Rousseau distinguished between the collective and the general will. A collective will is the opportune matching of individual wills that are matched or connected for their own interests. The common will, however, is a focus on the common good. Neglecting the common will and relying solely on the achievement of the collective will, the West can cost dearly in the form of the disintegration of society, which will manifest itself in ever greater and sharper conflicts and polarizations. Rousseau considered religions to be politically exclusivist and intolerant because of their theological exclusivism, he wrongly thought that theological exclusivism implies a rejection of political pluralism. Thus, he was against the genuine religion and wanted to ensure unity with the civil religion, which turned out to be an illusion. Biden's famous predecessor, George Washington, was well aware of the political significance of religion, claiming that without religion and morality, as the two fundamental pillars of political prosperity, no patriotism helps. Religions are vital only if they are free, so the striving for religious freedom is also an effort for the political success of society. Also a growing polarization of Western societies, the environmental problems, consumerism, and more, show that the West needs an alternative to the current attitude. Popular German sociologist Hartmut Rosa talks about resonant posture as an alternative. Religions are essentially resonant attitudes, and that is why Rosa says that in the current situation, it would be good to turn to religions as well.
Society and the state need a common imaginary and in depth identity of a sufficient number of their citizens to be able to exist so as not to be divided by contradictions. In the past, it was provided by religions, so now this option is no longer available. Therefore, modern value-heterogeneous societies are struggling to achieve this unity by reaching a consensus of interests, but they are not doing very well. The most famous example is the United States, whose divisions are a real concern. Great polarization and divisions are also being observed in Europe, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Probably few people know how divided and polarized the society in small Slovenia is, from which I am coming. But also in other, bigger European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, we see strong tensions. The divisions have come to the fore in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which churches and religious communities in Europe have for the most part proved very responsible. In Slovenia, the Catholic Church voluntarily restricted its religious freedom.
In addition to the lack of common ground provided in the past by Christianity and secularized versions of its elements, there are additional factors that create division. Modern social networks are worth mentioning here. They are full of instigators who deliberately create a rift in society from their (false) accounts. Such incitement of opposing sides is an integral part of the modern Cold War. Donald Trump rose to power through networks, and on the other hand, those networks also came back to him like a boomerang and made a significant contribution to his defeat and the problems he ran into. The new President Biden is well aware of the problem of division and the importance of unity, but the question is, if he knows the ways to establish it and if he knows them, if he would and “may” use them. The role of religion in this regard is invaluable.
Christians, and members of other world religions, have always been well aware of the importance of preventing societal friction. This is one of the functions of the principle that every secular authority must be respected. It is true that religions can divide most deeply, but they can also connect most deeply. That is why religions are fundamental to peace and coexistence. As the theologian Hans Küng wrote, there is no peace between nations without peace between religions. However, (active) Christians in the modern world are under great pressure. I am thinking not only of the persecution of Christians in undemocratic countries all over the world, but also of Christophobia and the daily violations of their religious freedom in Western democracies, of the constant attacks, pressures, threats and exclusions they face. We can only recall some of the most recent examples at the moment: pressure from Brussels on the Polish Constitutional Court, its accusations that it acted under pressure from the government in deciding on the law prohibiting abortion for "eugenic" reasons; Dimitrijević case from Serbia; the case of the law of reparative therapy from the Australian state of Victoria; persecution and interpellation against a minister in the Slovenian government, Cigler Kralj, who comes from a party that is of Christian Democratic orientation, because the Christian NGO received state funds, what is unacceptable for the Slovenian current opposition, etc. Such measures and decisions must be resolutely resisted by all legal and democratic means. Their origins are different and can be interpreted differently. Certainly one of them is the view that the path to a free society leads from the social exclusion of all those who believe in God and act out of their faith. But even though religion must be based on personal belief, religion is not a private matter. Therefore, Christians must demand the right to public.
My conclusion is this: on the one hand, religions must take care of their very existence and vitality. They can only achieve this if they do not agree to expulsion into privacy and the realm of mere “spirituality” and if believers are active agents in terms of ethical, social, and political issues. Attempts to ghettoize and violate their freedom should be decisively resisted by all legal and democratic means. On the other hand, believers and religious institutions should do everything possible to contribute to overcoming the divisions in European and Western societies. They must not in any way contribute to making it worse; on the contrary, they must try to mitigate them. Their freedom must be a responsible freedom. They must care for the resilience of Western society and civilization. The greatest enemy of this resilience is divisiveness and disintegration. Liberal democracy respects diversity, but in the end it is based on a certain common denominator of citizens. Conflicts are a sign of vitality, there are no conflicts between the dead, but this does not mean that all conflicts are a sign of vitality. There are some signs and factors of decay. Undemocratic enemies of Western democracy, they want nothing more than a rift in Western societies. Modern technology gives them unprecedented opportunities to promote it. If undemocratic agents prevail, then there will be neither religious freedom nor the protection and respect of unborn human beings neither in the West not in the world in general. We Christians must achieve our goals with regard to the hierarchy of goods and by the example of our own “purity”, consistency and concrete example, not only big words, inconsistency and hypocrisy, let alone by instrumentalizing our values. We can learn a lot about this from Trump’s story. We definitely need both: the protection of the unborn, and a return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and decent health care for everyone. Not only the principle of respect for human rights, but also our religion demands them all.
Bojan Žalec, PhD
Professor of Philosophy
University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Theology