chapter  31
Civil Society
Pages 12

For the past few decades, the term “civil society” has often referred either to the voluntary associations that are distinguishable from the government and the marketplace or to a “public sphere” in which debates about the public good take place. Thus it is seen as a part of society (rather than family or tribe), one that is thought by many to nurture through civic engagement the “social capital” central to a healthy society (Edwards 2004: 5-10; Putnam 2000). The term is also used to refer to a type of society, one that engages diversity and disagreement in a civilized way that respects pluralism (Edwards 2004: 10; Langerak 2012). Historically, from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke, the category of civil society included the state and government with its coercive powers. It was de Tocqueville who, impressed by the tendency of Americans to join associations of all types, drew attention to these intermediary voluntary groups as an important social force distinct from that of the state (de Tocqueville 2004 [1840]: 595). Lately the United Nations and many other organizations see this part of society as deserving of international aid and as capable of nurturing the sort of national ethos that respects diversity and pluralism. Whether civil society is understood to include the state, as it did for much of human history, or as including only non-governmental organizations, or as a society that respects pluralism, the relationship of theism to civil society raises important issues.