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Community & Critique: religious communities between conflict and cohesion

Together with academic partners from the United States and Germany, the Catholic Academy in Berlin has hosted a transatlantic series of workshops on the topic ‘Religion and the Cultures of Democracy’. It addressed the role of faith communities in democratic societies increasingly characterized by mistrust and polarization.

The second part of the series took place at the University of Virginia from October 1 to 5. Its title (‘Community & Critique’) points out that while shared religious worldviews can promote internal cohesion, they also harbor potential for societal conflict. The event explored this area of tension and discussed what contributions theological systems of thought can make to the structure of democratic societies.

The topics discussed have numerous connections to our motif ‘Cohesion through Conflict’:

Sources of Community. The inclusion of some in communities always entails the exclusion of others and thus the danger of fragmenting society into rivalling factions. Democratic liberalism therefore demands value neutrality in the public sphere. However, since this stance exacerbates the lack of a foundation of values in the secular state adumbrated in the Böckenförde dilemma, the question arises to what extent value-based group formation can have the potential to resolve sociopolitical conflicts.

Contestation & Negotiation. Negotiating differences is at the core of pluralistic democracy—what role can religions play despite their tendency to non-negotiable doctrines? And do democracies need a common set of values to preserve the basis for dialogue?

Exclusion & Violence. Violence has historically been a constant in the formation, development, and dissolution of communities. Political theologies, too, have often been used to legitimize violence. This raises the question of how religions can unfold their potential as carriers of community while containing concomitant violence and coercion.

Forces of Fragmentation. In addition to their unifying power, religious identities can contribute to social division, as evidenced by the current culture wars in the United States. At the same time, social transformation processes can lead to divisions within faith communities. This reciprocal relationship invites us to consider how religions can serve to overcome societal fragmentation.

Equality and Solidarity are cornerstones of both religious and secular societies. Nevertheless, calls for their realization are often based on the exclusion of others, for example in the case of right-wing populism, and thus create new fault lines. Given these tensions, how can modes of inclusive solidarity regain credibility?

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