After their decisive victory over a larger Austrian force in the Battle of Leuthen (1757), the soldiers of the Prussian Army broke out spontaneously in the great Lutheran hymn, Nun danket alle Gott – “Now thank we all our God.” The Prussian King, Frederick the Great, listened in astonishment. A free thinker, friend of Voltaire, and a “benevolent” Enlightenment despot, the Great King exclaimed: Mein Gott! Welche Kraft hat die Religion – “My God! How much power religion has!”
Another German free thinker and heir to the Enlightenment seems recently to have made a similarly startling discovery. I refer to the widely renowned German philosopher and public intellectual Jűrgen Habermas. For much of his career, Habermas identified himself as a staunch defender of Enlightenment rationality, the anointed successor of Immanuel Kant. His account of liberal, democratic constitutionalism assumed only secular foundations, and deliberately excluded any reference to the authority of religion. But in recent years, Habermas has veered away from that course; his stance toward religion has changed. First, he has come to accept that religion, even in the West, is not going away – at least not soon. Second, he is prepared, albeit tentatively, to recognize a role for religion to play in public, political discourse. Indeed, he even entertains the thought that “philosophy,” or secular reason, will engage in a colloquy with “theology” and revealed religion.
Reflecting this change of heart, Habermas, as guest of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, engaged then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in debate in Munich in 2004. Habermas’ address has been published as “Prepolitical Foundations of the Constitutional State?” in Jűrgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2012). Subsequently, in 2007, Habermas debated four Jesuit theologians, again in Munich, in 2007. His remarks on this occasion have been published as Jűrgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2010). In a short, penetrating essay entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing” (New York Times, April 12, 2010), the distinguished literary theorist, public intellectual and deconstructionist Stanley Fish reviewed and criticized Habermas’ position in these debates.
Habermas’ later thoughts on religion and politics are relevant to this series for several reasons. First, it is interesting and instructive to compare the ideas of this early twenty-first century thinker with those of de Tocqueville. Tendencies in modern, democratic society whose first stirrings Tocqueville discerned have had almost two intervening centuries in which to work themselves out. In particular, secularization has become far more pervasive. But second and no less important, Habermas’ thinking sheds light on the question raised in my last posting: whether democracy can survive and flourish, despite the perceptible deepening and entrenchment of social and economic inequalities, if Western society is radically de-christianized? The bare fact that a thinker of Habermas’ repute considered it timely and important to raise the question of “prepolitical,” religious foundations for the liberal-democratic, “constitutional” State suggests that there may, indeed, be a possible need here that only religion can serve. Moreover, Tocqueville himself gave attention to the question that Habermas poses, albeit in a less systematic and focused way.
There is, I believe, a particular point of contact between Habermas and Tocqueville in the latter’s correspondence with his friend and assistant Arthur de Gobineau (whom we have briefly encountered earlier in this series). In that correspondence, Tocqueville comes closest to giving us his answer to the question whether modern Western democracy presupposes Christianity. That correspondence will be the centerpiece of my next and final posting.
Habermas on the prepolitical foundations of the constitutional State
A longstanding project of Habermas has been to provide a nonreligious, “post-metaphysical” justification of the normative foundations of constitutional democracy. He finds this type of justification in “political liberalism,” more especially in the form of “Kantian republicanism.” Prepolitical Foundations at 102. While acknowledging antecedents in Christian theology, Habermas insists that “the form of state power that remains neutral toward different worldviews ultimately derives from the profane sources of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy.” Id. Unlike Tocqueville, then, who sees the normative foundations of political liberalism as rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment thought, Habermas locates those foundations solely, or at least primarily, in the Enlightenment. (Habermas’ resistance to giving full recognition to Christianity’s historic role in shaping the modern liberal-democratic State recalls the long debate over whether the Preamble of the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe should include a reference to God or Christianity. In the end, it did not. See Srdjan Cvijic and Lorenzo Zucca, Does the European Constitution need Christian Values?, 24 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 739 (2004) (discussing J.H.H. Weiler, Un’ Europa Cristiana: un saggio explorativo (2002))).
The core of Habermas’ justificatory strategy is to base the legitimacy of the decision-making of the liberal, democratic state on an open, inclusive process of public communication, argument and reflection in which citizens engage on equal terms.