Religion in the public sphere:

Religious reasons & secular revelations

posted by Robert N. Bellah

That Jürgen Habermas and I probably agree on most fundamental issues does not mean that there are no differences between us; indeed we have engaged in a friendly debate over some of our differences over many years. Habermas writes as a “methodological atheist,” which means that when doing philosophy or social science, he presumes nothing about particular religious beliefs. Another friend of mine, the well-known sociologist Peter Berger, who is a professed Christian, also does his sociology from the point of view of methodological atheism. I have heard him in a public lecture say, “Now I am taking off my sociological hat and putting on my theological hat.” I don’t have two hats; I am a Christian sociologist. I believe that I can engage openly and honestly with both communities on their own terms, although I am sure there are some on both sides who would doubt it.

Habermas and I are in agreement with respect to the necessary neutrality of the modern democratic state. Indeed neutrality is the very meaning of secularism in a democratic state, for the neutral state is prohibited from enforcing any secular orthodoxy just as much as any religious orthodoxy. By the same token, the state must guarantee the access to participation in the public sphere of individuals and groups whatever their secular or religious beliefs. Such participation is conditioned, however, on one fundamental norm, namely the renunciation of violence. In the United States today we have sporadic incidents of eco-terrorism, usually acts of violence against property, but always running the risk of violence against persons. Though some extremists defend these acts as a form of speech, they are just as unacceptable as religious terrorism, such as attacks on abortion clinics, and just as much a violation of the rule of law that makes a democratic society possible. Beyond the renunciation of acts that are in violation of law, however, the cultivation of everyday practices, what Tocqueville called habits of the heart, that express civility and mutual respect between citizens even when their views are widely divergent, is probably also a necessity for a viable democratic society. Here we are dealing not with legal enforcement, but social consensus. The speech of the intolerant and the disrespectful must be tolerated legally—in the United States in accordance with the First Amendment—though discouraged in practice by modeling tolerance and respect even in situations where one’s opponents do not reciprocate. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great teacher in recent American history, not only about the substance of civil rights, but about the importance of non-violent persuasion in furthering them in the public sphere.

Habermas has argued convincingly that a state guaranteeing the freedom of the individual is not dependent on a pre-existing “unifying tie” deriving from cultural resources from an authoritarian past, but rather that the “unifying tie” can emerge from the actual practice of democratic freedom and participation in public debate. Such an idea is not only of theoretical importance, but a practical necessity in a world where many societies emerging from authoritarianism are trying to institute democratic regimes today. Still, such transitions are never easy—they are not completed simply by carrying out a free election. They require an extended period of time during which democratic habits and customs can become second nature, and during which a variety of setbacks must be expected. Habermas has spent his whole adult life in attempting to further the internalization of democratic norms in post-war German society, something that is always in process, even in an old democratic society such as the United States.

This leads me to my next major point. The neutrality of a democratic state is always conditioned by its past, and, in particular, by its religious past. To put it another way, neutrality may not always be what it seems, for the very understanding of neutrality will depend on cultural preconceptions, not entirely conscious, that derive from a long history. To take the American case, freedom of speech and religious freedom were not simply the projects of Eighteenth Century leaders deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, as the American founders certainly were, but by a public made up in significant part of dissenting Protestants, Quakers, but above all Baptists, who had suffered from religious establishments and were committed to ending them. Thus the disestablishment of religion in the early American republic was not the product of intense anti-clericalism (even though some of the founders were privately anti-clerical), but of an alliance of secular and religious publics with a common end in view. As a result, no significant American religious group rejected the republic on religious grounds.

Even though both secularists and religious dissenters wanted a neutral state when it came to religion, the very particularity of American history meant that the neutrality of the state and of the civil society was strongly influenced by a Protestant, even more specifically, a dissenting Protestant, cultural atmosphere. For a very long time the “wall of separation” of which Jefferson spoke (this image had no legal standing) was much less high and much more porous than Jefferson had hoped. The majority Protestant population continued to believe that it lived in a Protestant country even though it accepted the separation of church and state. As a result, Catholics and Jews, who immigrated to America in the millions in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, were not for a long time, perhaps not until after World War II, fully integrated into American life, even though their legal rights were, not always but usually, protected. Thus those who have imagined that the recent appearance of religion in American political life is something new, unheard of in the American past, simply do not know much about American history. When the Christian right first emerged as a political force in the 1980s, I got calls from reporters asking me if I wasn’t disturbed by the presence of religion in American politics. My response was, have you forgotten Martin Luther King? I could have mentioned many others in American history, but that usually made my point.

