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Faith and Democratic Discourse: Beyond the Liberal-Traditionalist

Reading prominent theological ethicists and social philosophers over the last couple of decades, one might get the impression that liberal democratic values and Christian beliefs are fundamentally at odds. On the one side, liberals, like John Rawls and R ichard Rorty, have worried that religious beliefs are “conversation stoppers” that endanger public consensus in a free and diverse society. They would protect liberal democracy by excluding or severely curtailing the expression of religious convictions in the public realm. On the other side, Christian traditionalists, like Stanley Hauer was and John Milbank, resist the hegemony of a secular, liberal worldview in the name of Christian faithfulness. The two sides are mirror images of one another, each imagining itself as the light in a Manichaean struggle with the other’s darkness.

It is a surprising conflict for anyone who has studied the role of Christian faith in the development and expansion of democratic norms and practices in the United States. It is also strange because so few Christians today think their faith conf licts with democratic ideals–just the opposite, in fact. Politics as Christian Tradition Nevertheless, certain cultural shifts, like increasing religious diversity in society and secularism in public life, have strained the formerly cozy relationship between Christian faith and liberal democracy. Fortunately, in recent years a number of books have been published that acknowledge the challenges of public life in a pluralistic social context but are dissatisfied with the standoff between liberals and traditionalists.

Among the best of these are Franklin Gamwell’s Politics as a Christian Vocation: Faith and Democracy Today and Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition. The books are quite different. The former is written for a Christian audience from a theological perspective, while the latter is written for a wider audience and is concerned with democratic values and public discourse more generally. The argument of the first is direct and simple, while the second is wideranging and complex. Yet, they share much in common. Each distances itself from both the liberal and traditionalist perspectives, presenting democracy as a discursive practice from which no one can be excluded and to which faith convictions are essential.

John Rawls is famous for having revived social contract theory as a mode of interpreting modern democratic life. Genuine freedom and equality, according to Rawls, promote government based on the consent of the governed. Therefore, he is convinced that those purposes and aims over which people disagree, like religious faith in a pluralistic society, need to be significantly bracketed from public discourse because it would be unreasonable to expect people to consent to some end they do not accept. Rather, public justifications should be centered around secular arguments to which all reasonable people can be expected to consent. Public reason, according to Rawls, needs to be something to which all (reasonable) people can agree, namely a minimal and procedural definition of justice that allows people to cooperate despite the various ends and aims they are pursuing. Furthermore, he argues that (reasonable) religious people should embrace this secular form of social contract liberalism because it gives them the freedom to pursue their own religious ends unhindered.

Christian traditionalists, however, do not accept the argument of the liberal social contract vision as either religiously or morally benign. It is a tradition, they say, with a particular vision of the human and the human good that conf licts with other such visions, namely Christian faith. Social contract liberalism is a polity based upon the notion of human beings as self-interested individuals pursuing their own ends. This polity cannot but distort the aims of those who would be followers of Jesus, the one who loved his enemies more than his own life. Christians, therefore, cannot consent to the false polity of the liberal democratic state but must provide an alternative polity, the Christian community, that can stand against the anomie and loneliness of self-interested individualism.

Gamwell and Stout both sympathize with the Christian traditionalists’ argument that the social contract vision is not morally neutral. Gamwell is convinced that all political disagreements finally enter into the realm of faith. All political claims present a vision of the ultimate nature and purpose of human existence. In this sense, there is no avoiding faith claims in politics, whether they are associated with a particular religious tradition or not. Democratic freedom, therefore, requires religious freedom so that citizens may make their own political assessments. Democracy & Tradition Stout concurs, arguing that by restricting public reason in the way that he does, Rawls “is begging the question in favor of his own liberal views” (66 ). This cuts against the democratic values that Rawls espouses by excluding some, namely those who do not agree with his liberal viewpoint, from free participation and equal standing in political discourse. The problem with liberalism, Stout and Gamwell agree, is that it fails to be truly democratic, by excluding some citizens and some arguments from free and equal participation in public debate.

Gamwell and Stout differ from Christian traditionalists, however, because they do not believe that social contract liberalism is the only or best way to conceive of democracy. Drawing on Jurgen Habermas and Karl- Otto Apel, Gamwell argues that democratic politics is a “communicative act in which one pledges to any recipient that one’s claim can be validated or redeemed by argument and, therefore, also concedes that one’s claims may be invalidated in the same way” (44). Stout criticizes social contract liberalism for an overly static understanding of human reason in which moral consensus must be achieved before democratic social cooperation can take place. He sides with Hegel rather than Kant, describing a more dynamic and dialogic process of public reasoning. “Our normative concepts are not instituted at the contractual level and then applied on the basis of the constitutive contract. They are instituted in the process of mutual recognition in which individuals hold one another responsible” (82). In the process of arguing with each other, presenting their reasons to one another, democratic citizens recognize one another as free and equal. Contrary to both the liberals and the traditionalists, Stout and Gamwell see democracy as an open and inclusive dialogue in which persuasion rather than position controls the outcome. For this reason, Stout defends secularism, meaning that debate cannot be resolved by a simple appeal to religious authority. The most persuasive argument (religious or otherwise), not the of- fice of the person making it, is the final arbiter in a democracy. Thus are all citizens free and equal.

