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Religion in the New Europe

Krzysztof Michalski

Religion and European Integration

Charles Taylor

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1This is a tremendously broad topic. I propose to approach it from a certain angle, the role of religion in the various political identities that are now jostling with one another in Europe. But first I have to explain what I mean by this term “political identity,” which is a term of art I want to introduce, and which is, alas, hardly transparent in meaning.

  • 1 See Childhood and Society, New York, Norton, 1963.
  • 2 I have discussed this at greater length in “Les Sources de l’identité moderne,” in Mikhaël Elbaz, (...)

2Political identity is, of course, related to other uses of identity today, as when one talks of “identity crisis,” or “identity politics,” or of people respecting or failing to respect my/our identity. But it occupies a peculiar place in this constellation of expressions. We define the identities of individuals, and often of groups, in terms of the crucial reference points by which these individuals or collectivities orient themselves in life. In this we are following the influential use of the term in the developmental psychology of Erik Erikson.1 I might say of myself that I am a Catholic, social democrat in outlook, a Canadian/Québécois, thus conveying to you the value frameworks in which I sense myself to be firmly situated as I face the choices in life. These frameworks, I feel, are so fundamental that they define “who I am”—hence the use of the term “identity” here. There is a whole story, very interesting and still not fully understood, of how the term “identity” came to be used, in the last half century, for this kind of fundamental orientation. This is not just a meaningless semantic shift—like the way Americans at a certain point stopped saying “envisage” and started saying “envision,” presumably because it sounded more pompously serious. It is also fraught with interesting consequences, which we do not have space to go into here.2

3Personal identities are usually complex, and multi-polar: I mentioned three main reference points in my personal statement above, but I could also have added others—a certain family I belong to, certain defining relations of friendship and love, and so on. When people coagulate around a certain identity as groups, in order to affirm or defend that identity, some of this complexity must fall away. A nationalist movement, for instance, around Québécois or Scottish independence, will group people whose religious, ethical, and family reference points differ. For the purposes of this mobilization only one pole counts. A single reference point gathers people with varied, sometimes conflictingly complex, multi-polar identities. This is frequently a great source of tension. We need to think only of Black feminists in the U.S., who are often torn between African–American solidarity, on the one hand, and their convictions about gender relations, on the other.

4These kinds of conflicts can create a hostility to group identity mobilization, a stand that Liberals frequently take. And this is directly relevant to our theme here, because political identity can be seen as a species of group identity. In this context, the hostility to group identity takes “nationalism” as its target; the dream is frequently described in terms of a political identity that is purely defined in terms of certain constitutional principles, abstracting from particular historical, linguistic, confessional allegiances. This is the ideal famously defined by Habermas, under the term “Verfassungspatriotismus.” This term is, in fact, more problematic than is often realized. But in order to see this, we must try to get a handle on political identity.

5So far we have approached political identity simply as a species of group identity, a unipolar reference point around which one attempts to mobilize, or hold together, people with a large number and variety of complex, multi-polar identities. But there is more to political identity than this, which can best be seen if we can explain why it is not an optional extra—why, in other words, political identities in the modern world are unavoidable (unumgänglich, incontournable).

6When I say “the modern world,” I mean, more precisely, a world in which the major idea of political legitimacy is that of popular sovereignty. This is an even wider concept than the world of democracy, if we define this latter term in a more demanding fashion, wherein a condition of democracy is that the people are offered effective political choices. The 20th century saw régimes which were far from democratic in this sense, but that claimed to incarnate the real will of the people, be they fascist, communist, or some other derivative form.

7The thesis that I wish to propound here is that politically sovereign régimes require a political identity. If the reader will bear with me for a few paragraphs, I’d like to explain this connection by employing a few considerations which have a distinctly Rousseauian flavor. I make no apology for this, because I consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau to be the conflicted genius who first articulated many of the basic themes of modernity—from democracy through authenticity to transparency—in the fullness of their contradictory demands. He is a great thinker, whose advice is always disastrous to follow, but whose formulations offer unparalleled early insight into the yearnings of our age.

8The revolutions, which ushered in regimes of popular sovereignty, transferred ruling power from a king onto a “nation,” or a “people.” In the process, they invented a new kind of collective agency. These terms existed previously, but this new kind of agency was something unprecedented, at least in the context of early modern Europe. Thus the notion “people” could certainly be applied to the ensemble of a kingdom’s subjects, or to the non-élite strata of society, but prior to the turnover it didn’t suggest an entity to which one could attribute a will.

