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The Possibility of Politics
A discussion with and about Luke Bretherton and his new book on 'Resurrecting Democracy'. How one conceives of God makes a big difference in how one views community and the possibility of politics.

By Robin Lovin

Luke Bretherton has written a book about democracy and broad-based community organizing from a theological perspective. That is, what sort of understanding of God can be associated with a democratic public order? There is a discussion of his book at the website on Syndicate Theology. Below see a review of the book by Robin Lovin, one of several at the site. And then below it you will find a response from Luke Bretherton. These discussions are really at the heart of the concerns at this website on Public Theology. We encourage readers to go to the Syndicate site to read other reviews of this important book.

Commentary on Resurrecting Democracy

by Robin Lovin on February 1, 2016

RESURRECTING DEMOCRACY IS A remarkable book. Community organizing, even “broad-based community organizing” (BBCO), seems designed to make a difference to problems that are urgent, local, and specific. We associate it with drives to improve working conditions and housing in Chicago’s Back of the Yards, demands for access to financial services among low-income residents of London, or high profile events like the “Occupy” movements of 2011. As Luke Bretherton’s analysis unfolds, however, the local problems are connected to global networks and integrated into enduring traditions of faith and politics. BBCO implies an entire theory of civil society, and its successes suggest that we should take the theory seriously. Bretherton uses the story of community organizing to provide a comprehensive view of politics, at least as it is lived in large urban centers, and possibly as it will be everywhere in the global system that increasingly depends on those places.

Documenting the achievements of BBCO requires a good deal of work, because the changes it makes are particular and local. That is not to say they are small. They are measured in thousands of homes upgraded, hundreds of families who gain access to new skills or new services, and whole communities that achieve quantifiable improvements in quality of life and a new experience of dignity and empowerment. These things may escape the notice of people who live just a few miles away, and the cumulative impact of hundreds of groups in dozens of cities is rarely seen as a whole, in the way that Bretherton helps us to grasp it here. Community organizations have their own networks of expertise and training, and their leaders often have a profound grasp of the history and sociology behind what they are doing. But by and large they do not write books about it, nor are their skills studied and taught in departments and schools of community organizing, the way that business skills are taught in universities. So most of us, even those who stay fairly alert to what is happening in the society around us, do not notice what is going on. Resurrecting Democracy will help to change that, as will the important works of academic sociology on which Bretherton draws for his “anatomy of organizing” chapters in the first part of his book.

Important as this operational understanding of BBCO is, theology and social ethics will learn more from the political theory developed in part 2, especially the chapter on “Civil Society as the Body Politic.” Here, Bretherton joins the work begun by Jeffrey Stout’s Blessed are the Organized, making an important social movement available for normative reflection as well as enlarging public awareness and sociological understanding of what is going on in complex local communities.

There are important differences between the two books. Stout is part ethicist and part ethnographer. He focuses on the organizing methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) pioneered in Chicago by Saul Alinsky, drawing contemporary cases from local communities in the Southwestern United States. His interpretation of these movements draws on his previous work in Democracy and Tradition, where he discerns a vigorous tradition of American democracy, alive in local communities and energizing concern for the common good. This activism finds expression through a variety of religious commitments, notably in Blessed Are the Organized through the Hispanic Catholicism of the American Southwest. Catholic faith is important in these movements, but as Stout sees it, the experience that shapes the activists’ moral and political convictions is democratic and distinctly American.

Bretherton, by contrast, is part ethicist and part theologian. His account of the history and philosophy of BBCO also begins with the IAF, but his case studies are drawn largely from the London metropolis where he was based before his recent move to Duke University in the United States. Where Stout detects an underlying popular democracy that sustains community activism, Bretherton is concerned by the lack of shared traditions and values among the diverse residents of the metropolitan areas in the United Kingdom. For them, it is religious traditions—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu—that motivate an interest in the welfare of their neighbors. Each faith in its own way transcends the alienation of urban life and the group conflicts of modern politics, but there is little in the way of shared tradition on which to draw. Moreover, Bretherton the theologian is unwilling to elide the differences between the faith traditions present in the secular context. Their collaboration is sometimes a wary one, and like Augustine’s Christians praying for the earthly city in which they find themselves exiled, they do not confuse the source of their welfare with the source of their hope.

