Contending Modernities article

Michael Driessen: A Response to Jan-Werner Müller’s Remarks



Thank you for this invigorating and refreshing lecture which, I think, does much to frame our opening discussion here of the conference.

I find myself in particular agreement with Müller’s analysis of Merkel, Orbán, and Kaczynski, in which he observes a current struggle over the legacy of Christian Democracy and the renewal of Catholic and Christian inspired politics in Europe. In many ways, this struggle has been re-ignited by the immigration crisis (which is, itself, an experience of religious encounter) and has pitted a project that clings to Christian identity as a bulwark for defining national projects of sovereignty against one that affirms compassionate Christian values as a way to strengthen democracy, pluralism and peace. I would not want to reduce the characterization of this struggle to a conservative-progressive one, particularly in the case of Italy, where we have seen similar trends already in motion for some time: the conservative Italian Lega Nord could easily fit into Müller’s first category, but the Italian inheritors of the Christian democratic tradition, who are on both the right and the left of the spectrum, could easily fit into Müller’s second category.

The identity politics at work here are dangerously illiberal. They run counter to the hopes of the great, religiously-inspired statesmen who helped build postwar national and transnational European institutions in the name of promoting, protecting, and extending powerful ideas of Christian humanism or what Maritain called integral humanism (by which he really meant Catholic Humanism, at least in his earlier writings).

I want to make a few comments about the struggle over this legacy, which I think tells us something about the renewal or reconstruction or continuing evolution of religiously inspired politics in both Europe and the Middle East and the purpose this evolution might serve. I want to then pose a couple of questions for our further conversation.

The first comment is that Merkel’s attempt to put the “C” back into the CDU reminds us that Christian inspired politics are not dead and that secularism, or, better, some form of hegemonic secular liberal thinking, is not the only game in town in Europe, and never has been. As Müller has put it elsewhere, and here I am again in full agreement, this assumption of a secular European polity and politics represents a teleological trap that both empirical social scientists, who tell the sociological and political story of the rise and decline of Christian democracy, and political philosophers, who theorize the triumph of the liberal democratic project, have too often fallen into.

Rather, recognizing the fact that Christian inspired democratic politics never became fully secular or liberal helps us to understand the historical political ideology and vision of Christian Democracy better (as Müller does eloquently in his work). In my reading, and here I think I differ from Müller, this recognition also allows us to trace the ways in which religious actors remain deeply embedded in the political and social life of the polis. They do so, however, in remarkably changed ways and in different formats, mostly outside of the channels of formal party politics.

In what I think is a usefully (but not unproblematically) described “post-secular” reading of European politics and society, we can recognize just how much religious movements, religious civil society, and, what I have found helpful to talk about as “everyday religious citizens” have taken on and remain key generators of civic life and leadership, particularly in the spaces of informal politics. Because it taught Catholic individuals how to be comfortably religious and democratic at the same time, within or without a specifically Catholic party, the Christian democratic project, and the religious idea of democracy that we can ascribe to it, continues to live on, even as the party itself has declined or disappeared as in the case of Italy. The rise of religious democratic citizens who hold this sensibility is a new and powerful phenomenon, and their full impact on politics and society, I believe, has yet to be fully realized or studied.

The support for Merkel, or Pope Francis, I think, can be registered in this Tocquevillian key (as Müller names it elsewhere) in which the active, civic-minded religious citizen plays a central role in the making of good democratic politics. In this reading, the religious life of the nation can work to create essential and necessary “springs of moral conduct” (as Müller puts it), the “social capital,” as Putnam would write, that makes democracy work, or as Pope Pius XII put it in his Christmas message in favor of democracy, “the ultimate foundation and directive norm in any democracy.”

Here I want to quickly pitch to contemporary Muslim politics in which we see very similar dynamics occurring: political parties, but more importantly perhaps, Muslim political philosophers, religious intellectuals, and, crucially and probably most widespread, Muslim individuals are making democracy their own as well. Asef Bayat has written convincingly of the post-Islamist sensibilities of everyday religious Muslim citizens who assume, through reconciliation, negotiation and perhaps a bit of amnesia for their positions in the 1980s, rather fluid ways of being democratic and religious.

In doing so they, too, define themselves as illiberal, but in a different way than, for example, President Erdogan illiberally acts. In an interesting parallel, their illiberalism, like the illiberalism of early and contemporary forms of Catholic and Christian politics, represents a rejection of materialism, individualism, selfishness, and moral corruption, but not of democracy itself or the institutional uncertainty it engenders or the loyalties its requires of its citizens to play the role of a faithful losing opposition. Here I think it is very useful to note, again, the Tocquevillian, or Putnam-esque understanding of democracy with which many Muslims in the Middle East describe their democratic commitments, more or less through the conviction that a religious citizen is a good citizen, a good neighbor, one who thinks and acts for the common good. We see this in Ghannouchi’s understanding of Islamic democracy in a very articulate way; in Muhammadiyah’s evolutions; and the Hizmet/Gulen movement, which has specifically articulated out a conservative social democratic self-understanding of Islam in society.

The dramatic break between Gulen and Erdogan is also usefully understood in this sense.

This brings me to my final comment. What Müller has described, and what I have commented on, represents a distinctive, alternative, religiously-understood project of democracy which, in many ways, is being forged, crucible-like, by the experience of immigration, religious pluralism and violence, and the return to illiberal authoritarian nationalism. Müller has located this new counter-Christian political project primarily in stateswomen like Merkel, that is to say, in elites and leaders themselves. I would like to shift the location of that project more towards the everyday religious citizen and religiously-inspired civil society who actually desire such politics and who are often, it should be noted, not happy with what their elites or political parties have to offer, in Italy as well as in Turkey, Egypt, or Algeria. Their synthesis, their everyday practice of religious democratic politics, is powerful, full of specific political potential for facing new religiously related challenges, including immigration and extremism. But they remain under-represented politically.

This is also a project that would seem to be in need of new thinking – a new political vision or idea which is capable of giving political orientation, a coherent meaning and narrative, to our contemporary events. And here begin my questions: The project Müller has described is not quite Christian Democracy, or is it? More interesting, perhaps, it is not really a specifically Christian project. It is, perhaps, a new form of Religious Humanism or, as our colleagues from Notre Dame put it, Integral Human Development, that seems quite beyond Maritain’s integral humanism (which, again, was basically Christian humanism). What do we make of this? Do we have contemporary thinkers who can give us direction in this sense, a new Maritain, if you will? Müller mentions Taylor at several points in his work. I think, too, about Dallmayr’s concept of Integral Pluralism. Do we have a guide or idea in the making for this project?

I want to conclude here by going back to the conference note and suggest that the language and practice of interreligious dialogue might be very useful for responding to this question. We might be able to say that instead of “making democracy one’s own,” (as many religious citizens already have) the challenge for religious communities today is how to “make pluralism one’s own.” I do not think that the intention of interreligious dialogue practitioners was to come up with a new political vision to guide political debates today. Nevertheless, their experience and their search to approach religious others in a spiritually authentic and convincing and sustainable way has led them to formulate new ways of thinking and seeing things. These new formulations, I urge, deserve our enquiry and attention. They might be uniquely useful for understanding how to do what is effectively a much deeper form of humanistic religious pluralism.


Michael Driessen
Michael Driessen is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. He teaches courses on Religion and Politics and co-direct the University’s Interfaith Initiative. His research interests include the nature of public religions in Catholic and Muslim societies and the role of interreligious dialogue in contemporary global politics.

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