9Now this new kind of entity needs a strong form of cohesion, which might not be immediately evident. Isn’t the notion of popular sovereignty simply that of majority will, more or less restrained by the respect for liberty and rights? But all sorts of bodies, even the loosest aggregations, can adopt this kind of decision-making rule. Supposing, during a public lecture, some people feel the heat to be oppressive and ask that the windows be opened; others demur. One might easily decide this conflict by a show of hands, which those present would accept as legitimate. And yet the audience at the lecture might consist of the most disparate individuals, unknown to one another, without mutual concern, simply brought together by the event.

10This example shows by contrast what democratic societies need. It seems at once intuitively clear that they must be bonded more powerfully than this chance grouping is. But how can we better understand this necessity?

11One way to see it is to push the logic of popular sovereignty a bit further. This not only suggests a certain class of decision procedures—those that are ultimately grounded on the majority (with restrictions)—but it also offers a particular justification. Under a régime of popular sovereignty we are free in a way we are not, for example, under an absolute monarch, or an entrenched aristocracy.

12Now supposing we regard this from the standpoint of some individual. Let’s say I am outvoted on some important issue. I am forced to abide by a rule I am opposed to. My will is not being done. Why should I consider myself free? Does it matter that I am overridden by a majority of my fellow citizens, as opposed to the decisions of a monarch? Why should that fact be decisive? We can even imagine that a potential monarch, waiting to return to power in a coup, agrees with me on this question, against the majority’s will. Wouldn’t I therefore be freer after the counter-revolution? After all, my will on this matter would then be put into effect.

13We can recognize that this kind of question is not merely a theoretical one. It is rarely posed on behalf of individuals, but it regularly arises on behalf of sub-groups, e.g., national minorities who see themselves as oppressed. Perhaps no response can satisfy them. Whatever one says, they cannot see themselves as part of this larger sovereign people. Therefore they see its rule over them as illegitimate, and this accords with the logic of popular sovereignty itself.

14We see the inner link between popular sovereignty and the idea of the people as a collective agency here in a somewhat stronger sense than in the example of our lecture audience above. This agency is something you can be included in without really belonging to, which makes no sense to a member of the audience. We can see the nature of this belonging if we ask what answer we can provide to those who are outvoted, and tempted by the argument above.

15Of course, some extreme philosophical individualists believe there is no valid answer, that appeals to some greater collective are just as much humbug as to get contrary voters to accept voluntary servitude. But without deciding this ultimate philosophical issue, we can ask: what is the feature of our “imagined communities” by which people very often readily accept the fact that they are free under a democratic régime, even where their will is over-ridden on important issues?

16The answer they accept runs something like this: You, like the rest of us, are free just by virtue of the fact that we rule ourselves in common, and are not ruled by some agency which need to take no account of our will. Your freedom consists in your having a guaranteed voice in the sovereign, in the fact that you can be heard, and have some part in decision-making. You enjoy this freedom by virtue of a law that enfranchises all of us; thus we enjoy it together. Your freedom is created and defended by this law, whether or not you win or lose any particular decision. This law defines a community, of those whose freedom it defends together. It defines a collective agency, a people, whose acting together through law preserves their freedom.

17Such is the answer, valid or not, people have come to accept in democratic societies. We can see right away that it involves their accepting a kind of belonging that is much stronger than that of the people in the lecture hall. It is an ongoing collective agency, one whose membership realizes something very important, and thereby a kind of freedom. Insofar as this good is crucial to their identity, they thus identify strongly with this agency, and therefore also feel a bond with their co-participants in it. It is only an appeal to this kind of membership that can answer the challenge of our imagined individual above, who ponders whether to support the monarch’s (or general’s) coup in the name of his freedom.

18The crucial point here is that, whoever may be ultimately right philosophically, it is only insofar as people accept some such answer that the legitimacy principle of popular sovereignty can work to secure their consent. This principle is only effective via its appeal to a strong collective agency. If the identification with that agency is rejected, the rule of this government seems illegitimate in the eyes of the rejecters, as can be seen in countless cases of disaffected national minorities. It may be rule by the people, they contend, but we can’t accept rule by a gang we aren’t part of. This is the crucial link between democracy and strong common agency. It follows the logic of the legitimacy principle, which underlies democratic régimes. They fail to generate this identity at their peril.

19This last example points to an important modulation of the appeal to popular sovereignty. In the version above, the appeal was to what we might call “republican freedom,” one inspired by ancient republics and which was invoked by the American and French Revolutions. But very soon afterwards, the same appeal began to take on a nationalist form. The attempts to spread the principles of the French Revolution through the force of French arms created a reaction in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, a sense of not being part of, or represented by, that sovereign people in the name of which the Revolution was being made. It came to be accepted in many circles that a sovereign people, in order to possess the unity needed for collective agency, had to have an antecedent unity of culture, history or (more common in Europe) language. Thus, a pre-existing cultural (sometimes ethnic) nation had to stand behind the political nation.

