Politics, the Judeo-Christian Tradition and the Modern West: Envisioning Political Liberalism through an Arendtian Lens

Martin Anthony DeNicolo, University of Colorado at Boulder


What role should religion play in the political deliberations and decisions of liberal democratic citizens? In light of recent political phenomena such as Quebec’s proposed ban on the wearing of religious symbols in 2013, the constant theocratic threat posed by the religious right as perceived by the secular left and libertarian right in the United States, or the 2009 banning of minarets in Switzerland, this is a pressing question for modern democracy. In this dissertation I argue that religious citizens should be allowed to make recourse to comprehensive accounts of their positions in political debates and decisions, but that these accounts should not dominate these debates and decisions in accordance with the principle of respect for persons. The Judeo-Christian tradition was its source in the West, but respect for persons took political shape following the Wars of Religion that plagued Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. Through the gradual political affirmation of the principle of respect liberal democracies emerging out of these wars experienced the proliferation and multiplication of fundamentally opposed worldviews. What these worldviews shared was and continues to be the affirmation of this principle, and recognition of this fact creates the possibility of liberal democratic political respect, or concord, across fundamental difference. In the liberal democratic world citizens are equalized by their shared affirmation of the principle of respect for persons. My claim is that the principle of political respect allows for expression of the fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews that overlap in affirming the principle of respect in political debates and decisions and that the principle of respect depends on their continually being freely expressed in order to retain its normative force in politics. Drawing heavily on Arendt’s writings on religion and morality, I conclude that, despite the supposedly "secular" character of liberal democratic politics, the principle of respect for persons must be rooted in exemplary embodiments of morality, which I claim are “religious” insofar as they transcend the limits of politics. Jesus of Nazareth is the example to whom Arendt points, but his need not be the only one.