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  • Interreligious Engagement and Political TheoryBetween Virtue Ethics and Religious Humanism
  • Michael Daniel Driessen (bio)


The last ten years have seen a dramatic growth in interreligious initiatives on the international stage, sometimes in spectacular form. This growth has been felt particularly in the broader Middle East and Mediterranean region, with a series of high-level interreligious initiatives and declarations providing an emphatic counterpoint to religiously-identified conflicts and violence in the region and all the portending fears of a clash of civilizations they seemed to inspire. As this special volume observes, these initiatives can be understood to represent new forms of interreligious diplomacy or, as Fabio Petito and others have argued, new forms of “interreligious engagement.”1 For a scholar of political science, the growth of interreligious diplomacy in the Middle East raises complex and varied questions. Among others: is interreligious diplomacy appropriate or effective as a strategy to achieve conflict resolution or promote international cooperation? What does interreligious diplomacy reveal about the contested nature of religious authority in the region and its relation to politics? How do religious leaders, communities and people view interreligious diplomacy? What does interreligious diplomacy do anyway?

On the one hand, interreligious diplomacy could be understood as simply seeking to channel forms of multi-religious collaboration for common humanitarian ends. These initiatives, however, have also supported innovative ways of thinking about the relationship between religion and global politics. Thus, theoretically rich concepts like “inclusive citizenship” and “human fraternity” have been introduced by recent interreligious declarations in the Middle East and Mediterranean region and caught the attention of both religious leaders and international policy-makers. In this paper, I consider some of the background sources of political theology that are advanced in these developments and, in particular, [End Page 265] the model of religion-state partnership they seem to imply, both at the international and domestic level of politics. Contemporary interreligious engagement strategies, especially in the broader Mediterranean region, have emphasized the roles of religious communities in creating both common forms of public morality and social solidarity. In doing so, I argue, they can be understood to draw on or reflect the political traditions of both “virtue ethics” and “religious humanism.” These two traditions are distinct and sometimes in tension with each other. Articulating the influence of these two traditions on contemporary forms of interreligious engagement can help to illustrate 1) the multiple audiences they attract (including both conservative and liberal religious and political actors); 2) the unresolved political and religious dilemmas they bring forward; and 3) the opportunities and risks they pose for guiding future political development in the region.

The essay is organized as follows. It begins by considering the tradition of religious humanism. In order to do so, it draws a line from the influence of religious humanism on postwar Christian democratic attempts to promote reconciliation and political stability in Europe to parallel efforts in the Middle East today. The second half of the essay then turns to the tradition of virtue ethics and considers the ways in which contemporary interreligious projects in the region are advancing important arguments about the role of religion in public life and critiquing international norms and practices in doing so. While recognizing the risks inherent in these projects, especially with respect to the dynamics of state power, the essay argues that when combined and balanced they provide an innovative roadmap for public religious engagement and multi-religious collaboration for peace in the broader Mediterranean region.

interreligious dialogue and religious humanism

This section begins with a brief consideration of the tradition of Christian humanism and its influence on a series of post-war initiatives for reconciliation and reconstruction in Europe. It then applies a similar lens to understand the political content of interreligious efforts in the broader Middle East today.

Christian—or what Jacques Maritain defined as “integral”—humanism represented an important effort to develop a Christian approach to political modernity that could provide a compelling political vision in favor of individual rights, social justice, and freedom while remaining in [End Page 266] the service of Christian truth claims and the theological tradition of the Catholic Church.2

One of the central features of Christian humanism is...