  • 3 And in fact, the drive to democracy took a predominately “national” form. Logically, it is perfect (...)

20Nationalism, in this sense, was born out of democracy, as a (benign or malign) growth. In early nineteenth-century Europe, as peoples struggled for emancipation from despotic multi-national empires, joined in the Holy Alliance, there seemed to be no opposition between the two. For a Mazzini, these were perfectly converging goals.3 Only later on do certain forms of nationalism throw off the allegiance to human rights and democracy in the name of self-assertion.

21But even before this stage, nationalism lends another modulation to popular sovereignty. The answer to the objection above: something essential to our identity is bound up in our common laws, now refers not just to republican freedom, but also to something of the order of cultural identity. What is defended and realized in the nation-state is not just your freedom as a human being, but also the guaranteed expression of a common cultural identity.

22We can therefore speak of a “republican” variant and a “national” variant of the appeal to popular sovereignty, though in practice the two often run together, and often lie undistinguishable in the rhetoric and imaginary of democratic societies. In fact, even the original “republican” pre-nationalist revolutions, the American and French, have seen a kind of nationalism develop in the societies that issued from them. The point of these revolutions was the universal good of freedom, whatever mental exclusions the revolutionaries in fact accepted, or even cherished. Their patriotic allegiance, however, was to the particular historical project of realizing freedom, in both America and France.

23This very universalism became the basis of a fierce national pride, in the “last, best hope for mankind,” and in the republic that was bearer of “the rights of man.” That is why freedom, first in the French case, and more recently in the American, could unfortunately become a project of conquest, with the fateful results in reactive nationalism that I mentioned earlier.

  • 4 Rousseau, who laid bare very early the logic of this idea, saw that a democratic sovereign couldn’ (...)

24So we have a new kind of collective agency, with which its members identify as the bulwark of their freedom, and the locus of their national expression. Of course, in pre-modern societies as well, people often “identified” with the régime, sacred kings, or hierarchical orders. They were often willing subjects. But in this democratic age we tend to identify as free agents, which is why the notion of popular will plays a crucial role in our legitimating idea.4

25This means that the modern democratic state has generally accepted common purposes, or reference points, the features of which it can lay claim to being the bulwark of freedom, and the locus of its citizens’ expression. Whether or not these claims are actually well-founded, the state must be so imagined by its citizens in order to be legitimate.

26So questions arise for the modern state for which there is no analogue in most pre-modern forms: What/whom is this state for? Whose freedom? Whose expression? The questions seem to make no sense applied to, say, the Austrian or Turkish Empires—unless one answers the “whom for?” question by referring to the Habsburg or Ottoman dynasties, which would hardly provide one with their legitimating ideas.

27This is the sense in which a modern state has what I want to call a political identity, defined as the generally accepted answer to the “what/whom for?” question. This identity is distinct from the identities of its members, which are the reference points, many and varied, that define what is important in their lives for each. There needs to be some overlap, of course, if these members are to feel strongly identified with the state; but, as I argued above, the identities of individuals and constituent groups will generally be richer and more complex, as well as often quite different from one another.


28With the above as background, I’d like now to discuss some of the ways in which religion figures in contemporary political identities, both more broadly, and with specific reference to Europe.

  • 5 I have discussed this at greater length in “Glaube und Identität. Religion und Gewalt in der moder (...)

29The first general point to be made is that it is obvious that religion has frequently been, and continues to be, an important component of many political identities. Just think of what we often classify as “nationalist” movements or conflicts, such as those in Northern Ireland, or in ex-Yugoslavia, or the BJP in India. In some cases, this takes on a rather paradoxical air, as hard-bitten, and not very pious political leaders, often with a Communist-atheist past (and probably present: what are Slobodan Miloshevich’s theological convictions?) mobilize people around an identity whose ultimate markers are confessional: Catholic/ Protestant, or Catholic/Orthodox/Muslim, or “Hindutva.”5

30But it is clear that this is only one facet of the phenomenon. Religion frequently occupies a somewhat ambiguous position in modern political identities. Ambiguous, that is, in relation to a distinction I made above, between the “republican” components of political identities, generally defined in universal, ethical terms (democracy, representative institutions, human rights), and the more particular, historical, national, linguistic, or confessional components, on the other. This distinction is frequently not easy to make, and I will discuss it further shortly. But for the moment, I want to point out that it can’t easily be done away with, since it is an integral part of the framework of political argument. That is, how one positions one’s demands in relation to this distinction makes a difference as to how one defends them.

