A Secular Age, Religion in the public sphere:

Constitutional patriotism

posted by Charles Taylor

Robert Bellah’s latest post poses clearly the issues that we’ve been agonizing over in Canada, and in a different way now in Quebec. Lots of people want to shy away from a political identity which is primarily defined in ethnic terms. On the contrary when asked what are the crucial uniting ideas of our society, they come up with some variant of universal “values,” defined in terms of modern charters of rights (all heavily influenced by the Universal Declaration), principles of equality and non-discrimination, and democracy. Canadian “multiculturalism” fits into this category, as does “interculturalisme” in Quebec. Will Kymlicka has shown how multiculturalism is seen in basically liberal terms; and people begin to shy away at perceived attempts to justify illiberal practices as part of some group’s way of life. (In Europe there is a widespread rejection of “multiculturalism” because it is seen as essentially providing just such justifications. In Germany, the right pours scorn on “kanadischer Multi-Kulti,” but none of them has any idea of what goes on here.)

But then Bob’s challenge remains. Universal values of liberal democracy should attach me to any such democratic society; and in a way they do. I’m rooting for all of them. But my attachment to Canada or Quebec has to be stronger than this. It has to motivate a degree of giving: serving in the armed forces, accepting the transfers of income involved in welfare states, and so on; kinds of giving which can’t be asked of the average citizen when directed to other, even friendly societies. True, we want to stimulate more transfers to developing countries, but we do this partly by playing on national pride. (Canada is way below the Scandinavian countries in the percentage of our GNP we contribute to international aid; our shame at this ought to push us to do more.)

So what’s the extra motivating element? Here’s where I think that Habermas’s term “constitutional patriotism” is useful. It’s constitutional, because we rally around moral/political principles, but it’s patriotism because we are fiercely attached to our particular historical project of realizing these. This easily generates chauvinism of a certain kind, familiar in the American case by phrases like “the last best hope on earth,” but which often arise in Canada around things like multiculturalism, and certain feelings of smug superiority when we look at some unfortunate developments in a nearby country. Chauvinism takes the form: our democracy/social regime/mode of liberalism is much superior to that of all you others. We have to fight against this, and particularly avoid forcing our models on others, but in general it is one of the least malign forms of chauvinism.

It’s the least dangerous form of social-political cohesion: “I am proud of my country’s institutions, its principles, its track record, its history.” What distinguishes this is not the general goals, but just the bare particularity of its being THIS particular project. This price and identification is impossible without reference to history. And this means a powerful motivation to whitewash this history and make it look good. This is the second possible casualty of patriotism, the truth. And this can be disastrous, because in a world which is overturning various forms of historical domination, being able to admit the truth may be a crucial necessary condition of living with ex-subaltern groups and societies. In the world in transition, “truth and reconciliation” is often a necessary, unavoidable step.

But this is not an insuperable obstacle. We can sometimes be capable of a Gestalt switch in which we are proud precisely of our ability to recognize what we have inflicted in the past, and try to establish a new more equal relationship with our erstwhile victims. How else, for instance, to resolve the poisoned relations between post-Columbian entrants and aboriginal peoples in North America? Germans can’t be proud of their history of 1933-1945, but they can be proud of the way they have come back from that and built what is in some ways an exemplary democracy.

I’m not entirely in agreement with Habermas’s treatment of his own concept, because I think that an ethnic dimension is often unavoidable in defining our particularity. It can’t be avoided in Quebec, because we redrew the boundaries, and split the united Province of Canada in 1867, precisely to create a Québécois-majority society. Ethnic pride doesn’t have to eschewed, or covered in a shameful silence, provided it is now focused on the realization of constitutional principle.

In any case, I think that this kind of patriotism is the only game in town for democracies in a “post-Durkheimian” age. (But I recognize that Émile himself was moving in this direction – albeit with a bit too much French chauvinism for my taste.)

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4 Responses to “Constitutional patriotism”

  1. avatar John Whitelaw says:

    This is baffling. Robert Bellah raises the very ambitious question of “a next higher level of global solidarity and human rights”, to involve the “full participation of all the great world cultures, and [having] symbolic contributions from many of them”.

    Charles Taylor replies with the closest thing to a tautology: He lives in a country and a province with “modern charters of rights” and he is not only loyal to his country and his province, but he is “rooting for all of them”, namely “any such democratic society”. Adding that his loyalty to his own has “extra motivation” because it is “THIS particular project”.

    “This kind of patriotism” (to my country with its modern constitution and to any other country with a similar constitution) “is the only game in town for democracies…” says Taylor, sounding a little like a State Department spokesperson. A mystifyingly narrow answer from a famous philosopher to a broad thesis about global solidarity.

  2. avatar Charles Taylor says:

    I see that there is a misunderstanding for which I’m responsible. Bob Bellah in fact raised two issues; one is indeed about the move to broader solidarities, the other “At what point does a fractured society, one without common values and increasingly without common norms, cease to function?” There is a “Durkheimian” question here; this was the one I was trying to answer. Modern democratic societies need something else than common values to generate the solidarity they need. That’s what I was trying to get at with Habermas’ term.

  3. avatar Avi Bernstein says:

    I read the main thrust of Robert Bellah’s latest post as a suspicion that at the end of the day the cultural particularism Professor Taylor is prepared to celebrate in a liberal democracy is too thin to generate solidarity of the sort that will succeed in “holding us together.” For that, we need something very like religion or its functional equivalent in Bellah’s view.

    Writes Professor Bellah in his latest post:

    …what Taylor offers us sounds, when he speaks of “abstracting from” previous particularisms, very close to what Jürgen Habermas calls “abstract constitutional patriotism.” I guess I just don’t believe that anything abstract, lacking in symbols drawn from either the religious or the political ideological past, can ever provide enough energy to succeed in “holding us together.”

    I rather gather that Profesor Taylor would like to say that he has been misunderstood by his colleague; that “consitutional patriotism” of the sort he wants to affirm walks arm in arm with “ethnicity” and thick and particular “historical projects”–legitimately so in many places including Quebec. One thinks of contemporary states like Israel, Germany, and France in this connection as well.

    It would be nice to hear from Professor Taylor more “concretely” what ethnicity (or a “historical project”) could look like in the public space, given the challenge quoted above, however. Perhaps this would begin to clarify what gap there is, if any, between Professor Bellah’s sense that liberal democracies need the energy a public religion gives off and Professor Taylor’s own position.

  4. avatar John Whitelaw says:

    The fault is all mine. I am easily fooled. I thought part of Bellah’s effort was to try and link these “two different” issues together on the broader, global scale, and in so doing elicit your views as those of an influential thinker. He wrote:

    The idea of global solidarity and global civil society has become a regulative idea without which many of us would find it hard to hope at all, but it remains to be seen whether it is an idealistic pipe dream or the only realistic future we have. Perhaps it is too much to ask that Taylor in this marvelous and richly informative book answer this question, but that he doesn’t finally even seem to ask it is a problem.” (From Bellah’s post “After Durkheim“)

    What I think is happening here is that both of these extraordinarily influential thinkers (Taylor and Habermas) are implying that the common consciousness that must undergird any viable society can no longer be limited to the boundaries of that society“. (From his post “What holds us together“)

    Possibly he is barking up the wrong tree…

    In any event, I for one would like to see that “other” issue developed, difficult as it is, not avoided.

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