Democracy and the ‘Signs of the Times’

I recently posted on the imbroglio swirling around St. Mary’s Catholic Community in South Brisbane. Today, Father Peter Kennedy of St. Mary’s takes Archbishop Bathersby to task in the Courier-Mail. Fr Peter accuses the Church of being out of step with a democratic society.

There’s always been a tension between liberal democracy and religion. Although many of the Protestant churches moved with the times at the Reformation, and took the side of state authority against the claims of the Roman Church to be the arbiter of matters temporal as well as spiritual, the Catholic Church did not finally accommodate itself to the democratic spirit of modernity until Vatican 2. Some Protestant churches also have a congregational form of democratic accountability, something Rome has resolutely resisted.

On the other side of the ledger, to be a democrat in the 19th century was usually to be anti-clerical. The Enlightenment saw its mission as dethroning God, and sweeping away the theological mystification that impeded human freedom.

ELSEWHERE: saint in a straightjacket has some interesting things to say about the Religious Left at Dogfight at Bankstown. Perth blogger Manas reflects on the tensions between Catholicism and left-wing politics.

UPDATE: Fr Kennedy and Archbishop Bathersby find something to agree on.

The French sociologist Gilles Kepel, an expert on political Islamism, in his book The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World, argued that the 1970s saw a break when many religious groups stopped either opting out of secular society or accommodating themselves to it, and decided to transform society instead. American Evangelicals, for instance, traditionally were fairly apolitical, but entered the electoral process with a vengeance in the 1970s.

Part of the critique from the “re-Christianising” perspective was that liberalism emptied Western culture of normative values. Liberals, of course, would argue that secularism and democracy are values in and of themselves.

Ken posted a while back on Cardinal Pell’s eccentric version of “personalist democracy”. There is no doubt that the churches, or elements thereof, have become influential in a number of areas of Australian politics – even before the rise to prominence of Family First and Hillsong during the recent election campaign. David Marr documented this phenomenon comprehensively in his book The High Price of Heaven.

I also discussed ‘The Religious Left’ in a recent post. There’s no doubt that an accommodation to the ‘signs of the times’ is characteristic of the Religious Left. The critique often levelled at interventions by religious figures against the Iraq War, for instance, is that they are playing politics and should stick to saving souls. This, of course, is not raised when the Religious Right pops up in public debate. But could it be that the concerns of the Religious Left are grounded in religious values? After all, as Kepel notes, democracy as a concept has a Christian heritage as well as a Classical one…

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark,

Yet another stimulating post as usual. As was yesterday’s on a “fractured communion”.

I read the newspaper piece quoting Fr Peter and thought his debating gambit was very clever and well put.

I think, however, “religious values” are just not to the point. I don’t think there are any such uniquely religious values. I may not understand what you mean by them. Anything which you could posit as a “religious value”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Gaby. I’m not suggesting that democracy is a specifically religious value more that its historical development was in some ways fostered by Christianity. That’s a long and complex story that I don’t want to tell right now… But you’ve got me thinking about whether there are any specifically religious values. The virtue of self-denial or sacrifice might be thought to be one, except clearly it’s not. I’m thinking of that very secular hymn sung at Princess Diana’s funeral “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, clearly inspired much more by nationalism and the bloody immolation of the First World War than any particular religious feeling. I like the tune by Holst, though!

Lyrics are here:

http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/v/ivow2the.htm

So, I think, on reflection, it’s quite possible for the same values to rest on either a secular or religious ground – or none at all, if you’re a postmodernist.

As a matter of historical accuracy though, we can make an analytical distinction and say that some values derive from a particular source.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

On the question of autonomy and responsibility, your view is a tempting one but I think it’s possible to have a responsible and autonomous conscience and nevertheless be guided by a religious ethic. After all, any ethical system should have some consistent basis and our “freedom to choose” lies within certain parameters – otherwise, we are deciding purely on inclination which is by definition irresponsible and irrational.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark,

I didn’t think you were suggesting that democracy was an explicitly religious value in its provenance.

And the history of this idea would certainly be very interesting. I would have in mind the sort of historical and contextual explication that Alasdair Macintyre considers is necessary to properly understand moral concepts in different times and contexts. His writings in this area are truly fascinating philosophy.

My point was that in relation to values relevant to us now the religion or theology is superfluous.

For me these sorts of issues in moral philosophy are some of the most absorbing and interesting.

