A Peculiar Faith: Navigating Rousseau's Road to Democratic Virtue

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2004-11-24

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The relationship between religion and politics poses a pressingand oftentimes combustibleproblem for contemporary democracies. The terror of September 11th, global suicide bombings, and attacks on America's abortion clinics illustrate the imminent dangers of political protest driven by fanatical faith. But authors such as Machiavelli, Tocqueville and, more recently, William Galston and Manning Marable suggest something different. Religion, they argue, cultivates virtue amongst citizens and must be incorporated into the pluralist fold.

These dissonant conclusions underscore the difficulty of navigating the tension between spiritual and secular values. Does religion subvert liberal democratic principles of neutrality and equality under law, or does it offer an essential foundation for secular virtue? If religion provides a moral compass compatible with democracy, do religious systems inevitably undermine open, participatory politics? If so, how might we cultivate political virtue without compromising strong citizenship?

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the answer lies in Civil Religion, a model wherein spiritual virtue and religious piety uphold political liberty and strong citizenship. Does Rousseau ask too much? Does he attempt to marry irreconcilable partners, or is his vision practicable and persuasive? Adopting the divisive relationship between religion and politics as its central concern, A Peculiar Faith examines Rousseau's secular theology as a means of confronting this contentious and still-relevant dilemma.

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