Spotlight on public role of religion
QUESTION: The title of your speech, "The Public Role of Religion in Secular Context," might puzzle some Americans. As Robert Bellah notes, the Religious Right's strong political role in recent elections has many echoes in American history. Religious figures, for instance, were in the forefront of the abolitionist movement and the struggles for civil rights. Is this a dangerous tradition?
ANSWER: No, the U.S. is the great example for a liberal political culture with roots in an active civil society which is shaped, from the very beginning, by the vital pluralism of churches and religious associations. And the civil rights movement indeed provides striking evidence for the welcome influence of religious leaders and communities who inspire the fight for a more inclusive implementation of human rights. The research of professor Bellah and others stresses the social capital and the civic engagement of religious people. In (the United States), religious organizations do play an important role for the political socialization of citizens and the integration of society at large. At present, the Religious Right is a rather mixed phenomenon, however.
All political programs and legally binding decisions are implemented with the backing of state power. This is why they must be (at) any time justifiable in a language that is equally accessible to all citizens. The state could no longer remain impartial vis-à-vis competing worldviews and different subcultures, once a religious majority, be it in court or parliament, or within the administration, would appeal to its doctrine instead of providing secular reasons. Imposing just its own will on people of different faith or on secular citizens, such a majority could no longer claim democratic legitimacy.
You've written that "religious communities are entitled to be called 'reasonable' only if they renounce the use of violence as a means of propagating the truths of their faith." How, then, should civilization respond to the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda?
Obviously not by going to war with a regime that, albeit being bad enough anyway, had no connection with al-Qaeda. What we must do is clearly to pursue terrorists with all available means of legal repression. We must reach and hit their logistics, we must persecute, find and prosecute them. But we must not let our own society become infected by the enemy's mentality. The virus of ideological fervor must not encroach upon our liberal institutions and practices.
In one of your essays, you encouraged secular society to "retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse." Would you give us some examples of this "articulative power" and its uses in a secular society?
In the past, many of our most powerful conceptions derived from religious sources. That God created man in his own image is a wording of lasting influence. The modern idea of human dignity, which is claimed equally for all and everybody, is inspired by this image of all human beings created "in the likeness of God." A similar connection exists (for example) between the individuating force of a life history, for which each person is responsible, and the expectation of the Last Judgment. In our culture the loaded meaning of an "individual," that is of a unique and irreplaceable person, has Biblical origins. Why should this rich semantic potential not continue to inform our secular culture in the future, too?
You've lived in both the United States and Germany. How would you compare the role of religion in both societies?
The religious life in our countries is shaped by contrasting traditions. While we in Germany have the Lutheran tradition of state church, you enjoy a flourishing plurality of more or less autonomous religious associations. Quite a few of them originate from dissenting sects. Even the Catholics seem to have acquired in this country some of the mental features typical of a religious minority, whereas Catholicism in Europe radiates the aura of an imperial power. The most striking difference today is, of course, the rapid spread of secularism in Europe, especially since after World War II, whereas in this country an incredibly high proportion of believers has remained at the same level throughout the last 60 years.
Don't ask me why. Sociologists discuss several hypotheses. I am not an expert in this field. My American colleague (University of Michigan philosopher) Ronald Inglehart defends the more conventional idea that secularization goes hand-in-hand with an increased existential security in economic and social living conditions; according to this expectation, more developed countries provide more secure life patterns and have a greater proportion of secularized people. This hypothesis is combined with the view that demographic changes in developed countries prevent secularization sweeping the world.
From this perspective, the surprising persistence of a comparatively large religious population in the United States is explained by two facts: first, by a higher level of risk-taking and personal vulnerability in an environment of increasing pressures for competition and increasing inequalities in distribution; and second, by an immigration from more traditional countries with higher fertility rates.
Does that difference help explain why the United States and Germany – and most of Europe, for that matter – have experienced so many fundamental disagreements on how to respond to terrorism?
From a European point of view, there is a much more trivial explanation. Allow me to put it in a nutshell: The horrible event of 9/11 has caused a well understandable shock in the population. It appears as if a clever government had exploited this condition for pursuing a strategy under false pretences, while the media failed to fulfill their critical function. If 75 percent of the Bush voters at election day still believed that Saddam Hussein had a link to al-Qaeda and was somehow responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers, something must have gone wrong.