All values have to be grounded ultimately in something, whether in humans or their social relations. So I don’t think a “postmodern”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Gaby. I’ll get back to you in due course when I’m feeling less knackered – it’s been a long week!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks again, Gaby, for a stimulating comment. I agree totally with Macintyre – the meaning of concepts and values does indeed change over time, and they have to be understood in their context.

I guess that the postmodern perspective hearks back both to Nietzsche and his transvaluation of values, and also in a different (and unacknowledged way) to Sartrean or Heideggerian existentialism. There’s also a certain sense where the decision to embrace a particular value for its own sake or as part of an attempt to make meaning of one’s own life, project and world is derivative of Pascal. There’s some truth in the way that one could take from a po/mo perspective the importance of the emotional or irrational elementin choosing one’s values.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Hi Mark,

Just saw your reply.

I suppose I would want to argue that both Nietzsche and existentialism also “ground”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I don’t think we’re too far apart here, Gaby. What does interest me is the ungrounded nature of the moment of decision. Why do we jump one way or the other? There’s some very interesting scholarship on this in the area of legal theory, in particular, that I might post on sometime.

As to Pascal, I was thinking of the wager. There’s a calculative element to the decision for faith, but also an irrational or emotional element, in that final justification of the choice is never available to us in this life. I think something similar is characteristic of deep decisions about the adoption of any value set.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

No I don’t imagine we are.

Generally, I suppose the way we “jump” depends on our reasons for action. Again, the motivated case is the most central and interesting. So I don’t suppose decisions are generally ungrounded. This doesn’t deny the possibility of whimsical, capricious or spontaneous choice. For example, when one goes “ah, fuck it!….”

I suppose the pay off for faith is necessarily deferred to a reputed after life. As opposed to a humanist or naturalist morality, where the rewards of a “virtue” value set redound in the here and now.

I’m not aware of the legal theory scholarship you are referring to. Bad coming from a lawyer, I know. Would you please point me in the general direction?

I’m interested in your conjoining of irrational and emotional. The latter are not necessarily irrational. Emotions have their logic. Graham Nerlich’s “Values and Valuing” is very good on this. Do you mean “non-rational”?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gaby, yes, perhaps “non-rational” is better.

As to legal theory, a good place to start for stuff on “decisionism” is Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson’s edited book “Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice”:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0415903041/qid=1102483148/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-0828244-4797752?v=glance&s=books

This book came out of a symposium in the Cardozo Law Review (vol. 11). I don’t think it’s available online – but you might have access to it.

The basic problematic is what motivates judicial decision making – ie to what degree is “justice” a rational or calculable criterion? Obviously the debate gets broader and it’s also a while since I’ve looked at all this stuff.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Thanks Mark.

Looking it up now. Sounds very interesting. Should be able to access Cardozo from local Law Library.

Sounds like it would involve some disussion of Hart’s positivism and legal realism.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark,

Had a look now at the Amazon preview. Not what I expected at all. Must be an interesting contrast to standard flavours of jurisprudence on judicial decision making. I’ll hunt it down.

Saw this doggerel in a letter to the Spectator. Thought it might amuse.

“You wanna knowda creeda
Derrida?
Dere ain’t no reader.
(Dere ain’t no wrider
Eider.)”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gaby, I’ll have some thoughts on Derrida up soon…

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Mark, look forward to the post as usual.

I have an abiding interest in matters po mo from general reading in the philosophy of language. My feeling is that the various po mo perspectives are not the best way to tackle such issues, but they are, notwithstanding this, still intrinsically interesting philosophy and fun to consider.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gaby, I don’t see Derrida as a po/mo thinker – I think he’s been mischaracterised. But more on that later.

Here’s my favourite Derrida quote:

“I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference and the stability of interpretive contexts radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth, reference and stable contexts of interpretation.”

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Interesting, and surprising, quote given my understanding. I can see how it can be the springboard for a revision of a common (mis)understanding of Derrida.

I suppose it could turn on what he means by truth, reference and contexts of interpretation. Have we all been seduced by his “differance”?

Your post will be even more eagerly anticipated then.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Derrida was incensed by what he described as a “wilful refusal to read” on the part of his critics, even ones of the stature of Habermas (although it’s worth noting that in 2002 he and Habermas issued a joint statement on s11) and the failure of opponents to follow the usual canons of academic argument – for instance, citing and engaging your opponents rather than caricaturing them. He called for an “ethics of reading”. It’s all there in the last section of ‘Limited Inc’ from which I was quoting.

I’ve put something brief up, but as I’ll soon be writing/rewriting on Derrida for my thesis, I’ll wait to say more about him until I’ve immersed myself in his work and hopefully created some synergies between the thesis chapter and a blog post.