The Place of Religion in Habermas's Transformed Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Our essay reflects on Jurgen Habermas's (1962/1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere from the perspective of recent changes in Habermas's thinking on what kinds of deliberative conditions, warrants, and reasons ought to be part of deliberative claims made and contested in a public sphere. Maybe more than in any other of Habermas's works, Structural Transformation outlined a set of counterfactual expectations for a public sphere. These counterfactual norms were criticized both for their idealism and for the actuality of their perceived exclusionary tendencies; Calhoun (1992) notes that even Habermas himself was less than satisfied with his work. Our purpose in this essay is not to add to the criticisms of this work, but to reflect on an opportunity Habermas opened and prefigured in Structural Transformation but did not pursue until recently: the possibility of integrating religious discourse into the public sphere, predicated on his recent references to a "post-secular society" as the touchstone for rational deliberative practice (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010).

Backing and warranting decisions through religiously based claims has been a defining characteristic of U.S. public and political discourse. Whether one judges this to be a positive or negative aspect of civic discourse in the United States, religious language matters in deliberative practice here, carrying the kind of communicative power Habermas saw operating in and through a public sphere: It carries weight in the legitimization of claims about both character and policy. Yet despite the wide use of Habermas's early works to model, critique, and understand public deliberation in the U.S., Structural Transformation itself makes scant reference to religion. In part, this is due to the historical and political structure of European civil society, on which Habermas's work is based. His historical survey of the origins of European public spheres distinguishes between the State and the Public, with few references to the Church and religion, likely because matters of state and religion have been more closely connected--formally, if not in practice--in past and present-day Europe than in the United States. Habermas (1962/1989) treats the Church, for example, as just one institutional entity among many under human/civic law: "Church itself continued to exist as one corporate body among others under public law" (p. 12; see also pp. 33, 36, 40, 133). As a consequence, his discussion of State legitimacy and sovereignty emphasizes law over religion in a way that would be different had he located the origins of the public sphere before eighteenth century Europe, when the Church still occupied significant public roles.

The crux of Habermas's thinking about the role of the Church lies in the notion of publicity and privacy. In Structural Transformation, Habermas (1962/1989) argues that religion had over time transformed into a private engagement (pp. 11, 68, 90, 91), which moved religion into the space of private interest that is to be bracketed in engagements within a public sphere. In his earlier work, religious doctrine did not meet the requirements of "good reasons" necessary for productive public debate. Religion was, both in its use and in its logic, private; it pertained to private interests and, from a deliberative standpoint, did not make the evidence and warrants behind its claims available to public con-testing. But his recent re-thinking of religion's role (e.g., Habermas, 2005, 2006, 2008) rests, we argue, on this issue of privacy. Habermas tries to demonstrate that his former views create an imbalance in deliberative obligation for citizens of faith. He has pointed to the continued influence of religion, both in the foundational elements of Western democracy and the current U.S. political sphere, as a reason to reconsider the necessity of only secular justifications for religious claims. Asserting that "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization" (as cited in Case, 2006, para. …