Habermas on Faith-Based Politics

I suppose if I'm an -ian anything then I'm a Habermasian, at least when it comes to political theory. That doesn't mean, however, that I always agree with the great man's recent political writings; sometimes yes, sometimes no.

This translation by Brett Marston of a fragment of a recent statement by Habermas (in a debate with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, no less!), certainly makes it sound like this essay would be one of the ones I agree with. I'm very gratefull for this partial translation (Thanks, Bret!), and would love a pointer to a full translation of both parts of the debate if anyone knows of one.

It seems obvious to me that so long as there is belief there is a place for religion in politics. People should not check their ethical commitments before they reach the ballot box. But in a pluralistic society it doesn't follow that the state should be enlisted to enforce religious dictates. Nor does it necessarily follow, although here things get more complex, that an elected official should vote her constituents' wishes over her faith — or, for that matter, vice versa.

The tricky part of course is figuring out what are the basic moral commands that can't be compromised. For some, it's abortion, poverty in the face of plenty, the death penalty, pornography, or torture, and in my mind each of those views is worthy of respect — including the ones I disagree with. When they don't command consensus, and I think not even the ban on torture does any more, they should be discussed, as respectfully as possible.

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5 Responses to Habermas on Faith-Based Politics

  1. Max says:

    When would such a conflict between faith and constituency arise without deception on the part of the political representative? Surely if a belief is so powerful that it goes to the core of the representative’s understanding of all of existence then they have a democratic duty to reveal that belief to their constituents as a candidate. Perhaps someone can come up with an example, but I cannot think of a single politician who could have possibly hidden their real religious beliefs from their constituents as a matter of preserving secular democracy–rather, they hide or misrepresent their beliefs in order to convince constituents whose beliefs differ that they hold compatible beliefs.

    I personally am more than annoyed by the coverage of the intersection of religion and politics, not least because the secularist, centrist media feels some bizarre compulsion to report all religious belief as politically conservative. In the America on the news, there is no way in which a liberal could view their actions as being religiously imperative, neutral, or even acceptable. All liberalism is hostile to religion. It’s not like the real America is that way–I personally could find you dozens of religious leaders who consider such programs as Social Security (that is to say, care for the elderly) to be essential to their faith. Yet they’ll never be on Crossfire. I still remember the Gene Robinson fiasco–can anyone list a single religious leader who was interview by the major media who supported Robinson? It was always a secular liberal trotted out against a religious conservative.

    I’d like to interject more arguments-from-faith into democracy in the hopes it would be bring balance and serve democracy, but something tells me at this juncture in history it would be nothing but an endless parade of Republican wedge issues: abortion, creationism, and homosexuality. No death penalty. No welfare. No health care. No war. No stem cells. Just baby-killers, god-haters, and fags over and over and over again. And not only would that injure democracy but, as was the other motivation of the “wall of seperation,” it would infect religion itself, as it already does today. I have a couple Christian friends at Harvard Law who can’t find suitable students groups because every group they find appears obsessed with abortion, creationism, and homosexuality, and care very little for anything even resembling theological consideration. Keep in mind that’s at a supposedly liberal school in a liberal town. You don’t want to know what the churches were like in Mississippi, where I grew up.

  2. Paul Gowder says:

    As a fellow Habermasian, I also have to say that it’s real hot that the Pope (albeit pre-pope status) got into a debate with him. Yea! Yea! Take that, all other philosophers!

    On substance, however, I think we need to make the distinction clear between the invitation of religious views into the public sphere and the unfiltered enactment of such views into law. In other words: certainly religious discourse is part of the debate, but those who make law should — at least in the U.S. and other countries with an establishment clause mandating religous neutrality — ensure that those religious views which are even the least bit controversial don’t find there way into the law without some independent secular justification therefor. (Query whether I’m endorsing deception as to the real motives of legislation here?)

    Michael, please please post if someone does post a translation of the full thing. (I really need to learn German.) Habermas is a genius, and it’s a bummer to not be able to read the extracts available in context.

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  4. Ellen1910 says:

    Habermasian? It’s a short step to de Maistre.

    Okay, so maybe Habermas holds reason responsible for the materialism he hates and longs for the resacrilization of mittel Europe.

    But let’s not make one old man’s idiosyncrasy into a general political ethic.

  5. Paul Gowder says:

    OW! de Maistre? That’s harsh! I don’t think Habermas was calling for the “resacrilization” of anything. If you read the linked translation, he’s quite explicitly calling for neutrality between secular and religious worldviews.


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