The public sphere has been theorized as a space for political communication in which social actors, political discourse and cultural perspectives interact and give form to competing legitimacy claims on the arrangements of the common life. In its classical liberal version the public sphere was closely connected to the cultural identity of the demos and presupposed a high degree of cultural homogeneity regarding linguistic competence and religious affiliation. Monolingualism and secularisation were not only perceived as the standard path to be followed by modern societies, but also as a structural prerequisite for a successful democratic process. In conventional approaches, modernisation was conceived of as intrinsically connected to secularisation, i.e. as a process in which the religious foundations of political power would be increasingly replaced by alternative and secularised forms of legitimacy (i.e. democratic, populist, nationalist). Accordingly, cultural change in modernising societies would induce the privatisation of religious belief, diminish collective religious practice and push for secularised moral references.
However, during recent decades we have witnessed how the relationship between politics and religion has become, once again, a matter of public attention. The aim of this section is therefore to explore the changing relationship between the religious and the political spheres in democratic societies. The underlying hypothesis is that, against the prevailing Weberian idea of modernisation as religious “disenchantment” (Entzauberung) of the world, we are facing a profound change in the functional parameters of religion. On the one hand, the emergence of a new form of politically and culturally belligerent Islamism has challenged not only the post-Cold War system of international relationships, but many of the basic tenets of Western democracies as well. We may indeed be witnessing a non-Western process of modernisation in the Islamic world in which religion would work as a global frame for social mobilisation and incorporation. On the other hand, religious values continue to play an important political role in the United States and in many non-Islamic Third World countries. Even in the largely secularised Canadian and European societies the debate about laicism/secularism in relation to public education and the meaning of marriage, or about the accommodation of religious pluralism and the role of the Christian heritage, has strongly re emerged, sometimes around ethnic and multicultural issues. Behind all of this we recognise a need to re-evaluate the social role of the religious element in modern societies and the normative principles needed to manage it in the public sphere.