  • 6 See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford University Press, 1995.

31We may ask for a certain freedom or immunity for our group—say, schooling in a minority language in the name of some general principle of free choice—or we may demand it as being owed to people of this historic group in this historical situation. Of course, even in the latter case, some general principle will play a role, say, equal recognition of different identities; but this second strategy of argument needs to be supplemented by considerations to the effect that schooling is essential to our continued identity, and that this identity has a claim to protection in this polity. (Thus in Canada, claims of this kind from Francophones and aboriginals are at least seen as worth weighing, whereas a similar demand from some group of recent immigrants would generally not be so considered.)6

32This distinction, then, is anchored in the discursive framework of contemporary democratic argument. But at the same time, it is not always easy to draw. Certain components have a tendency to flip from one side to the other, like the well-known unstable drawings of the duck/rabbit type. Therefore, we have a problem with Verfassungspatriotismus, mentioned but not discussed above. Our sense of identity is gathered around certain constitutional principles, say, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. But our loyalty is directed not just to these principles, but to a particular historical project that aims to realize them (the US Constitution, the French Republic, the bizarre and not always consistent ensemble of traditions defining “British freedom,” or whatever). It is not always easy to see where one leaves off and the other begins.

33Take, for instance, a universally agreed principle among modern liberal democracies, namely that of the separation of Church and state, or state neutrality between different confessions. It is well-known that the régimes recognizing this vary greatly among different societies. There are relatively strict ones, like the American “Wall of Separation,” or French “laïcité”; then there are more relaxed and fumbling accommodations in countries like Britain and Canada.

34When for instance, the various “headscarf” cases arose in France, with Muslim girls appearing in state schools with the foulard, the outraged reaction in certain “republican” circles took on an ambiguous status. The headscarves were an infringement on “laïcité” we were told, but did this term designate the fundamental principle itself, which all contemporary liberal democracies embrace? Or was it the particular French form that was being defended? Did the reaction take the form of: “we don’t want to be like Iran”? Or was it rather: “we don’t want to be like those sloppy, unprincipled Anglo-Saxons across the Channel”? Similar questions frequently arise about expressions like the “American Way,” that is often implicitly identified with “freedom” itself, particularly at this unhappy juncture in American history.

  • 7 See Linda Colley, Britons, Yale University Press, 1992.

35But the most important source of this duck/rabbit ambivalence is religion itself, as the above case partly illustrates. Religion has been at the heart of many modern political identities. This is clear in the number of cases where it enters as a crucial marker of what both insiders and outsiders, agree is a “national” identity: e.g., Catholicism for Poles, Irish and (earlier generations of) French Canadians; Protestantism for 17th and 18th-century7 Britons and Bismarckian Germany at the time of the Kulturkampf (wherein a kind of Kulturprotestantismus seemed to define the nation for a majority of its citizens); Orthodoxy in the case of contemporary Greece, and so on. But it also plays another kind of role: as the underpinning of universal, ethical, constitutional principles.

36Take the case of the early American Republic. A strong Providentialist streak existed in early American thinking. The new Republic, in winning its independence and establishing its constitution, was following God’s design. This could be expanded into a kind of idea of moral order, seen as established by God and invoked by the American Declaration of Independence: Men have been created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

37The idea of moral order expressed in this Declaration, which has since become dominant in our world, is quite different from the orders that preceded it. It begins with individuals, whom it doesn’t see as a priori within a hierarchical order, outside of which they would not be fully human. Its members are not agents essentially embedded in a society which in turn reflects and connects with the cosmos, but, rather, disembedded individuals who associate together. The design underlying this association is that each, in pursuing his or her own life purposes, acts to benefit others. It calls for a society structured for mutual benefit, in which each respects the rights of others, and offers them mutual help of certain kinds. The most influential early articulator of this formula is John Locke, but the basic conception of such an order of mutual service has come down to us through a series of variants, including more radical ones such as presented by Marx and Rousseau.

38In the earlier days, however, when the plan was understood as Providential, and the order seen as Natural Law (the same as the law of God), building a society that fulfilled these requirements was seen as fulfilling God’s design. To live in such a society was to live with God present, not in a way that belonged to the enchanted world via the sacred, but because we were following His design. God is present as the designer of the way we live. We see ourselves, to quote a famous phrase, as “one nation under God.”

39In thus talking the United States as a paradigm of this new idea of order, I am following Robert Bellah’s tremendously fertile idea of an American “civil religion.” That concept is understandably and rightly contested today, because some of the conditions of that religion are now being challenged, yet there is no doubt that Bellah has captured something essential about American society, both at its inception, and for some two centuries thereafter.

