Secularization, according to Max Weber’s classic theory, shatters social cohesion. But if this is so, what are the prospects for democratic solidarity in a secular age? In this article, I examine the response given by one of democracy’s leading intellectual architects, Jürgen Habermas. Whereas Weber thought that rational modernity enfeebles solidarity, Habermas believes that rational discourse itself inherits religion’s moral-aesthetic power, a process that he calls the “linguistification of the sacred.” Habermas’s stress on language, I argue, is partly justified. Yet as I show by tracing linguistification’s roots to Émile Durkheim’s sociology of religion and Walter Benjamin’s theory of language, Habermas’s program for solidarity falls short in one crucial respect. While shared discourse cultivates a basic interpersonal tolerance, it lacks the power to transport us beyond our narrow interests. Nonrational and prelinguistic aspects of our psychology remain decisive. Consequently, democratic solidarity in a secular age remains an unfinished project.
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I am grateful to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, the Harvard Graduate Society Research Fellowships, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation for their generous support while researching, writing, and editing this article.. I am grateful to Lisa Ellis for her extremely valuable comments and assistance throughout the review process. This article benefited from the thoughtful insights, questions, and critiques of audiences at Georgetown; Harvard; the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Toronto; Vanderbilt; Washington University in St. Louis; and Yale, as well as participants in the Midwest Political Science Association, Northeastern Political Science Association, and the Association for Political Theory. I owe special thanks to the members of my dissertation committee, Nancy Rosenblum, Peter Gordon, Michael Rosen, and Michael Sandel, as well as Jacob Abolafia, Brook Ackerly, Elissa Alzate, Eric Beerbohm, James Booth, Randy Calvert, Ryan Davis, Avigail Ferdman, Clarissa Hayward, Waheed Hussain, Douglas Jarvis, Tae-Yeoun Keum, Peggy Kohn, Frank Lovett, Joe Lowenstein, Larry May, Samuel Moyn, Lowry Pressly, Ed Rubin, Leigh Schmidt, Dan Silver, Darren Walhof, Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, and the anonymous reviewers at the Journal of Politics.
I am grateful to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, the Harvard Graduate Society Research Fellowships, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation for their generous support while researching, writing, and editing this article.
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