Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The political struggle over the definition and content of a postmodern civic culture has already begun and has found expression in the so-called "culture wars" of the last decade.
A political or rhetorical conception of liberalism is capable of affirming fully at the same time both civic and communitarian standards of justice.
A postmodern liberal democratic state must view itself as a perfectionist regime like any other insofar as its role is to foster in its citizens the desire to pursue a certain ideal of happiness.
A postmodern civic culture must reverse the pattern of suspicion of and hostility to religion and learn to exploit whatever motivational resources supportive of civic moral ideals that religious belief can offer.
What will a postmodern civic culture look like? Whatever form of civic culture, if any, finally succeeds modernist liberal civic culture, it is bound to be different in certain important respects. Some of these differences are suggested by the directions taken by postmodern liberal political philosophy — what I call its rhetorical and teleological turns.
Consider, for example, the implications of the rhetorical turn. A political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine permits liberal democratic civic culture for the first time to have a name and an identity. For a rhetorical conception of liberalism, a civic culture is a countervailing culture addressed to the citizens of a liberal democracy. It is a culture that is limited with respect to its content and scope. Its purpose is to provide citizens with the insight and motivation required for the attainment of full cultural citizenship. As such, it is a culture that should have an official public status and role of some sort. Public education, for example, should include elements of this culture as a clearly identified component of the curriculum.
Modernist metaphysical conceptions of liberalism prevented this sort of clear identification of the role and content of civic culture. Modernist liberal political theory conceived of liberal doctrine as a comprehensive or totalizing world view. It presented liberal moral ideals not as components of a certain historical form civic culture, but rather as articulations of universally valid moral standards.
Because modernist liberalism depended on Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge to support its universalist and essentialist claims for liberal moral ideals, the vital role of the non-cognitive or narrative dimensions of civic culture in the production of full cultural citizenship were systematically ignored. Scientific education became a surrogate for civic education. Civic education was carried on surreptitiously under different names and often identified with the modernist ideals of culture-neutral, value-free knowledge. The liberal democratic state itself was represented as having no particularistic cultural point of view at all, its culture-neutral and value-free standpoint advertised as the political analogue of the value-free objectivity of scientific knowledge.
Once the nature and political function of a liberal democratic civic culture has been clearly recognized, we should expect the content of civic culture increasingly to become an issue for public debate. Indeed, the political struggle over the definition and content of a postmodern civic culture has already begun. This struggle is evident in the so-called “culture wars" being fought in America today in virtually every area of public life.
How the rhetorical turn in postmodern liberalism can serve to end the "culture wars"
In these culture wars, the forces of progress and liberal “enlightenment" find themselves opposed by the forces representing cultural orthodoxies of all types. The progressive forces are armed with the rhetorical weapons provided by modernist liberal civic culture. On this side are those who still appeal to the modernist liberal moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy, who identify with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and who continue to advocate universalist and essentialist conceptions of civic justice.
But the rhetorical weapons wielded by the forces of cultural orthodoxy have also been shaped by modernist liberal ideas. These forces appeal to traditional communitarian values of various sorts. On this side are those who oppose public use of the culture-neutral, value-free vocabulary of modernist liberalism on the grounds that it embodies a world view hostile to the moral ideals and beliefs of particularistic cultural communities. However, because they identify liberalism exclusively with comprehensive or metaphysical conceptions of liberal doctrine, the orthodox tend to speak exclusively the language of communitarian as opposed to civic justice. Their political and cultural agenda is anti-modernist, but all too often also anti-liberal.
The rhetorical turn in contemporary liberal political philosophy addresses the issues raised by this political struggle by remapping the terrain on which the culture wars are being fought, by providing a new moral vocabulary capable of defining a common ground on which the opposing sides can meet.
A political or rhetorical conception of liberalism is capable of affirming fully at the same time both civic and communitarian standards of justice. It accomplishes a de-totalization of civic culture and of the liberal democratic public sphere itself. It denies the universalist and essentialist interpretations of liberal moral ideals typical of modernist metaphysical conceptions of liberal doctrine.