  • 8 See Robert Bellah “Civil Religion in America,” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Trad (...)

40The fundamental idea, that America had a vocation for carrying out God’s purposes (which alone makes sense of the passages Bellah quotes, for example, from Kennedy’s Inaugural address and Lincoln’s second Inaugural), can seem strange and threatening to many unbelievers in America today, and must be understood in relation to this conception of order of free, rights-bearing individuals. It was also invoked in the Declaration of Independence, appealing to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The rightness of these laws, for both Deists and Theists, was grounded in their being part of a Providential Design. What the activism of the American Revolutionaries added to this was a view of history as the theatre in which this Design was to be progressively realized, and of their own society as the place where this realization was to be consummated. Lincoln later referred to that society as “the last best hope on earth.” It was this notion of themselves as fulfilling Divine purposes, which, along with the Biblical culture of Protestant America, facilitated the analogy to ancient Israel that often recurs in the official American rhetoric of the early days.8

41Today’s confusion arises from the fact that there is both continuity and discontinuity. What continues is the importance of some form of the modern idea of moral order, providing a sense that Americans are still operating on the same principles as the Founders. The rift, however, derives from the fact that what makes this order the right one is, for many though by no means for all, no longer God’s Providence; that order is grounded in nature alone, or in some concept of civilization, or even in supposedly unchallengeable a priori principles, often inspired by Kant. So that some Americans want to rescue the Constitution from God, whereas others, with deeper historical roots, see this as doing violence to it. Hence the contemporary American “culture wars,” their own version of Kulturkampf.

42Europe at the moment seems free of this kind of deep inner conflict. This is often attributed to the fact that it is so much more “secular,” and unbelieving. But as other contributors to this volume, notably Danièle Hervieu-Léger and David Martin, have shown, it is not so clear in what this greater secularity consists of. I would add that the important difference may be that Americans have retained something Europeans have lost: a strong “providentialist” national identity, insisting that they are at the forefront of human progress and have a duty to spread it. Intra-European butchery in the first half of the 20th century, followed by decolonization and the construction of multi-national Europe in the second half, have ended up creating ambivalent and conflicted feelings around assertions of national identity in “old” Europe. These same assertions are very often seen just as senility or failure of nerve in Bush’s America. The point is that American political identity is viewed as something of immense significance, worth fighting over between people of different philosophical views, whereas Europeans—even the French, with long history of this sort of thing—have trouble motivating themselves to carry on the struggle.

  • 9 See Hervieu-Léger, Le pélerin et le converti.

43But this doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways in which religion can once again become a source of conflict, precisely in its ambivalent status as both a source of universal values and a marker of historic identity. As both Martin and Hervieu-Léger have pointed out, both here and in their other writings, the rise of individualism and a culture of authenticity have helped erode so much of the continuity with older forms of life (in community structure, family form, and so on) that they have created an understandable counter-demand to revivify memory and reconnect with deeper historical roots. But whatever one’s present beliefs and one’s stance towards the church, Europe’s roots are Christian and there is no way of getting around it. A minority of people are drawn back to religion in their quest to reconnect,9 but many more can be led to a kind of non-theological, non-cultic historical identification with their Christian past.

44This arises in two ways, both potential sources of conflict, which can, moreover, feed on one another. The first is the attempt I have just mentioned to recover our deepest roots. This arises, for example, in the search for “European values,” which inevitably came to the fore, for example, during recent attempts to draft a European constitution. Evoking these values cannot be avoided in any case, as we saw with the mini-crisis around the Austrian coalition government of 2001, and the consequent “quarantine” of Austria. Once European values need to be defined, and need to be connected to a deep past, we are forced to face how conflicted this past is, and how much we rely on different partisan readings of it, e.g., human rights as the fruit of Christianity versus human rights as won in heroic struggle against the reactionary obscurantism of the Church.

45These conflicts, then, intersect with certain present-day debates, involving, for example, attitudes toward homosexuality and homosexual marriage or unions. A conception of marriage developed in Latin Christendom involves an interweaving of theological understanding with ideas of the “natural”—a point at which even the religious opponents of gay marriage today will appeal as much to natural law as to the revealed tradition. This entire understanding is being deeply challenged as a consequence of the cultural revolution of authenticity, and the attendant revisions of sexual morality, that came to a head in the last third of the 20th century. Coping with this has been deeply unsettling in all Western countries, and will be the source of continuing conflicts, more or less acute as one shifts from country to country. It is both the case that churches are deeply divided on these issues (for example, the Anglican Church today), and also that this bundle of questions will be a renewed source of division between churches and their critics.

