Relativism in Democracy. Response to a new form of political theology

Carlo Emanuele Invernizzi Accetti

Relativism in Democracy. Response to a new form of political theology
Invernizzi Accetti, Carlo Emanuele
Thesis Advisor(s):
Urbinati, Nadia
Cohen, Jean Louise
Ph.D., Columbia University
Political Science
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This dissertation identifies and discusses a new form of political theology. The starting observation is that over the past few decades, the position of organized Christianity with respect to democracy has changed. Traditionally, the notion of political theology referred to a doctrine of sovereignty which opposed the 'People' to 'God' as the ultimate sources of political legitimacy. Now, most Christian organizations have come to accept the democratic principle of popular sovereignty, attempting to define a new role for themselves within this framework as guardians of the moral principles democratic societies supposedly need in order to survive. This is reflected by a discursive shift in the rhetoric employed by such organizations: over the past few decades we have witnessed the rise of a new religious discourse primarily focused on 'moral relativism' as the principal 'threat' confronting contemporary democratic societies. In the first homily he gave as Pope, for example, Benedict XVI famously denounced a 'dictatorship of relativism' as the most urgent social and political problem of our age. A similar discourse of 'anti-relativism' has also been increasingly adopted by numerous Protestant and Evangelical preachers across the world, particularly in the United States. The argument I want to advance is that there are two ways democratic theory can respond to this new form of anti-relativist political theology. The dominant one, pursued for example by Jurgen Habermas and many of the contemporary theorists writing in the lineage of John Rawls, agrees that 'moral relativism' would indeed constitute a problem for democratic societies. However, it suggests that these societies do not necessarily need to draw their substantive moral commitments from 'religion', because they can succeed in establishing them autonomously, on the basis of the necessary presuppositions of 'reason' itself. My contention is that this 'rationalist' response to the contemporary form of political theology ultimately fails for the same reason Hegel already criticized Kant's practical philosophy: that 'reason' only stipulates a purely formal set of criteria, and it is impossible to deduce anything substantive from something merely formal. 'Rationalists' are therefore ultimately forced to re-import their substantive moral commitments from 'outside'; and, in particular, the source from which these commitments are drawn always prove to be the religious traditions within which these conceptions of rationality are embedded. Thus, the opposition between 'reason' and 'religion' proves to be more problematic than the rationalists suppose. For this reason, I attempt to recover an alternative response to the contemporary form of political theology, which questions the assumption that 'moral relativism' does indeed represent such a serious 'threat' for democratic societies. Indeed, what the work of authors such as Hans Kelsen and Claude Lefort seems to suggest, is that some form of 'moral relativism' may actually be the only sound philosophical foundation for an allegiance to democracy in the first place. Focusing on this work therefore provides the occasion for the recovery of a resolutely 'relativist' conception of democracy, as a more adequate response to the contemporary form of 'anti-relativist' political theology.
Political science
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Suggested Citation:
Carlo Emanuele Invernizzi Accetti, , Relativism in Democracy. Response to a new form of political theology, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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