Monday, October 30, 2006
Democracy: the Gap between secular and religious views?
Habermas and Ratzinger put up a good show few years ago. They both turned their cheek to the slapping adversary and concluded cheerfully: we need to embark in an on-going conversation between liberal-secularist and religious representatives. This sounds very promising, and many have concurred with the basic conclusion. But the truth is that the dialogue has not yet begun, and it will not begin until few basic points are tackled directly.
Democracy is the first obvious obstacle to a genuine dialogue. Why? The reason is that many liberal-secularist, who agree with Rawls or Habermas, think that democracy is a market place in which we can enter only if we do a number of things. The suq of democracy requires you to accept that within the parameters of democracy various liberties are protected, but in order to get in, you have to accept that democracy itself cannot be put into question.
So, for instance, you cannot put into question the ethical foundations of democracy, as democracy is internally justified, and its legitimacy comes from the legalisation of the processes that make up democracy. In turn, those legal processes will be legitimised by the existence of a democratic framework. Thus, Law (human rights in particular) and Democracy are mutually supportive and fully sufficient to their own mutual justification.
In other words, there is no possible external justification to democracy. It is completely useless to engage in a conversation on this issue, as this issu is by definition off limits. This basic point on the justification of democracy creates an a-symmetrical relationship between different representatives willing to enter the debate. So, the liberal-secularist can boast a certain confidence and graciously grant the right to discuss to the excluded religious person. In exchange, the religious person will accept the invitation au voyage with a grin. Obviously, this is not the best position to be in, but at the end of the day religion can only improve its status within the European society where the slippery slope led them to a near to complete disappearance.
However, if you scratch the surface just a little you’ll find out, for example, that the Catholic Church understands democracy in the following way: ‘Whilst the autonomy proper to the life of a political community must be respected, it should also be borne in mind that a political community cannot be seen as independent of ethical principles.’ This is what John Paul II said few years ago, when he was still battling for a Catholic European soul. His message is clear: democracy should give to itself few substantive guidelines that must be acknowledged as objective, absolute, and inviolable. Better if these principles are of Christian inspiration. This is the gist of Ratzinger’s thought too. In fact, Ratzinger was the brain behind this assertive position, and he continues to carry on this agenda tirelessly. There is continuity between John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Now, the problem is that either the Church accepts the democratic rules and gives up its pretension to introduce its own version of objectively entrenched Christian principles, or it sticks to that but then forgets any type of genuine dialogue. For, if the dialogue is meant to be about the scope of democracy, but one understands democracy as excluding ethical principles and the other understands democracy as including ethical principles, then the dialogue is not likely to go very far. We can fool ourselves and pretend that we can agree to disagree on that point and yet we should carry on conversation. Under these conditions, conversation can continue forever without producing the slightest result.
This issue is a real dilemma. Rawls, who is as usual extremely honest intellectually put it in the best possible way: ‘How is it possible –or is it – for those of faith, as well as the nonreligious (secular), to endorse a constitutional regime even when their comprehensive doctrines may not prosper under it, and indeed may decline?’ American experience shows that religious people are not willing to endorse a constitutional regime when their comprehensive doctrines have declined. This is the story of the American society in the last 30 years, more precisely since Roe v Wade. That famous decision of the Supreme Court of the US declared abortion to be permissible in the first two trimesters. This was perceived as a huge victory for the liberal non-religious side of the society. It was the greatest blow ever for the religious part. Since then, a portion of the religious society attempted to invert the course of this story by engaging in politics to the support of the conservative side which declares itself prepared to stir the state in a different direction from which the supreme court of Roe wanted to take it.
Today, some of the greatest supporters of Rawls believes that his strategy was flawed. So Ronald Dworkin, possibly the head priest of Rawlsian philosophy as applied to law, holds: ‘the schism over religion in America shows the limitations of Rawls’s project of political liberalism, his strategy of insulating political convictions from deeper moral, ethical, and religious conviction.’ The strategy of liberal secularist in the US must therefore be modified, they claim. Deepest convictions should not be excluded from the debate anymore; to the contrary, a genuine debate about those convictions should take place within society. Everything must be up for grab.
Here’s a lesson we can learn from America. Rawlsian political liberalism, even though couched in deeply reasonable terms, has not managed to make the American political system stable. Some hard core Christians felt deeply threatened by the enactment of a secularist-liberal agenda (notably on the part of the US Supreme Court), and responded by organizing themselves politically around a conservative right eager to please religious people in the country.
In Europe, the situation is symmetrically opposite. Liberal secularists are in a position of clear superiority and confidence, as religious is breathing its last breath. Europe is a deeply secular state, so it is religion that is claiming to be heard. Its strategy is the same as liberals in the US. Democracy, they say, must be supplemented by ethical and religious values or it becomes an empty shell for the tyranny of the majority.
Secular-liberals in Europe are not impressed with this argument. Habermas, to repeat, insists that Democracy does not need an external justification such as religion or other ethical convictions. In a discursive constitutional regime, democracy’s legitimacy is fed by legality and law’s legitimacy is in turn fed by democracy. In other words, law and democracy are mutually supportive within our constitutional regime and need no external source to be justified. Having solved the basic issue this way, Habermas goes on arguing that we should give up an imperialist understanding of secularism and engage in an on-going and open conversation with religion. Perhaps, however, the very imprerialist character of secularism is due to the unwillingness to engage in a genuine dialogue on the basics, that is on the (ethical) foundations of our democratic institutions.
In Europe, it is the Catholic Church that claims incessantly an unfavourable treatment. They desperately want to play the role of XXI century martyr. Already, some right wing parties are trying to enrol the Vatican on their side, as they see that the Church is being listened. On October 20, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops, bemoaned that catholic politicians are not united around Christian values. He surely would love to see the rebirth of a Christian Democratic party. The situation, however, is more complicated than in the US. Europe is de facto a tolerant secular state. The Church plays a minority game in this context. Where polarisation is more evident in Europe is between liberal-secularist and Islam. This is a much more heated contest that Europe does not master that well.
For the same reason, Europeans are not able to deal with Islam and with the daily worries it raises. The shar’ia is in open contradiction with democratic values. Those who want to uphold it can only engage in a game where the enjeu is constantly raised. Today is the veil, tomorrow it will be something else. But those are not symbolic issues as we would like to think. Those are just instrumental issues to keep the pressure on democratic institutions and eventually claim that the choice is not between veil or no veil within a democratic framework. The choice is between democracy a la occidentale and other institutional framework that entrench some basic values.
The response to that cannot be: “shut up, you. We are providing a good framework where you can be happy and free.” The only solution is to show that the substantive values that make up our own democratic institutions are good and sound. With reason.
Europeans are not able to deal with Islam because they are unable to fully articulate why and how we are secularist. They are unable to give good reasons in favour of that and they retrench themselves behind the statu quo, namely the fact that all institutions in Europe have a secular faith, which is at the moment very solid.
This is further reason why the dialogue should happen and should be as open as possible. Liberal-secular must confront any type of arguments and come up with good convincing reasons why they stand on the right side. This exercise can only prove to be refreshing and there is little to lose when we finally acknowledge that we have arrived here after bloody experiences and through a work of hard refinement of our institutions. We don’t want to go back to a Res Publica Christiana, and we do not want to move to a Shar’ia led Islamic republic. Between these two, there is something. There are our own democratic institutions which are worth years of experience and fight. It is not about maintaining a statu quo. It is about bringing these institutions and our own history and philosophy to a next level. To do so, we have to start from Democracy as we know it and open up to a genuine dialogue on what are the most important feature of this institution as well as what we want to modify.