46The second context in which the reconnection with deeper roots occurs is the multicultural. Europe’s Christian roots begin to stand out when there are sizeable populations that don’t share them. These are mainly Muslim, but there is a steady diversification of religious (including anti-religious) belonging in Europe, in part through immigration, in part through internal change. Faced with growing Muslim populations, we find many Europeans becoming conscious of their roots in Christendom. Even those who take the dimmest view of the Churches’ role in the development of human rights and democracy can reflect that Christendom has at least wrestled the reactionary forces of religion into a relatively submissive posture, whereas the same hasn’t occurred in the Muslim world.

47Here too the ambivalent status of religion plays an important role in the conflict. Anti-Muslim sentiment, which from a liberal point of view seems the very paradigm of privileging one particular historical identity over another, often is presented as a defense of the European, i.e. correct, version of universal values. Thus Le Pen can invoke the principles of the French Constitution and “laïcité,” and, with far less bad faith, the List Pim Fortuyn benefited from a widespread feeling in the Netherlands that many Muslims were flouting certain basic principles of the society, those of gender equality in particular.


48In all these cases, the conflicts are exacerbated, and difficult to solve, because they connect to political identity, that is, to the values and reference points we must share in order to have a viable democratic society. On one hand, departing from them risks generating a profound sense of alienation from society among important parts of the population, whereas, on the other hand, as sources of conflict they are by definition already alienating others. From another point of view, the dilemma can be posed like this: faced with differences in religious and philosophical outlook, or in historical identity, the reflex of liberal society has always been to remove these issues from the public sphere, and relegate them to the private. The ur-move of this kind was triggered by the struggle between different confessions. The separation of church and state makes the state effectively non-confessional (even where an Established Church theoretically remains, as in Britain and Scandinavia), so that people of all different allegiances can meet on neutral ground in the public sphere.

49But when we are dealing with what, for many people, are components of political identity, we cannot merely shunt them into the private sphere without risking a severe loss of legitimacy among them. Or, rather, we can only do this if we at the same time bring about a redefinition of our political identity that permits them to fall outside it. We need a new understanding of what binds us together in the particular historical project that seeks to realize democracy and human rights.

  • 10 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Cornell University Press, 1983, p. 1.

50The growing diversification of our populations, as well as the cultural revolutions invoked above, have been forcing all Western societies more and more into efforts of political identity-reconstruction. These are particularly difficult because they run against the grain of virtually all early political identities that emerged in the era of democratic revolutions. They all have a strong “ancestral” quality; that is, they see political identity as being settled once and for all at the founding. This is particularly evident in states founded on what Gellner defines as the principle of nationalism: “which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.”10 If the basic point of the founding of this political unit was to provide self-determination for the X people, then that clearly should be an unrevisable feature of X-land’s political identity. We see this fundamental principle at work today, as well as the problems it gives rise to, in places such as Israel and India.

51But a similar difficulty can arise in nations like France or the USA, founded on certain supposedly simple constitutional principles. One might think ancestralism would pose no problem here. If the original purpose of the founding was to realize certain crucial universal values, then there can be no harm in sticking to ancestralism through thick and thin. But it can in fact be a problem, for two reasons. The first pertains to the complexity I noted above in the idea of Verfassungspatriotismus: universal values are incarnated in a particular historical and institutional project. In fact, as we look around the liberal democratic world, we see that very much the same values have been expressed by quite different régimes. But it is all to easy for each society to elide the particular into the general, and to believe that in defending one’s particular form of “laïcité,” for instance, one is defending THE separation of church and state.

52The second problem with ancestralism comes from another elision, which the later work of Rawls has strongly brought to our attention. This is the confusion between the particular political principles on which our state is grounded, on one hand, and the deeper ethical vision of human life by which we justify those principles, on the other. In fact, as Rawls argues, we can imagine a régime in which we can concur on those political principles—and without that our polity couldn’t function—but in which we differ greatly as to the ultimate reasons for supporting them. To use Rawls’ language, we differ about the “comprehensive conceptions of the good” by which we justify them.

53There is a problematic elision here, because, just as people easily confuse principles and their particular institutional and legal expression, they also easily elide certain institutionalized principles, like judicially retrievable human rights, and the deep philosophical reasons for which they have been espoused in our society. After all, what provides these principles with their hold on us is that they are anchored in deep convictions. So we tend to believe that those who don’t share the deep convictions cannot really support the political principles.

  • 11 I have discussed these issues at greater length in “Conditions of an unforced consensus on human r (...)