Another fact not always noticed by secular observers is how powerfully the Protestant presuppositions of American culture have influenced all other religious groups, such that Catholics and Jews have been, not entirely, but significantly, “Protestantized,” and I would venture to imagine that the same fate awaits American Muslims and Buddhists as well. If the United States, thankfully, does not seem to face the kind of inter-religious hostility that appears to be on the increase in Europe, it may not be because we are more tolerant, but because the dominant culture has succeeded in considerable degree in homogenizing religious differences.

It has been my concern for many years that a one-sided cultural tradition in the United States that emphasized individualism and negative liberty, that is the protection of the individual from state interference, has obscured another precondition for a successful democratic society—namely the solidarity, the concern for the common good, what can be called the positive freedom of all to participate in social, political and economic life—that is equally necessary for a successful democracy. Without solidarity and positive freedom, there is a danger of what Habermas has referred to as “the transformation of the citizens of affluent and peaceful democratic societies into solitary, self-interestedly acting monads who merely turn their subjective rights like weapons against one another.”

In Europe some critics see the depletion of the solidarity upon which a successful democracy depends as the result of secularization, that is, the erosion of religious traditions that promoted solidarity as a religious obligation. In the United States it would be hard to make such an argument. It would seem that there has been a deficit with respect to solidarity that has deep historic roots in both our secular and our religious traditions.

Our early history helps explain this element of American exceptionalism. Our geopolitical isolation, with no strong nation on either continental boundary, meant that for a long time we did not need a strong military establishment, something our founders greatly feared, nor even a strong state. In the early Nineteenth Century, Hegel famously said that the Americans had no state at all. Tocqueville, visiting us in the 1830s, noted the absence of bureaucrats, so ubiquitous in European societies. Until late in the Nineteenth Century it was still possible for individuals to head West to take up new farmsteads or start new small businesses, with little in the way of governmental regulation. Even in my own state of California, which achieved statehood in 1850, throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century there was virtually no government, in the sense of executive agencies capable of carrying out policies, though, of course police and judicial functions existed. This meant that the state legislature time and again passed laws that were never put into effect because there was no agency to put them into effect. It was not until early in the 20th Century, under several Republican reform administrations, that the apparatus of a modern state was created in California.

The growth of a modern state in the United States has occurred in fits and starts, largely as a result of foreign wars or domestic crises, in the teeth of a deeply entrenched anti-state, or as Americans would say, anti-government ideology. Since in the modern world the social needs that can only be met by solidarity have long outstripped the capacity of private charity to meet them, public provision has grown everywhere, even in the United States, but to a markedly reduced degree in this country. For example we consent to a poverty level of near 20 percent that is two or three times higher than in any other advanced industrial nation. We are the only advanced democracy without a national health care system. And we have a degree of income polarization that is more characteristic of third-world nations than can be found in Europe or East Asia.

My point, however, is that, beside the exceptional nature of American history to which I have alluded, the weakness of public provision as an expression of social solidarity in the United States is not the result of a secularizing erosion of notions of the common good, but, in part, of a religious tradition that never emphasized, except in moments of emergency, the common good, but which, on the whole, reinforced an individualistic ideology. Dissenting Protestantism was always suspicious of the state and emphasized the self-sufficiency of the saved and the prime necessity of individual salvation. The Christian symbol of the Body of Christ, so central in churches with a strong liturgical tradition, such as Roman Catholicism, was often marginal in Protestant thought. To the degree to which all religious groups in the United States have become Protestantized, the religious resource for solidarity has been weakened.

American history is not simply a history of radical individualism. John Winthrop’s famous sermon on the Arbella just before the Massachusetts Bay Pilgrims disembarked, from which the often used phrase describing us as a “city on a hill” comes, is a powerful expression of a solidarity that is at once political and religious: “we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. . . we must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community. . . as members of the same body.”

