Religion and democracy: Habermas vs. Flores d'Arcais

Christians have an inescapable political responsibility. In light of the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Paolo Flores d'Arcais, I would suggest that the first item on the agenda is to challenge the liberal claim to neutrality and the related claim to be uniquely positioned to preside impartially over the particularistic, and potentially conflicting, expressions of the traditionally religious.

June 26th, 2009

Few issues ruffle more feathers, more frequently, than the place of religion in the political realm. According to the reigning modernist framework, rooted either in liberal individualism or in some form of secular collectivism, the state is neutral territory. Here neutrality is defined, not merely as formal indifference to what John Rawls labels the comprehensive doctrines that divide the particular communities comprising the state or nation, but as emptying the public square of every value-laden worldview that resists rational discussion and therefore threatens to divide a polity.

Why is such neutrality deemed desirable? If, say, Christians and Muslims insist that God has commanded two different and incompatible things, in the absence of a commonly recognized authority to which to appeal, the only way to settle this difference is through conflict and the imposition of superior force, something virtually everyone prefers to avoid. Consequently modernists, believing themselves to be uniquely free of such comprehensive doctrines, place at least implicit restrictions on what sort of language is permitted in public discourse. In a democratic framework, therefore, certain confessionally specific claims are to be excluded. They must instead be translated into language broadly accessible in especially a political context. Liberals, on whom we focus here, view their own liberalism as confessionally neutral and thus better able to preside over the potentially conflicting and particularistic commitments of the traditionally religious.

This means that what is deemed common and public must be drained of any specific religious content. All citizens must act within this realm etsi Deus non daretur—as if God did not exist. Within their parochial communities, including families, churches and voluntary associations, they are free to confess belief in God or many gods. Yet when they step into the open air, they must leave these commitments behind and play by the rules of democracy—as established, of course, by the liberals themselves.

Is this just? Are believers being unfairly singled out and burdened in a way that nonbelievers are not? The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that this is indeed the case. If democracy implies an egalitarian ethos, and if it calls for all citizens to put aside their own value assumptions for political purposes, then religious believers bear a disproportionate burden in support of this régime of supposed tolerance. Habermas's efforts to rectify this imbalance theoretically have incurred the opposition of Italian philosopher Paolo Flores d'Arcais, editor of the periodical MicroMega, who has put forth Eleven Theses Against Habermas.

For Flores d'Arcais, the participation of religious believers in the polity is intrinsically problematic in a way that, to him, Habermas appears unable to comprehend. Habermas believes that "the assumption of a common human reason is the epistemic foundation" of the democratic polity. The only value that can legitimately command universal assent is the "egalitarian civic ethos," which is exempted from the general banishment of values from the public square and indeed constitutes the basis of democracy. Yet those who too easily appeal to the "God-argument" are incapable of rational dialogue. Someone genuinely believing, for example, that human life is sacred because created by God in his own image is unlikely to be dissuaded from that conviction by reasoned argument. This puts at risk the entire enterprise known as the democratic polity.

Habermas's method of escaping this problem is to posit a sharp distinction within the public realm between "the strictly state and political sphere" and "that of public opinion." In the former the principle of secularity—that is, the working assumption of etsi Deus non daretur—must be adhered to, while in the latter citizens are free to organize themselves, even for informal political purposes, based on other principles, including those acknowledging God's existence. In short, secularity is limited to the formal institutional sphere and need not be extended to the voluntary sector of the "political public sphere."

Flores d'Arcais does not see how these two spheres can be kept separate and, accordingly, thinks Habermas's proposal is untenable. After all, it is not only impossible to prevent public opinion influencing the formal sphere of state authority; in a democratic framework, state institutions are expected to be responsive to the people as expressed at the ballot box and through other informal means. If they are not, then it is questionable whether one can speak of democracy at all. "In representative democracy, the elective/legislative process is in fact a circular continuum of public opinion > political association > institutional power > public opinion."