Liberalism thus ceases to be identified with the scientific world view of the Enlightenment or any other totalizing world view hostile to religious belief and moral ideals. A political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine in effect makes adherents of the modernist “individualist" moral ideals of authenticity and autonomy into just one more particularistic cultural community with no special rights over the vocabulary used in public life or for purposes of civic education.
On the other hand, a political or rhetorical conception of liberalism makes clear the obligation of every citizen to develop fully and exercise the capacities proper to citizenship. The development and exercise of these capacities, even though they pertain only to a part and not to the whole of life, nevertheless introduce certain complexities and tensions into the orthodox moral beliefs and practices proper to particularistic cultural communities.
Thus, while a political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine breaks the connection between the liberal democratic public sphere and the rationalist world view of the Enlightenment, it also affirms the obligatory nature and the full countervailing force of the civic ideals of individual freedom and equality.
The teleological turn in postmodern liberalism and the achievement of an overlapping consensus supporting pursuit of the civic good
Perhaps the most significant and notable difference between modernist liberal civic culture and the postmodern form of civic culture now emerging is suggested by what I call the teleological turn in contemporary liberalism.
A postmodern liberal democratic civic culture must provide cultural resources for motivating citizens to develop and exercise the capacities proper to full cultural citizenship. It must represent the attainment of capacities for civic freedom and civic justice not merely as a matter of obligation, but also as an object of desire. Liberal democracy is a form of political association that presupposes the shared pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good. The peculiarity of this way of life is that the conception of the good shared by citizens of a liberal democracy is a limited good, a good applying to only a part of life, a good incapable of generating a comprehensive strategy for addressing the full range of general human life issues.
That conception of the good — the civic good — consists in a certain liberation and affirmation of particularistic desire as particularistic desire. A postmodern liberal democratic civic culture must provide the cultural resources — discourses, narratives, representations of various sorts, etc. — capable of presenting the civic good persuasively as a good to be desired and attained for its own sake.
This particularistic conception of the good distinguishes the general culture or civilization proper to North Atlantic liberal democracies from other regional cultures and civilizations that remain powerful and vital forces today — including Islamic, Japanese, Confucian, Hindu, and African civilizations. The liberal democratic state must understand itself as the caretaker and cultivator of this particularistic Western way of life.
This requires a break with all modernist liberal conceptions of the liberal democratic state as embodying a standpoint of cultural and moral neutrality. A postmodern liberal democratic state must view itself as a perfectionist regime like any other insofar as its role is to foster in its citizens the desire to pursue a certain ideal of happiness and to the extent that any particular liberal democratic form of government or administration will be judged by its capacity to provide the conditions required for the realization of that ideal.
While it is the role of the postmodern liberal state to support a civic culture capable of motivating its citizens to pursue the civic good, the state must also acknowledge, as we have seen, that its resources are inadequate to that task. The cultural perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere can provide some motivational resources supportive of the pursuit of the civic good, but the greatest part of those resources must come from an overlapping consensus among particularistic cultural communities in support of the liberal democratic moral ideals of civic freedom and civic justice.
This support cannot be mandated by the liberal state. It must be generated by members of particularistic cultural communities who, acting as citizens, succeed in discovering or inventing within their own local cultural traditions motivational resources supportive of the pursuit of the civic good. This discovery or invention of motivational resources supportive of civic moral ideals will generally take the form of identifying independent grounds within particularistic cultural traditions supportive of the recognition and institutionalization of standards of civic justice.
For example, consider professional associations. Professional associations belong to the general category of communities based upon shared social class and occupational roles. They are associations formed to pursue collective economic goals and carry out a specific social function. Members of such associations, acting as citizens, might discover in their local traditions or organizational assumptions independent (i.e., not specifically mandated by the state) cultural justifications for the establishment of codes of ethical conduct informed by standards of civic justice — codes of ethics embodying libertarian and egalitarian ideals and requiring the development of libertarian and egalitarian attitudes.