But in stark contrast we must consider the words of a recent interview recounted in Robert Wuthnow’s Loose Connections: A man in his late twenties who works as a financial analyst describes the individualism that “you’re just brought up to believe in” as follows: “The individual is the preeminent being in the universe. There’s always a distinction between me and you. Comity, sharing, cannot truly exist. What I have is mine, and it’s mine because I deserve it, and I have a right to it.” It would be hard to imagine anything more secular, more opposed to the teachings of Christianity, than this young man’s statement. But, as the Catholic theologian Francis Schüssler Fiorenza notes, there is indeed a resonance between this statement and common beliefs among conservative Christians today. Schüssler Fiorenza writes, “It is my guess that, despite a Christian critique of modern society as secular and irreligious, modern social values have surreptitiously become identified as Christian values. Has not a kind of capitalistic cult of individual self-reliance, a worship of individual achievement, and a trust in one’s own ability to save oneself crept into the belief system” of some Christians such that “this individualism, self-sufficiency, and localism become the idols to whom the Christians have begun to offer their sacrifices and burnt offerings?” While I think Schüssler Fiorenza’s observations are apt, I do not agree that he is describing an invasion of modern values into Christianity, but rather one kind of Christianity that has long propagated a highly individualistic ethic, one well described just a century ago in Max Weber’s most famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

But if our one-sided emphasis on individualism and our relative neglect of the common good have religious as well as secular roots, how can those of us who are unhappy with this one-sidedness respond? In discussions of religion in the public sphere it is often said that religious positions, insofar as they are based on revelation, belong outside the public sphere, whereas secular views that are open to rational argument belong inside the public sphere. I would like to raise a serious question about this kind of contrast between reason and revelation. I would like to argue that if we see revelation, as I think we must, as a kind of transforming encounter, then strong secular views are often also derived from a kind of revelation.

In a talk I attended by Habermas he referred to philosophical “classics,” works that remain contemporary regardless of when they were written, with one of his wonderful metaphors. He said, “The thoughts of a classic thinker are like the molten core beneath a volcano. . . ” whereas their lives are merely like the hardened lava on the outside of the volcano. In the first place I would argue that those who have encountered the “molten core” of the thoughts of a classic philosopher have often been transformed in a way similar to those who have received a religious revelation. But I must also challenge Habermas’s argument in the same talk that the lives of philosophers are much less important than their thoughts. That may often be true, but he unaccountably ignores the great exception. Although for centuries when scholars mentioned the philosopher, they meant Aristotle, and Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato, it is not Plato or Aristotle who has been the very embodiment of philosophy through most of Western history, but Socrates, who never wrote a word, but whose life, and above all, whose death have provided the great encounter that is at the very heart of the philosophical tradition.

The several Platonic dialogues that recount the trial and death of Socrates have been the New Testament of philosophy so to speak. It was the willingness of Socrates to die for his beliefs, and for the city of Athens of which he was proud to be a citizen, that helped to shape the very ideal of a life of inquiry. And Plato was telling his Greek audience, Don’t look at Achilles, the beautiful, athletic, murderous, narcissist, as the ideal of the good life, but at this old, ugly, stone-mason who devoted his life to trying to get his fellow citizens to face the truth about their lives, and was willing to die for his mission. He is the one who can show us how to live.

But if philosophy has the moral equivalent of revelation, religious revelation, I would argue, has always cried out for reason. Habermas himself has a remarkable commentary on the First of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses, “You shall have no gods but me.”

From a philosophical point of view, the first commandment expresses that ‘leap forward’ on the cognitive level which granted man freedom of reflection, the strength to detach himself from vacillating immediacy, to emancipate himself from his generational shackles and the whims of mythical powers.

What could be more quintessentially revelation than the Ten Commandments, yet Habermas finds the very germ of reason in the first of the ten. Further, Habermas has also found the germ of Western individuality in the form of the encounter between God and Moses: “You shall have no other gods. . .” The King James Version says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” using the archaic English second person singular, the German du. Yes, through Moses, the commandments are addressed to the children of Israel, and ultimately to all human beings, yet they are addressed to each Israelite or each human being individually. Not, of course, that the individual is isolated, but rather taken up and included in a defining relationship with the Lord of the universe. The utterly social and the utterly individual come together indissolubly, in the words of the great commandments.