54In the particular case of human rights, these have been supported in the West by a generally individualist doctrine of the dignity of human agency. For Westerners, support of human rights and the belief in such a doctrine are often seen as indissolubly linked. And yet a little reflection tells us that this needn’t be so. There are alternative justifications for an institutional régime of justiciable rights that begin from other bases entirely, such as in the case of ahimsa for certain Buddhists.11 A situation in which we separate the two levels, and live together in a political identity defined by the principles, while recognizing that we cannot share the underlying justifications, is designated by Rawls an “overlapping consensus.”

55We can thus see three ways in which ancestralism may fail to deal with the growing diversity of modern societies.

  • A society defined as the expression of a certain nation “finds” that it includes more than one entity deserving of this name. This can come about not only through migration, but also (much more commonly) because, under the conditions of modernity, more and more suppressed or ignored minorities have come to demand recognition.
  • A liberal-democratic society, living under a certain institutional–legal expression of its fundamental principles, finds that this may have been well-designed to suit its original situation, but that it is less and less adapted to the present level and type of (recognized) diversity of its population. Can the institutions and practices of French “laïcité,” which was designed to keep the Catholic church in its place, and to that extent was acceptable to other religious minorities in the past (Protestants, Jews), meet the challenge of integrating sizeable self-consciously Muslim populations?
  • A liberal democratic society, originally united as to the deeper reasons underlying its political principles, has now become philosophically/theologically/metaphysically more diverse, whether through migration or internal pluralization. What was originally an indissoluble package of principles and deep reasons is now no longer seen as supported by everyone. The political identity becomes a source of conflict.

56All these call for the kind of reconstruction of political identity that I described above; and all are fraught with difficulty. Members of the hegemonic nation in (1) are often dismayed at the loss of status involved in conceding a description of their society as multinational (English Canadians, Singhalese in Sri Lanka, ethnic Turks in Turkey); they often are ready to go to any lengths to deny the very existence of diversity. Supporters of the ancestrally-defined institutional forms in (2) often cling to them with an emotion which is as powerful as it is ambivalent and confused, eliding as it does a belief in universal principles with a powerful attachment to “our” way of expressing them (many French supporters of laïcité, American devotees of the “Wall of Separation”). And in (3), the original set of deep reasons can be seen as co-substantial with the principles themselves.

57I think the latter is one of the factors underlying the virulence of the American Kulturkampf. There was an early reading of the doctrine of separation of church and state that put all churches or denominations on an equal footing, equidistant from the state, but did not challenge the civil religion that saw American history in a providential light. There is a later “secular liberal” reading which views any recognition of the theist or deist providential perspective as an infringement on the separation. Hence, the demand to remove “under God” from the pledge of allegiance, or to remove the Ten Commandments from the façade of an Alabama courthouse. Both sides identify their conception with the principle itself, meaning that what would elsewhere be seen as trivial issues, amenable to creative fudging and accommodation, tend to arouse fierce passions. American secular liberals invented the (extremely fruitful) idea of an overlapping consensus, but find it very difficult to apply it in the atmosphere of cultural warfare.


58If we think of Europe in relation to these three axes of elision, and therefore of identity reconstruction, we might say the following:

59As to (1), Europe is way ahead of the rest of the world. It is not just that Europe must see itself as multi-national, but that this partial passing of sovereignty seems to have liberated many of its Member States from their obsessions with the unitary nation. Of course, some states were already federal, or moving towards federation, but the devolution of power in the UK and Spain is a sign of the willingness to give certain historic regions their space, undeterred by the fear of earlier times that conceding difference must lead to break-up (a fear that actually may make such breakups more likely in the long run). Moreover, Europe as a desirable political destination for a number of states in the East has led to those states considerably improving their performance regarding the treatment of minorities.

  • 12 See Craig Calhoun, “The Democratic Integration of Europe: Interests, Identity, and the Public Sphe (...)

60As to (2), in spite of the great diversity of institutional forms in which basic democratic liberal values are expressed on the Continent, it might seem on the surface that European integration has done little to put those forms into question in their respective home societies. This seems to be connected with the slow, sluggish and late development of what could be called a European public sphere; public discussion and exchange still mainly takes place within each nation’s media.12 But appearances may tend to deceive. We are just on the verge of a new stage of European integration, and some of the deeper problems arising from religious diversity are beginning to be more acutely felt. New and important developments may be in the works. Thus many have felt for some time that it would be important for pan-European expressions of Islam to develop, bridging both the relatively closed communities of different national provenance, and the organizations focused on dealing with an individual European state. The slow formation of a European Muslim identity, creating its own way of being Muslim outside the Dar-ul-Islam and coming to cherish this as something more than an unavoidable pis-aller, would do something for integration and mutual understanding that could not be accomplished as effectively on any national stage.

