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  • Religion and the Ritual of Public Discourse1
  • Warren G. Frisina (bio)


What role should religion play in public discourse? Not too long ago, Richard Rorty argued, in more than one place, that religion is a "conversation stopper" which polite people refer to only in private conversations.2 Religious believers complain, however, that this practice renders it impossible for them to participate in public discourse. They ask whether a democratic community is worthy of the name if it effectively forbids (by custom or legislation) a significant segment of its citizens from acknowledging and drawing upon their own traditions to help justify their moral and political claims?3

In Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout argued that democratic communities are established by cultivating the habit of "holding one another responsible" in public discourse.4 By highlighting habit in this way, Stout is picking up on and developing Dewey's conviction that all of our moral sensibilities, including those that make possible democratic discourse, are specifications of the broad collective habits which form the basis for social life.5 This pragmatic explanation for social and political practices effectively supplants attempts to justify democracy by appealing to things like a "commonly held human [End Page 74] reason" or "transcendentally justified human rights." Instead of assuming that democratic behavior is founded on these forms of ultimacy, Stout and Dewey argue that it came about by nurturing democratic practices in as broad a range of people as possible. For this reason, Stout seeks in Democracy and Tradition to forge a middle path between contractarian liberals (like Rorty and Rawls) who complain about the intrusion of religious ideas into public affairs and religious traditionalists like Stanley Hauerwas6 and Alisdair MacIntyre7 who argue that the sorry state of contemporary public discourse is largely the result of the modern tendency to marginalize voices that draw their moral sensibilities from tradition-based religious and cultural values. Stout's stated goal was to get both sides in this "culture war" to tone down their rhetoric and acknowledge the extent to which their tendency to speak of one another in apocalyptic terms undermines rather than strengthens our democratic traditions.

I bring Stout's book to the attention of American Journal of Theology and Philosophy readers for two reasons. First, I find a certain resonance between Stout's approach to moral and political discourse and several themes that are central to my understanding of Confucian thought in general and Confucian ritual in particular. In short, I believe that Confucian insights could be used to lend support to Stout's arguments. Second, as a religious tradition, Confucianism has something at stake in the outcome of Stout's argument. Rorty's desire to relegate religious appeals to the realm of private discourse applies to Confucian spirituality as much as fundamentalist Christianity. If Robert Neville is right to claim that Confucianism has left its original home in East Asia and become a resource for the developing self-understanding of both East Asian and at least some non-East Asian Americans and Europeans,8 then Confucians of all ethnic backgrounds will want to know whether Confucian spiritual insights are to be welcomed and respected within the "public square."

In sum then, my argument proceeds as a series of developing generalizations about religion and democracy. In part one I examine Rorty's shift from a strong secularist assertion that religious justifications have no place in public discourse to a more nuanced understanding that in certain contexts appeals to religion might be compatible with his understanding of democratic discourse. [End Page 75] This shift becomes possible in part because of changes in his assumptions about how one defines democracy and how one defines religion. In part two I turn to Stout whose subtle analysis of the role of authority within democratic traditions provides a broader context which encompasses both democratic and religious discourses. Along the way, his efforts further redefine what we mean by religion and democracy in ways that extend and are consistent with Rorty's later positions. Finally, in part three I suggest that the trajectory of this conversation on religion and public life which I trace from Rorty to Stout (and others) can...


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pp. 74-92
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