It follows then that liberalized laws concerning abortion and euthanasia—that is, those permitting an extensive measure of freedom of individual choice—do not place an unequal burden on believers and nonbelievers. Such laws compel no one because they leave these matters up to the individual. By contrast, any law prohibiting abortion or euthanasia burdens the woman who prefers not to bring a pregnancy to full term or the terminally ill who prefers to cut short his suffering. Flores d'Arcais concludes: "the alleged secular 'asymmetry' leaves the believers free to make use of a right or not. By contrast, the imposition of the believer's viewpoint through law compels the nonbeliever, who is barred from doing everything the Pope holds to be 'sin,' on pain of incarceration." If this is so, it means that the public space, to remain genuinely open to all, must exclude all God-arguments from its discourse.

Habermas responds to his interlocutor in Again Religion and the Public Sphere: a Response to Paolo Flores d'Arcais, initially by admitting that both share two fundamental premises: first, that "a constitutional democracy guarantees the same fundamental rights to all citizens"; and, second, that such a democracy is without substance in the absence of "material and cultural conditions for an inclusive, equitable and autonomous use of the rights of participation." These premises imply support for an extensive welfare state in which economic redistributive measures compensate for such inequalities as might obstruct the effective participation of some in democratic political institutions.

Where the two philosophers differ is on three premises. First, because particular religious communities, or interpretive communities, have their own language and because they form an integral part of the public in a democracy, to exclude them because of their religion would be to betray the commitment to attend to all voices in the formation of the democratic will. Furthermore, not to do so is to underestimate the extent to which the values of such communities have cognitive content capable of being communicated across confessional boundaries. Although Habermas might disagree substantively with such communities on abortion and euthanasia, he nevertheless believes that "religious traditions have the force convincingly to articulate moral intuitions in their own language." To prevent them contributing their own unique resources to the larger discussion is undemocratic.

Second, Habermas believes it unjust to compel religious communities to refrain from speaking out of their own ultimate convictions. If, however, they expect to be heard, they should be able to translate these convictions into policy proposals that can be publicly justifiable in language accessible to all. This is not so much an absolute imperative, imposed on pain of banishment from the public square. It is simply to recognize that those who persist in finding "thus saith the Lord" a sufficient reason for a favoured policy will inevitably find themselves on the margins of political discourse, ignored by their less religious fellow citizens. In any case, a democratic state should not cut short the "polyphonic complexity of public voices" lest it lose an important resource ultimately of benefit to the larger society in its "quest for meaning and identity."

Third, Habermas believes that even secular accounts of human dignity are indebted to overtly confessional descriptions of the human person as created in God's image. Had these earlier understandings been banished from public discourse centuries ago, much of what we have come to consider salutary in a secular understanding of democracy would have been lost along with them. The secularist notion that religious expressions can never contribute to knowledge is based on an ideology that improperly looks to the natural sciences as the sole legitimate source of such knowledge. This is prejudice at best, with those holding it refusing to consider the possibility that religious traditions can inspire an entire society in its quest for justice.

Flores d'Arcais' final word (for now) comes in The Institutional and the Public Spheres. Once more, believing that the formal public and the informal public cannot be easily separated, he does not see how one can proscribe a certain type of argument in the institutional sphere when it has already been aired in the popular media. For Flores d'Arcais the principles of constitutional democracy, including individual freedoms, must always have priority over the claims of the several faith communities. These, and only these, can be used to determine which claims are and are not admissible in both public spheres. While Habermas expresses openness to the contributions of these "communities of interpretation," Flores d'Arcais believes that such contributions have negative potential as well: "The religious arsenal offers infinite suggestions for equality and justice, but it is equally inexhaustible—if not more so [sic!]—also in the opposite direction."

Even atheists and agnostics are capable of engaging in humanitarian activities, as such secular organizations as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) demonstrate. Furthermore, the struggle for universal fraternity and liberation has frequently had to be waged against the traditionally religious, who all too often stood in the way of its attainment. Secularist citizens have every right and even a duty to eliminate God-talk from the public conversation, as doing so is most consistent with the existence and flourishing of democracy. Flores d'Arcais is convinced that democracy cannot function effectively in the presence of social inequalities or in the absence of a unity of basic values. For this reason, he embraces what the late Richard Rorty has labelled (in a somewhat different context) the priority of democracy, a creed to which all must adhere to be admitted to the public debate.

