Saturday, January 9, 2010

Balance between pluralism and solidarity

  • For the religious nationalist, America is a “Christian nation” or, perhaps, a “Judeo-Christian nation.” In this vision, religious and political communities should be coterminous. 
  • For the radical secularist, America is a liberal society comprised of autonomous individuals. In this vision, religious and political communities ought to be completely distinct. 
  • For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism. In this vision, the religious and political communities inevitably overlap with one another. 
Using Max Weber’s notion of “value spheres,” we can put this somewhat more formally: liberal secularists believe that the religious and political spheres should be radically separated; religious nationalists believe that they should be tightly integrated; and civil religionists believe that they should be overlapping but independent. [...]

one of the fundamental challenges confronting all modern democracies, perhaps particularly the United States, is achieving and maintaining the appropriate balance between pluralism and solidarity. Excessive pluralism, whether of an individualistic or a sectarian variety, impedes the level of social cooperation that is necessary to the achievement of the common good and individual flourishing (libertarian opposition to health-care reform is merely the most topical example). Conversely, excessive solidarity, whether of a racial or national variety, squelches the cultural pluralism and individual autonomy that are the wellsprings of societal adaptation and creativity. If we accept this premise, then we must reject radical secularism and religious nationalism, at least in their extreme forms. The one leads to excessive pluralism; the other to excessive solidarity.

Now, there are plenty of people who would agree about the need to balance pluralism and solidarity, but who would disagree that civil religion is a necessary means to this end.

  • First, there are non-theistic neo-Kantian rationalists—such as RawlsHabermas, andAudi—who would be somewhat uneasy about the religious dimension of civil religion. 
  • Then, there are theistic neo-Aristotelian confessionalists—such as MacIntyreYoder, and Hauerwas—who would be somewhat uneasy about the civil dimension of civil religion.  
But each critique supplies an answer to the other. For example, the rationalists often assert that certain abstract principles and formal procedures, such as “communicative rationality” or “public reason,” are sufficient means to the ethical aims of a civic republic such as the United States. But they are also compelled to admit that civic virtue and civic friendship are necessary as well.

Virtue and friendship, however, cannot be founded on abstract principles or formal procedures. Rather, as the neo-Aristotelians have repeatedly and rightly insisted, they can only be sustained within narrative communities. But the neo-Aristotelians are also neo-confessionalists who worry that civic engagement undermines religious community. In Hauerwas’s phrase, the job of the church is to be the church. A politically engaged church, he implies, cannot be a narratively authentic church because it must compromise its first principles for the sake of political expediency. 

The fatal flaw in this position is the assumption that an agreement on principles of political justice can only be founded on an agreement on foundational principles of justice. This is not the case. As John Rawls has recently shown, and as Jacques Maritain showed long before him, divergence of first principles of justice does not preclude convergence on political principles of justice, such as human rights or social solidarity. The same might be said about civic narratives. One can embrace the American creed for different reasons, both secular and sacred: natural law, Kantian ethics, covenant theology, neo-Romanism, and so on.

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