So, I would ask, where is the dogma that defies argument? The transforming encounter, whether secular or religious, has a validity all its own, one that is not rationally deduced, but simply is. A reader of an Ayn Rand novel who suddenly sees that the only thing in life worth doing is pursuing his or her own self-interest, is as immune to reason as the thunderstruck children of Israel at the moment of the reception of the Ten Commandments. But no sooner has the transforming encounter occurred than the argument begins. Even the grammar of the first commandment has led to a great deal of argument, so that its exact meaning is still in controversy. Nor can we with complete certainty interpret what it meant at the time the text was written down. And how it should be applied, then, now, or ever, is a source of never-ending controversy. The hermeneutic enterprise as described by Hans-Georg Gadamer, with its three moments of understanding, interpretation and application, requires rational argument at every stage.

The very idea, which some secular scholars affirm, that theology depends on revelation, but not on reason, is refuted by a visit to any theological library, where thousands of books can be found arguing rationally about almost every term in the Bible. No term has attracted more argument or more controversy than the absolutely central term, God, itself. And if the theologians aren’t agreed, neither is the general public. Nearly 90 percent of Americans answer yes to the question of whether they believe in God, but when asked to define God their answers are remarkably various. Another example: For Christians an absolutely central belief is that Jesus is the Son of God. I recite that every Sunday during the Nicene Creed, which is part of the liturgy of my church, and I believe it. But what exactly does it mean? How are the three members of the Trinity related? It would be hard to imagine how much ink has been spilled to explain it, and every new theology gives us a new interpretation of the Trinity, or, less often, rejects it for some reason or other.

Since the religious life is no more lacking in rational argument than any other sphere of human life, whenever religious views are expressed that bear on issues in the public sphere, it is legitimate to argue with them not only in terms of their implications for the common life, but also as to the adequacy of their expression of religious truth. If in my view a commitment to radical individualism not linked to an equally radical commitment to the common good undermines the very existence of a democratic society, then I can make that argument on purely secular grounds. But if that position is put forward on biblical grounds, I am equally entitled to argue that the Bible, taken as a whole, does not support such a view. In short, argument is argument, and once something is in the public sphere it can claim no privilege of revelation. No one, secular or religious, has to prove the validity of his or her transforming encounters. But as soon as one draws publicly relevant conclusions from those encounters, then one must defend them in public discourse.

Since both Habermas and I believe in a public sphere, underwritten by commitments to individual rights and the common good, where all forms of non-violent persuasion and rational argument are appropriate, particularly if they are undertaken with respect for the dignity even of those with whom one most disagrees, there is not much difference between us. Probably my remarks can best be seen as expressing a slightly different angle on a series of common concerns. In conclusion, I want to express my gratitude to Habermas for his life-long effort to keep public discussion vital, and to exclude no one on a priori religious or secular grounds.

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One Response to “Religious reasons & secular revelations”

  1. avatar John Eley says:

    Professor Bellah along with most serious democratically inclined thinkers refers frequently to the common good and related terms such as the public good. I for one am still at a loss as to the exact meaning of this term. Does it refer to a common interest, a common goal, a commonly agreed upon outcome, a distribution of resources that is in the general interest, etc.? What is it exactly that any collectivity of humans could hold as a common good, given the scarcity of goods and services and wide variations in interests and values. Exactly what do the rich who own property and generate jobs for others have as a common good with those who own no property and do not hold jobs. What good could they hold in common? What pray tell is in the interest of all equally as one of the formulations goes? Is health care a common good, a collective good? Is it something that can be held in common? Aren’t all goods held by individuals? Isn’t it the case that the gain of one good by one individual is almost always a loss of some portion of that good by another individual? Are there any sum-sum situations of any significance in the public sphere?

    How does one square concerns with individual rights with concerns with the common good especially if one holds that the collectivity has rights? My right to benefit from my own efforts in proportion to my own effort is my good. How can someone share this good in common?

    Are we confusing a public good what all can have access to in some degree and from which none can legitimately be excluded with the common good?

    I for one would appreciate some clarity on this.

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