Religious Belief, Political Culture, and Community

to be presented at the American Maritain Association annual meeting, University of Notre Dame, Indiana (USA) October 19-22, 2000.

In a number of western countries, and particularly in the United States and France, religious faith is frequently held to be something that has no place in the public arena. This feature of contemporary political culture is often defended by philosophical liberals, such as John Rawls and Richard Rorty, who insist that, in a world that is increasingly pluralistic, political culture and the building of solidarity require that religion must not go beyond the private sphere. As Rorty puts it in his 1994 paper, "Religion as Conversation-Stopper" (Common Knowledge Vol. 3 no. 1, Spring 1994 pp. 1-6), we cannot "keep a democratic political community going unless religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty" (p. 3) and that "'dropping reference to the source of the premises of [...] arguments'"--i.e., that they are one's religious convictions--seems a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty" (p. 5).

Such a view, however, is far from universal. We also find thinkers, such as Jacques Maritain, who hold that religion has an important role in building a democratic and liberal state. On this view, Christianly-inspired religious principles are necessary for a political society that is personalist, pluralist, and just. (Maritain outlines such a view in such work as Humanisme intégral, Principes d'une politique humaniste, and Man and the State, although he does not discuss in any detail how his model `Christian' polity might be realised.)

In this paper I want to argue that, at a time in which society is marked by not only pluralism, but increasing divisiveness and antagonism, religious belief--particularly Christian religious belief--and religious believers have a role in the building of community. Believers note that they are called by their faith to act to build community--the kingdom of God--which is not just a community of believers, but one which is both open to, and proposed to, others. I will also outline some of the values and principles that underlie the idea of community, and note that, while they are recognised and supported by Christianity, they should not be considered as simply private religious values. It is for this reason that a number of Christians, such as Jacques Maritain, hold that such principles and values can serve as a basis for a broad national, or even international, community. Religious belief, therefore, has a role in building community and in contributing to political culture, even in a pluralistic world..