Jurgen Habermas on "The Political"

Jurgen Habermas

In The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Judith Butler, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West examine what role does—or should—religion play in our public lives? (Craig Calhoun provided the afterword to the volume.) This week we will excerpt from the contributors’ essays in the volume.

In his essay, “The Political,” Habermas argues that including religious citizens both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of urgent practicality. Religiously informed actors, including Christian fundamentalists in America and Islamists in Europe, matter so much in contemporary political life that we endanger the future of the democratic polity if we cannot integrate them into the workings of the public sphere.

Habermas writes:

Admittedly, everything feared by Carl Schmitt in fact happened: the sovereign power of the king has been dissolved, disembodied, and dispersed in the communication flows of civil society, and it has at the same time assumed the shape of procedures, be it for general elections or the numerous deliberations and decisions of various political bodies. Claude Lefort is right in maintaining that sovereignty left behind an “empty place.” But in the course of its democratic transformation, “the political” has not completely lost its association with religion.

In democratic discourse secular and religious citizens stand in a complementary relation. Both are involved in an interaction that is constitutive for a democratic process springing from the soil of civil society and developing through the informal communication networks of the public sphere. As long as religious communities remain a vital force in civil society, their contribution to the legitimation process reflects an at least indirect reference to religion, which the political retains even within a secular state. Although religion can neither be reduced to morality nor be assimilated to ethical value orientations, it nevertheless keeps alive an awareness of both elements. The public use of reason by religious and nonreligious citizens alike may well spur deliberative politics in a pluralist civil society and lead to the recovery of semantic potentials from religious traditions for the wider political culture.

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