Christianity and democracy
Richard Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square famously complained in the 1980s that modern secularized politics, a strict separation of church and state tended to eliminate religious and moral values from public discourse. Others, of course, argued that liberal or democratic values like freedom, equality, or tolerance were just as apt to serve as society’s moral basis as anything inherited from a religious past.
This bold claim, however, was not shared by everyone, not even in the liberal democratic camp. As Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man put it in 1992: “It becomes particularly difficult for people in democratic societies to take questions with real moral content seriously in public life. Morality involves a distinction between better and worse, good and bad, which seems to violate the democratic principle of tolerance.” In other words, the democratic principle is not “moral” strictly speaking, but the very antithesis of morality. Yet, when Fukuyama expressed his doubts about democracy’s ability to create a new moral cohesion, he also said that other, pre-modern sources of morality (like religion or ethnicity) were still available, even if in a latent form.
In that, he was only repeating a thesis put forward by the German legal scholar Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde as early as 1964. The “Böckenförde dilemma” or “Böckenförde paradox” as it was later called, stated that the liberal, secularized state lived on prerequisites it could not itself guarantee. After the long battles between temporal and spiritual authorities in the Middle Ages deprived the state of its former sacrality, it became exposed to all the divergent interests in society. The only reason it did not fall apart right away was that society was still permeated by a common morality, and even today, values like the dignity of the human person, the idea of human rights, and several others maintain Christian principles in a secularized form.
What Neuhaus saw as a naked public square was therefore never entirely empty (at least according to Fukuyama and Böckenförde), but it remains true that the latter were no less worried about modern politics’ tendency to actually create such an empty space.
Nature, however, as we know from Aristotle, “abhors an empty space” and the same is true of society and politics. Already in the 1960s – apart from some academics’ abstract theories – it was not neutrality that most political actors longed for, but a positive affirmation of their values and principles by the state. The erosion of society’s Christian foundations may have gone further since then, but the present agitation and turmoil in Western societies can only convince us that the number of candidates to fill the vacuum is constantly on the rise.
It is not even obvious that some of these candidates are not metaphysical or religious in nature. When climate activists claim that our whole worldview must change in order to cope with the global challenge, when scientists are treated as a new priestly order that should command humanity in a time of pandemic, or feast days are consecrated to victims of police brutality, it becomes difficult to treat all such discourse as purely metaphorical. Some authors – both academics and journalists – would say that there is a more profound similarity between these and more overtly religious ideas than it is usually supposed, and this is where we get to the notion of “secular religions.” ...