Charlottesville Conference: Community & Critique

Religion and the Culture of Democracy Part II 

“Community & Critique” 

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Spring 2023 

The loss of cohesion in the democratic public sphere challenges the preconditions of trust in governance and representation in general. Therefore, the first part of the Winter School series “Religion and the Culture of Democracy,” under the title “Figures of Authority,” will deal with the ambivalent situation that on the one hand a crisis of authority is encountered in social as well as in ecclesiastical life, but on the other hand a new and frequently disconcerting desire for authority has experienced a remarkable renaissance in public debates and in political life.  

The second part of the project, titled “Community & Critique,” mainly focuses on the concept of community, its many-faceted role for the democratic society and the impact of individual religiosity, as well as ecclesiastically and denominationally institutionalized religion for the structure, organization and appearance of communal life in democratic societies around the world. 

Whereas shared epistemic and evaluative horizons certainly belong to the sources of communal life, communities are problematic for at least the following three reasons: firstly, internal cohesion may easily turn into coercion when members of a communal body deviate from standard patterns of reciprocal acceptance, and to prevent this tendency communities need to establish procedures of contestation and negotiation that allow for a flexible synthesis of integration and deviation. Secondly, even where internal cohesion is uncontested, each inclusion correlates to an exclusion of others that do not belong to the community in question, therefore communities are prone to misunderstanding, disrespect, and violence against its environment. Thirdly, modern societies are characterized by a high degree of diversity, hence plurality of communities which contradict each other in their epistemic and evaluative orientations, and this, again, fosters the fragmentation of the democratic public.  

Therefore, a central goal of public deliberation should be the search for the ‘Great Community’ (John Dewey), namely a political body, a meta-community, so to speak, that transcends the particularistic communities of diverse identity groups in the name of equality and solidarity. Institutionalized religion, with its intricate relation between particularistic origin and universalistic validity claims, has always been on the margin between community and meta-community.