There are two angles from which to approach this important conversation and thus two different questions to pose. On the one hand, we might ask whether the arbiters of the public realm are right or wrong to exclude overt confessional language from the larger policy debate. On the other, we might ask whether Christians are obligated to present themselves and their concerns in a fashion acceptable to such self-appointed arbiters. The first question is one in which both believers and nonbelievers have a stake, because it affects their life together as fellow citizens of the same political community. The second is mostly a matter for believers themselves, though outsiders certainly have a stake in this intramural dialogue.

The Roman Catholic political philosopher Robert Kraynak addresses both these questions in a somewhat paradoxical way in his Christian Faith and Modern Democracy. On the one hand, he argues that modern liberal democracy lacks an adequate moral foundation if severed from the undergirding belief that man is created in God's image. On the other, Kraynak observes that Christianity, rightly understood, is not necessarily supportive of contemporary democratic and human rights régimes. The imago Dei is not to be identified with the liberal account of human dignity and autonomy.

Those who have read Stanley Hauerwas, and to some extent Alasdair MacIntyre, are likely to emphasize the latter point, namely, that faith in Christ and fidelity to the gospel trump the demands of liberal hegemony in the public realm. The church constitutes an alternative polis to the modern nation-state with its idolatrous pretensions. From this perspective it matters little whether the democratic polity likes us or not. The public witness of the church is not dependent on the state's authorization. The church's agenda is simply different: it speaks its own language, ministers to the marginalized, eschews worldly power and, as Hauerwas famously puts it, sees itself under no obligation to do ethics for Caesar.

Other Christians, especially those with liberal sympathies, will seek to modify the demands of the gospel and domesticate it accordingly so that the gate-keepers will admit them to the public debate. The danger here, of course, is that the all-encompassing claims of Christ will have been lost and the redemptive edge of the gospel message diluted. Christians may be free to enter the public realm, but now they have nothing distinctive to offer once they are there. In making themselves palatable to the reigning liberal régime, they have effectively rendered themselves superfluous.

Both approaches are flawed, though not in the same measure. The accommodationist response is insufficiently attentive to the hard demands of the gospel and is too willing to discard much that the world finds offensive. The separatist response of Hauerwas and his followers is more attractive to those who remember, with Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Nevertheless, where they go wrong is in the assumption that the state is intrinsically idolatrous and beyond hope of remedy. In their effort to avoid having to do ethics for Caesar, they underestimate the extent to which the state, as a differentiated institution authorized to do public justice, functions legitimately under a divine mandate (Proverbs 8:15; Romans 13:1-7). The church is not an alternative body politic as such. The church, as Body of Christ, is an agent of Christ's redemption and reconciliation in the whole society, including the existing political order.

This means that Christians have an inescapable political responsibility, one that cannot be eluded either by watering down its demands or by redefining the body politic. In light of the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Paolo Flores d'Arcais, I would suggest that the first item on the agenda is to challenge the liberal claim to neutrality and the related claim to be uniquely positioned to preside impartially over the particularistic, and potentially conflicting, expressions of the traditionally religious. Too many people, including Christians themselves, have accepted an account of political reality in which "people of faith" are intrinsically parochial and thus incapable of speaking politically, while the secular élites transcend the several parochialisms and thus have a better grasp of the whole.

However, if liberalism is based, after all, on a comprehensive doctrine or worldview, and if it has its own religiously-grounded redemptive narrative and philosophical anthropology, then it is no less parochial than the belief that human beings are created in God's image. The notion that we can suspend belief in God for political purposes in no way transcends parochialism; those holding to it form their own parochial community rooted in a story with which very many do not necessarily identify.

In this respect, that somewhat condescending expression, "people of faith," is not applied as comprehensively as it ought to be. All of God's image-bearing creatures are people of faith—Christian and atheist alike—even if the atheist denies it. And if we are all people of faith, then what divides us is that we put our faith in different things. Politics is thus the difficult and often untidy task of trying to hammer out sometimes provisional agreements in the midst of these differences. Habermas shows signs of understanding this somewhat better than Flores d'Arcais, who exempts his own faith from the constraints he would impose on others and who would suppress those very differences that make politics necessary in the first place.

Topics: Religion
 

David T. Koyzis is a Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology and taught politics for thirty years at Redeemer University College. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (also translated into Portuguese) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with his wife and daughter.

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