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:: A misquote about Habermas and Christianity (updated) (06-06-2009 08:53)
This is an updated version of a post I made on May 3, 2009:

A serious misquote is circulating on the internet about Jürgen Habermas and Christianity. On a very large number of web sites you can read the following "quotation" of Jürgen Habermas:

"Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

The "quotation" has appeared in "Foreign Policy", in "Wall Street Journal", and in "Christian Science Monitor" and you can find it on a large number of American web sites on Christianity.

But this is a misquotation! The reference is an interview with Jürgen Habermas that Eduardo Mendieta made in 1999. It is published in English with the title "A Conversation About God and the World" in Habermas's book "Time of Transitions" (Polity Press, 2006).

What Habermas actually says in this interview is:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f)."

The misquote rewrites Habermas's statement and changes its meaning:
(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of egalitarian universalism - not the foundation of human rights today.
(2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.
(3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to this legacy ("Erbe" in German) - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.

In a recent comment Habermas has emphasized that his intention was to say that moral universalism - at least in our Occidental world - has its source in Jewish and Christian monotheism.  At a public lecture a student asked Habermas about his remark on Christianity, and Habermas's reply can be heard here: sciencestage.com/v/958

According to Habermas human rights today are neither religious nor metaphysically "founded" or "grounded" on any specific religion, ideology or culture. In the same interview he says: "Notwithstanding their European origins, human rights today represent the universal language in which global relations can be normatively regulated" (p. 155).

Habermas calls for an intercultural dialogue and a critical self-reflection: "Insofar as the intercultural discourse on human rights is conducted in a spirit of reciprocal recognition, it can lead the West to a decentered understanding of a normative construction that is no longer the property of Europeans and may no longer exclusively reflect the particularities of this one culture. (...) Thus the Judeo-Hellenic-Christian West must reflect on one of its greatest cultural achievements, the capacity for decentering one’s own perspectives, for self-reflection, and for a self-critical distancing from one’s own traditions. The West must refrain from using any non-discursive means in the hermeneutical conversation between cultures, and must become just one voice among others (p. 155)."

For Habermas's view on the question of "Asian values" and the identification of "blind spots" in the Western interpretation of human rights see Habermas's "Remarks on Legitimation through Human Rights," in his book "The Postnational Constellation" (Polity Press, 2001). In this book he also states very clearly that: "My working hypothesis is that the standards of human rights stem less from the particular cultural background of Western civilization than from the attempt to answer specific challenges posed by a social modernity that has in the meantime covered the globe" (p. 121).

In his discussion with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Habermas has a longer description of how religious concepts historically have been transformed into universal concepts available to the general public of unbelievers and members of other faiths beyond the boundaries of a particular religious community. See "The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion" (Ignatius Press, 2007) or Habermas's book "Between Naturalism and Religion" (Polity Press, 2008) pp. 101-113. Habermas sees this transformation as a secularizing recovery of religious meaning ("säkularisierenden Entbindung religiös verkapselter Bedeutungspotentiale") - and as a cultural rationalization process.

This process of transferring religious ideas to secular ideas continues - according to Habermas - even today. Christianity and other religions can still be an inspirational force to our moral and ethical understanding. Non-religious citizens cannot exclude that the world religions still have "semantic potentials" (as Habermas calls it). But the potentials must be released by a secularizing recovery of the religious meaning. Modern, post-metaphysical thinking must be prepared to learn from religion, while at the same time remaining agnostic (See Habermas's essay "Religion in the Public Sphere" from his book "Between Naturalism and Religion". Polity Press, 2008, pp. 142-144).

This interaction also works the other way - from secular morality and science to religion. But this transformation of religious traditions is another topic (See the same essay by Habermas pp. 136-138). Habermas reminds us that this can be a difficult and long learning process: "It is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church first pinned its colors to the mast of liberalism and democracy with the Second Vaticanum in 1965. And in Germany, the Protestant churches did not act differently. Many Muslim communities still have this painful learning process before them". (Habermas - A “post-secular” society – what does that mean? (Lecture in Istanbul, June 2008).

The original German version

For those interested, this is the original German version of the mentioned quotation from the interview:

"Das Christendom ist für das normative Selbstverständnis der Moderne nicht nur eine Vorläufergestalt oder ein Katalysator gewesen. Der egalitäre Universalismus, aus dem die Ideen von Freiheit und solidarischem Zusammenleben, von autonomer Lebensführung und Emanzipation, von individueller Gewissensmoral, Menschenrechten und Demokratie entsprungen sind, ist unmittelbar ein Erbe der jüdischen Gerechtigkeits- und der christlichen Liebesethik. In der Substanz unverändert, ist dieses Erbe immer wieder kritisch angeeignet und neu interpretiert worden. Dazu gibt es bis heute keine Alternative. Auch angesichts der aktuellen Herausforderungen einer postnationalen Konstellation zehren wir nach wie vor von dieser Substanz. Alles andere ist postmodernes Gerede". From Jürgen Habermas - "Zeit der Übergänge" (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001) p. 174f.

The same statement has been translated into English in another book by Jürgen Habermas - "Religion and Rationality" (Polity Press, 2002). The translation of the statement in this book (p. 149) is almost identical to the version in "Time of Transitions". It is quoted in the English Wikipedia on Habermas.

"The genealogy of a misquote"

I believe that it comes from an article from 2004 by Sandro Magister on his web site on the Catholic Church - "chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it". He writes: "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization". But he does not state it as a quotation from Habermas, but as his own summary of the interview with Habermas. Read it here: chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/20037?&eng=y. Note that Sandro Magister uses the term "foundation" (fondamento) and that he only mentions Christianity - not Judaism. This is in contrast to the Italian translation of Habermas's interview, which Magister is referring to. It says "eredità dell'etica ebraica della giustizia e dell'etica cristiana dell'amore" ("Tempo di passaggi" p. 128-129).

The first time it is presented as  a "quotation" is probably in an article by Uwe Siemon-Netto in "The Atlantic Times" in June 2005, but there may be an earlier version. See here. It seems that someone has used Sandro Magister's text and changed it into a quotation of Habermas.

Simon-Netto's "quotation" was mentioned in a footnote in Virgil Nehoianu's “The Church and the Secular Establishment: A Philosophical Dialog between Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas” in "Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture" vol.  9, no. 2 (2006). Here: www.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/logos/volumes/9-2/9-2%20Article.pdf.

It reappeared in an article in "Christian Science Monitor" September 15, 2006, where George Weigel mentions it. See: www.csmonitor.com/2006/0915/p01s01-woeu.html.

The misquote was repeated in an article by Philip Jenkins in "Foreign Policy" in 2007: www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3881 and in an article by Andrew Higgins in "Wall Street Journal" July 14, 2007. See:

It is also presented as a Habermas quotation in Philip Jenkins's book "God's Continent" (Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 263. Philip Jenkins mentions Sandro Magister's web site (see above) as the source (!), although Magister is not quoting Habermas.

The misquote can now be found on over 6.000 web sites!
Thomas Gregersen