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Habermas on Christianity, Europe, and Human Rights

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From Philip Jenkins at Foreign Policy:

Ironically, after centuries of rebelling against religious authority, the coming of Islam is also reviving political issues most thought extinct in Europe, including debates about the limits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to proselytize. And in all these areas, controversies that originate in a Muslim context inexorably expand or limit the rights of Christians, too. If Muslim preachers who denounce gays must be silenced, then so must charismatic Christians. At the same time, any laws that limit blasphemous assaults on the image of Mohammed must take account of the sensibilities of those who venerate Jesus.

The result has been a rediscovery of the continent’s Christian roots, even among those who have long disregarded it, and a renewed sense of European cultural Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “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 [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • Let’s do something Europeans! We’ll be an islamic colony sooner than expected. Open your eyes brothers. Please!!! We have the force and the acts of peace to win the war. Jesus Christ thought us how in many many ways: read the Pope’s speeches, the Magister of the Church. Stay near to your friend, meet with them; please everybody do something and then adore the Eucharesty!!!

  • Roger McKinney

    While a revival among Christians in Europe is nice, it can’t defeat demographics. Muslims inside Europe and outside are having 6-10 children per mother. Christians aren’t replacing themselves. Europeans can’t hold back the tsunami of Muslim immigrants or births by European Muslims. Of course, the US can’t hold back the tsunami of hispanics headed our way from the south, either. But at least hispanics are Catholic for the most part.

  • Sorry – but the quotation is wrong! It is a serious misquote circulating on the internet.

    The alleged reference is an interview from 1999 and published in Habermas’s book “Time of Transitions” (Polity Press, 2006). In the interview Habermas talks about Judaism and Christianity as our historical “legacy” (“Erbe” in German) – not about Christianity as a foundation of human rights today. And Habermas is not saying that there is no alternative to Christianity. He is a methodological atheist and sees human rights as a universal, transcultural language. Human rights are not “founded” on any religion or ideology. See my detailed comments on the alleged Habermas ”quotation” here:

  • Arnold

    I do not believe that Muslims in general within Europe are having 6-10 children per mother. Are the Turks in Germany having that many children? I suspect not. The Albanians? Perhaps in parts of the Maghrebi community in France or in Britain but I think the problem is not so much a high Muslim birth rate but a very low Christian birthrate. Many may not be aware that the birth rate has fallen dramatically in a number of Muslim countries in recent years, down close to the 2.1 level. Why doesn’t Europe promote immigration from Catholic countries in Latin America,the Philippines and Africa instead?

  • Hunter Baker

    Thomas, I don’t accept your presentation of the matter. As late as last year we have Habermas writing about secularism’s loss of faith. And his conclusion is not a novel one. Even Richard Rorty admits that western liberalism rides on the shoulders of Christian values. He just admits and says he is happy to “free-ride” on the Christian tradition.

  • Hunter Baker

    And by the way, this is not just some quote circulating on the internet. This article appeared at Foreign Policy, which is a respected publication.

  • Hunter Baker

    Actually, I have a better way to proceed. The quote is real, as you admit in your comment, Thomas. So, provide the quote that clarifies this quote in the direction you suggest is more correct.

  • Yes, the misquote has been published in respected publications as “Foreign Affairs” and “Wall Street Journal”, but it is a very serious misquote. Please read my comments on the Habermas website (link above). Here you will find the correct quotation in the official English translation and the original German version, and my interpretation of Habermas’s view. As you will see, the differences are so significant that it cannot be caused by a poor translation from German ( I have searched the internet for a website with a reference for the “quote”, but without success).

  • Hunter Baker

    Your link does not lead directly to your comments.

  • The link to my comments works fine for me:

  • Hunter Baker

    It doesn’t lead to anything specific, just a huge menu of topics.

  • Roger McKinney

    I have written Foreign Policy to ask for a ref for the quote. No answer yet.

  • On my Habermas web site you can read my theory on the “genealogy” of the misquote. I think it goes back to Italy in 2004 and has been transformed from a summary to a quotation. See:

  • Robert Jesolowitz

    Actually my friends,

    me being a native german speaker. I can maybe help both of you out.

    I have read the “context” Thomas provides for the qoute above as he gives it in what seems to me a “retranslation” into German from english

    (as the word “Christiandom” is not what we use in german but instead we would say “Christenheit” for example)

    Apart from that while it is true that the context alters some things the interpretation of the italian interviewer is a legitimate summing up in my view. As obviously Habermas is saying in context that modern conceptions of egalitarianism, human rights, selforefilment ect. are directly linked to both judeo and christian roots.

    In particular he mentions the jewish ethic of justice and the christian ethics of love.
    Time and again he says these concepts have been critically evaluated but have been taken up virtually unchanged.

    And to this (meaning the ethics of justice and love for which we are in turn indebted to judaism and christianity)there is no alternative.

    Yes I have paraphrased his qoutation but for the sake of correctly pointing out the thread of it´s meaning.
    This is what I get out of it as a Christian while still being honest to the text.

    Maybe Thomans (presumed he is not a Christian)and MAYBE a bit ticked of by Habermas and Christians seeming to be aimable with each other now, partially stemming maybe from the intellectual debate he had with the Holy Father)

    Would be much more weary to recognize a paradigm shift in Habermas´s thinking even though it might be ever so slightly :-)

    Greetings from Germany