Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Religion in the Public Sphere

How do we adjudicate the formation of the ethical subject in public spaces? Today, it seems, I find myself tenuously balancing on the cusp between the feuding camps of secular liberalism and new traditionalism. The former follows the post-Reformation telos in privatizing religion to the point of its hyperrational diffusion, while the latter parochially elevates the religious particular to the status of a political absolute. There must be a middle way.

Jeffrey Stout argues in Democracy and Tradition for a vision of democracy as a set of social practices within which responsibility depends on difference. On this view, the ethical political domain engenders a process of reasoning together - in effect, the empowerment of individuals to bring 'private' commitments (economic, racial, cultural, religious, etc) into the public sphere, so as to employ particular reasoning to arrive not at universal justification but at a general claim with universal reach. For example, I might turn to Exodus 20:13 to argue that murder militates against human goodness (notice that I am not claiming that a specific scriptural passage must universally justify this position; rather, that I have arrived at a potentially universal truism out of an explicitly local context).

Stout's distinction between universal justification and universal reach raises questions about the universalizability and translatability of our own seven Unitarian Universalist principles in non-Western spaces. What does it mean to stake the following claim: I take the inherent worth and dignity of every person to be a platitude that applies to all situations, but I don't purport to have a single argument that universally justifies this position? What inclusivist sensitivity is gained by adopting this model and what authority is thereby lost?

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