Stout and Gamwell differ from the liberals and traditionalists because they understand liberal democracy as an open and dynamic process of offering and evaluating reasons, rather than the authoritative imposition of one category of reasons over another. They also differ from liberals and traditionalists in their confidence that such an open and dynamic discursive process can be effective. Both liberals and Christian traditionalists embrace a conventionalist understanding of morality. In other words, both assume that moral discourse can only take place within the context of a shared, authoritative moral language or tradition. They simply differ concerning which convention, language, or tradition to embrace. Stout puts it most ironically and insightfully when he writes, “the social contract is essentially a substitute for communitarian agreement on a single comprehe
nsive normative vision–a poor man’s communitarianism” (73-4). Gamwell and Stout, on the other hand, eschew moral conventionalism as undemocratic and believe it is possible to argue coherently and even persuasively across moral languages and traditions.

How to understand the possibility of public discourse in a society constituted by an increasing variety of religious and moral traditions is where Gamwell and Stout begin to part ways. Gamwell moves in a straightforward epistemically realist direction. Christianity has traditionally justified its religious claims by appealing to revelation rather than reason. Yet, Gamwell explains, Christians have good theological reason to embrace the humanistic commitment that “our understandings of reality and ourselves can be validated only through reasons authorized finally by our common human experience” (49). According to Gamwell, if God, who is omnipresent, is decisively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, then there must be a correlation, a correspondence, between Christian convictions and common human experience of the world. Thus, Christian claims about the truth can be validated or invalidated through argument with anyone and ever yone. Gamwell is, without a doubt, fairly optimistic about the power of argument to lead to significant levels of agreement about the nature of the world, ourselves, and morality.

Stout, on the other hand, distances himself from the sort of straightforward realism that Gamwell embraces. Convinced that human moral reasoning and perception is conditioned by particular traditions and languages, he is suspicious of any grand vision of a shared reason or common experience. Rather, moral discourse and social cooperation must be achieved piecemeal, “by gradually building discursive bridges and networks of trust in particular settings” (226 ). Responding to critics who see this process as insufficient because it is “too contingent, too relative, too dependent on a particular culture’s perspective,” Stout replies that there is simply no other choice (226 ). Human reason and morality simply are contingent, relative, and perspectival. Nevertheless, he imagines real possibilities for meaningful moral discourse that develop shared norms and expectations through similarities and overlap among distinct moral traditions.   …democracy might fail in the United States. Its survival and flourishing require the renewal of practices of mutual recognition and the virtues of humility concerning one’s own viewpoint and charity towards the traditions of others.  Moreover, traditions are not static. There is room within them for “novel performances” that develop new norms and create new relationships in new contexts (79). Given the contingency and vulnerability of democratic values and practices, Stout is mindful that democracy might fail in the United States. Its survival and flourishing require the renewal of practices of mutual recognition and the virtues of humility concerning one’s own viewpoint and charity towards the traditions of others. This sort of renewal will not come about simply through clear reasoning about common human experience. It will require something like a conversion experience which brings about a renewed democratic vision that cultivates commitments to one another that transcend the self-interest of individuals and ethnic, racial, class, and religious groups.

Though I am drawn more to Stout’s assessment, neither his nor Gamwell’s conception of public discourse is finally satisfying. Read together, however, they are mutually instructive. Stout is correct that public discourse is a piecemeal endeavor that cannot escape the contingency of particular moral traditions, languages, and practices. Moreover, he is also correct that there is a degree to which moral vision is extra-rational, depending finally on a conversion experience rather than merely clear reasoning. However, Gamwell is correct that meaningful moral discourse across the boundaries of religious and cultural differences is only possible to the extent that there is a world shared in common against which our different moral traditions and perspectives can be judged. More work needs to be done in order to integrate their various insights into a vision of public discourse that accounts for the reality of both historically particular perspectives and an objective world shared in common. Neither Stout nor Gamwell have provided this yet.

They have, however, moved the debate about Christian faith and democracy beyond the liberaltraditionalist standoff. Together they envision democracy as robust discursive engagement and charitable mutual recognition, providing an alternative to the morally anemic vision of liberal democracy as a social contract among self-interested individuals. Additionally, they both argue that religious traditions and theological claims cannot be extricated from these debates. Finally, they both acknowledge that if religious claims are allowed to contribute to public discourse, they must also be open to public scrutiny. This is not easy for anyone, even Christians. Participation in open, democratic discourse requires the cultivation of virtues that are central to the Christian faith (though too seldom embodied by Christians ): faith in God rather than any creature of God, including the Church; hope for God’s kingdom rather t ha n one’s own community or traditions; and love for the neighbor, even the neighbor who is enemy of one’s personal interests or deepest convictions.

Timothy A. Beach-Verhey directs the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, acts as associate chaplain, and teaches theological ethics in the Religion department at Davidson College. He and his wife, Kathy, are both ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).