book is that they don’t treat religion as something excluded from the public sphere, or that is imposing itself on it. They take it as a respectable guest at the table, with a contribution to make.

For his part, Habermas no longer thinks of religion as an essentially private concern with no bearing on public deliberation in a society characterized by heterogeneity of belief (including disbelief). If anything, Habermas argues that the power of markets and bureaucracies must be counterbalanced by traditions and institutions that embody other values. You need “friction between religious and secular voices,” he says, to “provoke inspiring controversies on normative issues, and thereby stimulate an awareness of their relevance.”

Everybody can argue over values as much as they want. It’s good for the circulation. But before these deliberations can influence the “collectively binding decisions” reached by the state (that is, made into laws) the decisions have to be justified in terms accepted as legitimate by nonbelievers. Faith-based arguments must be “translated” into secular terms. For this to happen, dialogue between religious and nonreligious people is necessary, with the latter “obliged not to publicly dismiss religious contributions to political opinion and will formation as mere noise, or even nonsense, from the start.”

In other writings of recent years, Habermas has maintained that the ethical principles of the major religious traditions overlap enough to converge on a shared vision of human rights – one that can be translated into nonreligious language, and thus be sufficient to ground international law. His argument here appears similar. He writes that “vital and nonfundamentalist religious communities can become a transformative force in the center of a democratic civil society.” Exactly how this works when it’s the fundamentalists who are involved -- insisting on the unbridgeable gap between their values and a world that is unholy, with no interest in "translating" a divine commandment into some secular equivalent – well, that is far from clear.

In his paper, Charles Taylor argues for a “redefinition of secularism” away from seeing it as a condition characterized by the absence or powerlessness of religion. The creation of secular regimes following revolutions in France and Russia, for example, involved expelling religious authority from public life. But that’s not the only model, nor the best one, by Taylor’s lights.

Rather, secularity “maximizes the basic goals of liberty and equality between basic beliefs.” It follows “the general principle … that religious groups must be seen as much as interlocutors and as little as menace as the situation allows.”

While argued in a very different way, Judith Butler’s paper approaches something like a similar conclusion. Drawing on cultural and spiritual strains of early Zionism that were, nonetheless, hostile to the formation of an religiously Jewish political state, she extracts an ethical imperative from Judaism that would give Prime Minister Netanyahu a fit. “We must actively preserve the nonchosen character of inclusive and plural cohabitation,” she writes; “we not only live with those we never chose, and to whom we may feel no social sense of belonging, but we are obligated to preserve those lives and the plurality of which they form a part.”

Approaching the end of the book, I was curious to see what sort of paper Cornel West would write to accompany the others. Instead, he just gave that speech he always gives (“a bluesman in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas”... Chekhov, Beethoven, William James ... paidea ... “don’t deodorize the funk,” etc.) To paraphrase it would be superfluous. If you like that sort of thing, it is the sort of thing you will like.

So what was there to take away from the book, as we move into the long months of preparation for the most sacred ritual of our civil religion? At the political level -- that is, in regard to questions about the actual uses and mechanisms and consequences of using power -- not very much, I'm afraid. Its lessons seemed to converge on a point about toleration: there is an obligation to be welcoming to people whose understanding of the nature of ultimate things differs profoundly from our own, to make room for them, as much as possible, in any deliberation about shared concerns. That is true. At times it even proves controversial. But like any argument for civility, it seems unnecessary for those who already practice it, and a dead letter to the dogmatist.


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