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  • Religion, Secularism, and Democratic Culture
  • Mark Cladis (bio)

Religion in Politics: It is Not Going Away

The question of religion and politics—that is, the question of the appropriate relation between the two—is an old one. Ancient Israel, for example, wrestled with the king's relation to the priesthood; early Roman pagans and Christians debated the emperor's divine status; medieval Christianity in the West was marked by power struggles between the "secular" (temporal) and religious spheres; early Protestant Christianity debated the application of Martin Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms, the civil and the spiritual; and ever since James Madison interpreted Luther's doctrine as an account of the separation of church and state, North Americans have passionately argued over the meaning and utility of the Wall of Separation. The question of religion and politics becomes more complex if we include in our consideration civil or political religion. Unlike confessional or traditional religion (Hinduism and Christianity, for example), which typically makes reference to God, gods, or some other sacred beings, civil religion has the sociological and psychological form of traditional religion (enduring beliefs and practices, powerful ideals and symbols, tutored passions and emotions) but it does not have the traditionally religious content. Debates over the role of civil religion and traditional religion in relation to the political are not new. Around the time of the American Revolution, for example, Benjamin Franklin endorsed a civil "Publick Religion" to inculcate civic virtue while at the same time he opposed any state-sponsored traditional religion. And not long before the French Revolution, Rousseau condemned "blood thirsty," nationalistic traditional religions even as he advocated an enforceable civil religion with tolerance as its centerpiece.

The question of religion and politics, then, is an old one, a complicated one, and one that is still very much with us today. Many of us thought or hoped that the question would fade away. We had assumed that modernity would necessarily usher in an age in which religion had no significant public standing. We were wrong. Religion as an intellectual, cultural, and political force is not, for the most part, waning on the globe. And hence many inside and outside the academy find themselves thinking about religion—specifically, about religion in public and politics and whether it ought to be there.

I address this question by offering a normative approach that provides a generous role and place for traditional religions in democratic public and political realms. In this approach, what I call the religion-as-unexceptional model, religion is not initially treated as a special case, but rather is treated like any other more or less comprehensive view that informs intellectual and moral contributions to democratic life and deliberation. With this approach, I challenge: 1) those who wish to relegate religious belief and practice to the private sphere (thereby disadvantaging religious citizens); and 2) those who claim that a robust democracy requires a religious citizenry (disadvantaging non-religious citizens). My argument necessarily entails an assessment of secularism. I identify three senses of this central yet vague term—secularism in its good, bad, and ugly sense. In its good sense, secularism supports the religion-as-unexceptional model, entitling individuals and communities to bring comprehensive views, including religious perspectives, to political stances and democratic deliberation.

Additionally, and independent of my arguments for this normative approach that covers traditional religions in democracies, I endorse what I call spiritual democracy: a progressive democratic culture and its concomitant civil religion that is inclusive of various citizens, believers and nonbelievers alike. Spiritual democracy, as I employ the term, is a dynamic, culturally specific and culturally contested embodied democracy. My proposal for spiritual democracy will raise basic questions about civil religion—what exactly is civil religion and should we be fearful of it? Ultimately, I will argue that civil religion per se is not dangerous. In fact, democratic civil religions offer protection from totalitarian and theocratic religion, among other varieties of antidemocratic movements.

In sum, then, I will argue that there are at least two forms of religion in politics that we tend to fear unnecessarily: 1) diverse traditional religions, when suitably embedded in a democratic culture; and 2) democratic civil religions, when...


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pp. 22-29
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