61As to (3), we are just at the beginning of the process. The fact of plural foundations (as far as I can see from my extra-European vantage point, which may have missed important features of the debate) hasn’t greatly impinged on the debate concerning European values. But the future certainly holds some shake-ups. One of the consequences of plural foundations is that very different interpretations of principles are often held in common. One of the latter has been the belief that society should provide favorable conditions for family life. But the growing disparity between our conceptions of human good and sexual fulfillment have meant that the family, the couple, and sexual life are all sites of contestation.

62We are perhaps not handling this very well in many Western countries today. On one hand stands the supposedly “natural” and traditional Christian understanding of the family, as uniting a man and woman for the purpose of procreation, that is claimed to be normative for everyone; on the other hand stands a conception of the erotically bound couple, essentially concerned with their relationship, although they may also have children. This is thought to be the essence of marriage, recognition of which has been denied in a discriminatory fashion to same-sex couples. We would do better to recognize that there are different ethically-charged models of sexual existence (and more than the above two), as there have been hundreds in human history; and that people espousing different models need to live together. All of which means that the state cannot simply endorse even the supposedly more “inclusive” one. But we should also realize that this removal of state endorsement is a very bitter pill for many—including many same-sex couples, who are seeking exactly this kind of public recognition in marriage—to swallow.

63Another such shake-up comes from the fact that some of the problems in reaching a consensus on international human rights are now being reproduced within our Western democracies, just as immigration increasingly diversifies us. The long quarrel over whether Christian values or those of the Enlightenment are foundational for our society is about to be broken into by other voices. This might decisively and irreversibly transform the debate.

64I have emphasized throughout how this reconstruction of our political identities along these three axes can be painful and difficult. But there is also something in its favor; we sense, as we grope along these axes, that we may be creating societies with an unprecedented degree of openness and inclusion. For many outsiders like myself, this is why we follow the attempts of Europe to widen its boundaries even beyond the borders of former Christendom with fascination and excitement. In its finest moments, Europe is blazing a trail for all of us. Our hope lies in the fact that we know, in spite of all the difficulties, setbacks and seeming impasses, that this profoundly human prospect motivates millions of Europeans as well.


1 See Childhood and Society, New York, Norton, 1963.

2 I have discussed this at greater length in “Les Sources de l’identité moderne,” in Mikhaël Elbaz, Andrée Fortin, and Guy Laforest, eds., Les Frontières de l’Identité: Modernité et postmodernisme au Québec, Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université Laval, 1996, pp. 347–64.

3 And in fact, the drive to democracy took a predominately “national” form. Logically, it is perfectly possible that the democratic challenge to a multi-national authoritarian régime, e.g., Austria, Turkey, should take the form of a multi-national citizenship in a pan-imperial “people.” But in fact, attempts at this usually fail, and the peoples take their own road into freedom. So the Czechs declined being part of a democratized Empire in the Paulskirche in 1848; and the Young Turk attempt at an Ottoman citizenship foundered, and made way for a fierce Turkish nationalism.

4 Rousseau, who laid bare very early the logic of this idea, saw that a democratic sovereign couldn’t just be an “aggregation,” as with our lecture audience above; it has to be an “association,” that is, a strong collective agency, a “corps moral et collectif” with “son unité, son moi commun, sa vie et sa volonté.” This last term is the key one, because what gives this body its personality is a “volonté générale.” Contrat Social, Book I, chapter 6.

5 I have discussed this at greater length in “Glaube und Identität. Religion und Gewalt in der modernen Welt,” in: Transit 19 (1998/99), pp. 21–37.

6 See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford University Press, 1995.

7 See Linda Colley, Britons, Yale University Press, 1992.

8 See Robert Bellah “Civil Religion in America,” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, chapter 9.

9 See Hervieu-Léger, Le pélerin et le converti.

10 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Cornell University Press, 1983, p. 1.

11 I have discussed these issues at greater length in “Conditions of an unforced consensus on human rights,” in Joanne Bauer & Daniel Bell, eds., The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 124–44.

12 See Craig Calhoun, “The Democratic Integration of Europe: Interests, Identity, and the Public Sphere,” in: Mabel Berezin & Martin Schain (eds.), Europe without Borders: Remapping Territory, Citizenship and Identity in a Transnational Age, Baltimore, 2004.


Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University, Montreal, and Professor of Law and Philosophy at the Northwestern University. Chairman of the Advisory Board of IWM. Selected writings: Varieties of Religion Today, Harvard, 2002; “The Politics of Recognition” in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann, Princeton, 1994; The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard, 1991; Sources of the Self, Harvard, 1989; Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge, 1979.

© Central European University Press, 2006

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