Religion in the public sphere:

The fragility of global solidarity

posted by Robert N. Bellah

In my last post, I suggested that the religious communities of the world may have something to contribute to the strengthening of global civil society. If not for the commitments to human rights and human flourishing mobilized by such communities, after all, what will be able to produce some functional equivalent to the powerful mobilization of human aggression by nation states as a basis for global solidarity?

Early in the twentieth century William James raised the question of the moral equivalent of war. We have seen the use of war as a metaphor in such things as the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and so forth—but the metaphor never seems to be as effective as real wars. I suppose it would be too much to ask if we could mobilize a religious war against selfishness, ignorance, and sinfulness in each of us according to our own faith, in part because, I suppose, we have been fighting that war all along. In any case there are enormous threats on the horizon and a popular culture that seems more apprehensive than at any time in my life, with fear of the future replacing the certainty of progress. But anxiety and fear have often fueled extremely regressive movements and there is no certainty that they will move people in the right direction. There is also the great danger that anxiety and fear can immobilize rather than stimulate to action. It is a delicate balance.

Surely secular philosophies have ways of dealing with the fragility of solidarity, even at the national level, and the ease with which humans can be frightened into a negative solidarity against alleged enemies. But if the religions may have capacities to strengthen and generalize a sense of solidarity so that it reaches truly global proportions, they can do so only in and through self-criticism. Let me say it plainly: Christianity, and especially Protestant Christianity, has contributed significantly to the institutionalization of human rights and human solidarity—I might give the American example of the religious roots of the Bill of Rights, but I must add the significant role of Evangelicals in leading the social gospel movement that helped (with the assistance of Catholics motivated by Catholic social teachings) to create in the middle years of the 2oth Century what became the beginnings of a welfare state in the US.

Yet Christianity and especially Protestant Christianity have also contributed to an emphasis on individual piety that makes the secular notion of radical autonomy attractive. Max Weber saw the relation between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The anthropologist Webb Keane has shown the relation between global Protestantism and neoliberal economics. It is in these regards that I would say that religion is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. And if Christianity can make a contribution to the creation of global solidarity only through self-criticism, such is the case with all the other religions, and secular philosophies as well. There is no way of sorting out the good guys from the bad guys in our present world crisis. We all need each other, but we need critical reason and profound faith reinforcing each other.

What the world requires now must go on at many levels—religious, ideological, political—and at the global, national and local levels. But one thing that is required is very evident, however difficult to achieve. We must now turn the idea of being citizens of the world into a practical citizenship, willing to be responsible for the world of which we are citizens. I truly believe that there are millions of citizens of the world in every country willing to make the necessary commitments. Whether they are anywhere in the majority, so that the politicians will listen to them instead of pandering to the short-term interests of their constituents, is doubtful. What we need is to turn a growing minority into an effective majority.

For those of us in the United States, a classical example might be instructive. As far as I know, the first usage of the idea of being citizens of the world originated with the Stoic philosophers in the ancient Mediterranean. They thought of themselves as kosmou politai, literally citizens of the world. But for us it is worth remembering that even the Roman stoics always used the term in Greek—there was no Latin translation. Sheldon Pollock speculates, following Ovid, that this was because the Romans thought their task was “to transform the kosmos into their polis, or rather to transform the orbis into their urbs, the vast world into their own city.” If one looks at George Bush’s National Security Strategy of September 2002, one can see that he claims the oversight of the entire world for the United States, which might explain why Americans have been relatively hesitant about becoming citizens of the world. It is the world that must recognize our primacy, not we that must recognize the primacy of the world.

Because I see neoliberalism as the source of our deepest global problems, it might be thought that I am opposed to it altogether. That would be as foolish at this point in history as to be opposed to capitalism altogether. What I worry about are the destructive consequences of the naturalization of neoliberalism, so that it has no effective challenge. I agree with Jürgen Habermas—whose work I will touch on in my next post—that world politics needs to catch up with the world economy so that an effective structure of regulation can be created that will protect the environment and the vulnerable of the earth, who are paying the price while only a few are reaping the benefits. If this is a political challenge it is also a religious challenge. I am convinced that religious motivation is a necessary factor if we are to transform the growing global moral consensus and the significant beginnings of world law into an effective form of global solidarity and global governance.

[This is the second of three posts drawing on material from a paper presented at From Silver to Gold: The Next Twenty-Five Years of Law and Religion, a conference at Emory University. A version of the full paper will be published in a forthcoming conference volume.—ed.]

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One Response to “The fragility of global solidarity”

  1. My dear friend and mentor, Bob: Of course your insights are telling and I heartily agree with them. However, as a practicing Catholic, I must admit that I find your words above appear a little too much sectarian. I don’t dispute the importance of what Luther and the other protestant reformers did for a western Christianity that had veered far away from the voice of a gentle Jesus who taught by examples of love and compassion. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church today is not monolithic—however much its Vatican officials, the pope and its bishops blithely claim themselves to be. As millions of informed Catholics completely reject the authoritarianism of the Vatican and the pope, especially as regards birth control—but in general about the papal claim to speak with authority as an totalitarian voice of God on faith or morals—I feel that this large percentage of Christians should not fail to be mentioned in a positive manner. With respect and admiration…

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