The basic goal governing all such efforts aimed at achieving an overlapping consensus is the achievement of a congruence between the communitarian standards of justice and civic standards of justice, so that praise given to a person as a member of community X (on the basis of purely local standards of justice) is to some degree consistent with praise of that same person as a good citizen. Different cultural communities will contribute differently to this overlapping cultural consensus in support of civic moral ideals.
Modernist liberal political theory arose in part as a mediating cultural response to the European wars of religion. As a result, it generally regarded most forms of religious belief with some suspicion. The Enlightenment intellectuals and scholars who identified their own standpoint of cognitive objectivity with the normative standpoint of citizenship typically considered religious belief to be an impediment to the development of civic attitudes and dispositions. The particularism of religious belief and moral ideals seemed opposed to the universalistic and humanistic cultural standpoint that seemed necessary to support liberal political institutions.
A postmodern civic culture must reverse this pattern of suspicion of and hostility to religion and learn to exploit whatever motivational resources supportive of civic moral ideals that religious belief can offer. Reversal of this pattern might even be essential to the success of a postmodern civic culture, for religious belief alone can provide cultural support for civic moral ideals precisely at the point where they are most in need of support, the point at which they expose citizens to the dangers and discomforts of liberty — above all, to the dangers of nihilism and alienation. But, in reversing this pattern of suspicion, it is important to keep clearly in mind two points.
First, acknowledging that religious belief can make an important contribution to a postmodern civic culture does not entail the public endorsement of any particular form of religious belief, Christian or otherwise. It does not entail any sort of violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.
The cultural perspectives proper to the liberal state and to the liberal democratic public sphere in general encompass only a part and not the whole of life. Christian religious community, on the other hand, is governed by a totalizing and comprehensive conception of the good. Christianity offers a world view that addresses all the general issues of human life — sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation. Christian belief and moral ideals thus belong to a cultural sphere radically distinct from the liberal democratic public sphere, the sphere of civic culture. These two cultural spheres must not be confused.
Further, Christian religious communities constitute only one group of religious communities among the many that comprise any particular liberal democracy. Christian religious belief can offer cultural resources supportive of civic moral ideals, but, in varying degrees, other forms of religious belief can do that also. In this respect, Christianity is to be distinguished from other totalizing conceptions of the good only in view of the fact that, in North Atlantic liberal democracies, large numbers of citizens are members of Christian religious communities or are influenced by a Christian world view. In nations little influenced by Christianity, native forms of religious belief may offer lesser or greater resources for the support of civic moral ideals than Christianity, should the establishment of liberal democratic institutions ever become a real possibility in those countries.
Second, my focus on Christianity as a resource for postmodern civic culture should definitely not suggest that I am operating with any sort of essentialist conception of Christian religious faith. For present purposes, I assume a great diversity among the forms of Christian belief and practice and I identify none of them as the unique embodiment of the essence of Christianity. I take the similarities among these diverse forms of Christian belief to be family resemblances.
Moreover, I assume that, as in the case of every other sort of cultural tradition, each generation of Christians in each Christian community invents Christianity anew through a dialogue with the past. As each generation reinvents Christianity, the forms taken by Christian belief can be either friendly or hostile to civic moral ideals. I assume that, if Christian religious belief is actually to contribute motivational resources supportive of a postmodern civic culture, this will happen only because Christians, who are also citizens, have perceived an analogy between civic moral ideals and Christian moral ideals and, as a result, invent a Christianity that will flourish in liberal democracies because it is both and equally Christian and civic.
This perception is a creative act. This perception is a call to the theological and narrative imagination. It emphatically is not a direct insight into the essential nature of Christianity because, for present purposes — i.e., for purposes of exploring the possible contribution of Christian belief to an overlapping cultural consensus — we must take Christianity as having no such essential nature.
Page last edited: February 19, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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