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Michael Welker on the power of law and religion in pluralistic societies
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | Sep 19, 2013 12:09:00 AM

Michael Welker, Senior Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg, and the Spring 2013 Alonzo L. McDonald Senior Fellow in Law and Religion, recently shared his thinking on the powers of law and religion as “justice- and truth-seeking communities” shaping moral education in pluralistic societies.

Our pluralistic societies are dominated by a cacophony of social forms and norms. Yet for all the variations in beliefs and behaviors, do you think these societies have structures or systems that undergird social and moral communication?

When people talk about pluralistic societies, they – at least in European contexts – envision what I should like to call “poly-individuality.” By this term I understand a multitude of concrete individual voices, not modern standardized “individualism,” and a multitude of all kinds of groups and associations, each with very different interests and norms.

But this picture of so-called “plurality” does not grasp the power structures of late modern pluralistic societies.

Pluralistic societies respect the fact that the circulation of power in these societies is not simply dominated by just one of the so-called “social systems,” be it politics, law, religion, the market or the media. Rather, they recognize a limited multitude of these systems, each of which is indispensable for communal life and the common good, but operates with its own set of values that differs from the value systems of the other systems. Pluralistic societies also develop a multitude of associations, which do not just care for this or that, but try to have an impact on the social systems, that is, to strengthen or weaken some of their powers by connecting or disconnecting their mutual impact. The entirety of these associations is what is known as “civil society.” Social systems and civil societal associations in their interaction form a “normative network” which should not be confused with radical individualism and relativism.

What are the potential powers of law and religion to shape the moral education of individuals and the character of our pluralistic communities?

On a very general level, law and religion shape the moral education by being examples of “justice- and truth-seeking communities.” This, to be sure, has to be determined in specific forms and cases. In dialogues between science and theology carried on over many years we developed criteria for “truth-seeking communities.” It is very important to differentiate truth from mere certainty, consensus, coherence, and correctness, but truth certainly relates to all these dimensions when it is being sought for. These insights then bear on moral education. Similar arguments can be made for the operations in the legal system. Cathleen Kaveny has rightly argued for a strong potential radiation of the different domains of law on general education and moral mindsets. However, these are not, so to speak, simple cash exchanges, but demanding processes of education in many domains of our societies.

What “other influences” have “potential moral energy” in pluralistic societies, for instance the family, the market, the media and the academic community?

What do we understand by “morals?” In moral communication, we mutually influence our thinking, acting and behavior by giving and withdrawing respect. In moral communication, respect can reach from cool every-day observation to the hottest admiration. We promise and pay respect, or we threaten to withdraw respect and sometimes even avoid any kind of communication. This whole network of moral communication is guided by values and value hierarchies. Once we have this broad and realistic view on moral communication, we can see very clearly that the family values of love, the market values of economic success, the media values of eliciting resonance and providing broad information, and the academic values of the disciplined search for truth and of sanctions in cases of fraud do, for good cause, have a broad moral radiation.

Is there balance between social systems or are some more powerful than others? Have religion and the family seen their durability and power eroded as the sciences, the market and the media have become more powerful?

Seen from a surface perspective, the market and the media currently seem to vigorously impose their rationalities and values on the other forms of life. Thus in the current day they seem to be much more influential in our societies than the law, religion, and the family. However, an honest assessment of their respective power needs to factor in, for example, the recent crisis of the global economic system, as well as the stress classic journalism and the conventional TV system are under in our days.

In my view, the more important question would be what parts of the value systems in the social systems mentioned above really operate for the common good, and where we see a mutual strengthening and reinforcement of these positive powers, respectively, what are the constellations we must fear because of their potentials to generate or at least support distortive robber-morals. 

 Do you see an opening, in light of these crises, for the social systems of law and religion to reassert the positive aspects of their value systems?

As “truth and justice seeking communities” law and religion have enormous radiating powers on our complex societies and their moral textures. They should be aware of these powers and should cultivate and shape them, self critically but also proudly. Religion and law work for “the common good,” not only for special and limited groups, but for the society as a whole and ultimately for the whole human race. They therefore affirm the values of equality and freedom and thus have a strong direct and indirect impact on the political and the civil societal realms. With the affirmation of these general values they should both strengthen and limit the powers of the market and the media. By connecting the search for justice and truth with the values of equality and freedom, law and religion have to be constantly “boundary sensitive.” They have to practice and routinize the care for the weak, the oppressed and the outcast, and this means that they have to learn from the values of mercy, love and care, that are basically rooted in the family and in the medical and diaconical systems. But they do not only learn, they also recursively strengthen the normative powers in these contexts.

Religion and law base their normative weight not only on all these core values (justice and truth, equality and freedom, mercy, love and care), they rely heavily on the collected wisdom of codified and canonized texts and the history of search for justice and truth that gave birth to them. Law and religion therefore need a very good relation to the academy and to education, and they also bring in the challenge to work for the common good and to reassert the great values, just mentioned, into these important areas of our societies. The strong ties between law and religion, academy and education are not only crucial for the education of good professionals in the religious and legal institutions. They are also important for the active trust into and for the control of these professionals by educated and responsible moral publics – and thus for living freely and equally in our societies and cultures.