These are quite different descriptions of modern life and the space available in it for love of God and love of neighbor. The differences may reflect the different cultures of the US and UK, different social realities between a global metropolis and regional cities in the US Southwest, different mixes of religious traditions with different historical experiences in their local settings, or just differences in theology and temperament between the two authors. It will repay the effort for others to join this discussion, elaborate on the two descriptions, and test them against other local settings. Part of what makes Resurrecting Democracy important is that it suggests a body of future scholarship and further discussion that might grow from different ways of answering the questions it raises.

Those questions are about political theory as well as about sociology, for one point on which Stout and Bretherton converge is the contribution that faith communities make to the political achievements of BBCO. While liberal democracies have long been centers of religious diversity and religious tolerance, it is a major theme in contemporary liberal theory that this diversity precludes open appeal to religion in support of public, political choices. Democracy requires a kind of self-restraint on the part of religious voices in the public square (Robert Audi), or even criteria of public reason that limit the use of religious arguments (John Rawls). To put the point in stronger terms, some regard religion as a “conversation stopper” (Richard Rorty). When someone appeals to religion in a public discussion, that discussion is at an end, because no one can answer a faith-based argument, or offer an alternative to it. Alongside those philosophical constraints, there is also the visceral response that sees religion posing an implicit threat of violence or coercion that subverts the social peace that is the goal of liberal politics.

Against that backdrop of liberal theory, the achievements of BBCO are not only politically impressive. They seem to be impossible. They are the sort of thing that should not happen, not just in the sense that they defy theoretical predictions, but also in that they violate normative rules about what should and should not be said when trying to mobilize a secular, liberal society for common purposes. Nevertheless, BBCO brings faith communities into its movements, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, provide recruits, spaces for meetings and rallies, symbols and stories, and moral and religious reasons to undertake what will often be difficult and controversial actions. In the history of organizing, these contributions have proved so important that religious groups constitute the core membership of many community organizations, and they participate as institutions, not simply through the efforts of their individual members.

What we require, then, is a political theory that makes the successes of BBCO both possible and permissible. Bretherton finds this in a theory of civil society that involves organized groups negotiating a common good that is both local enough to address felt needs and valuable enough to sustain commitment beyond a short-term convergence of interests. BBCO works by creating a sensus communis about human goods, utilizing a form of practical reason that has more in common with deliberation in Aristotelian politics than with the limited public reason of liberal political thought. People enter into political life not just to protect their interests, but to secure and share goods that they create and maintain in their families, workplaces, and social groups; and they learn how to value those goods appropriately in their faith communities. Instead of a liberal theory that insulates public choices from religious influences, what is going on at the local level requires an integrated theory of civil society that understands how choices arise and how they sustain commitment across the range of settings in which people actually live their lives. Bretherton draws on an impressive range of sources, historical and contemporary, to formulate this theory. In the end, what we are offered is not just an explanation of why modern community organizing succeeds, but an account of human communities as a whole and the enduring material and spiritual goods that they make possible, whether in the very local settings in which human society emerged or in the complex global network in which it exists today. BBCO works because it is realistic, not just about self-interest and power, but about the conditions that make any kind of community life possible.

Instead of limiting religion to make a space for the emerging modern state, which might have been the European problem at the end of the seventeenth century, Bretherton suggests that the global problem now is to limit the dominant forms of sovereign power to make a space for genuine politics, where people create and share real goods on which they can, in fact, agree, at least in local settings where ideological commitments are tempered by shared needs. That is why his book ends, surprisingly, with a reconstruction of the idea of sovereignty. BBCO looks at first like a tinkering with the machinery of the sovereign state, pressing for changes in law and administration that might enlist the forces of government more effectively on the side of the people. The resurrection of democracy which this movement seeks, however, is not so limited as that. It reconceives sovereignty from the bottom upward, or more precisely, as “the pluralization of political order so as to accommodate and coordinate the diversity of associational life, whether economic, familial, or religious” (234).

This understanding of politics has a long history, and it has religious roots that Bretherton traces back at least to Johannes Althusius, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Perhaps the first question that this raises for contemporary theology, however, is whether we have an ecclesiology that fits the practical reasoning required for this kind of politics. Especially against the pressures of twentieth-century totalitarianism, theology has often stressed the church’s freedom against the sovereignty of the state, even suggesting that the sovereign state defines its arbitrary power in an idolatrous imitation of the sovereignty of God. That theology has sustained the church’s independence. Whether it can now allow the church to take a place alongside other social institutions in a plural political order is a theoretical question of the first importance. Some theologians will ask whether a church that participates in a sensus communis can maintain its freedom to proclaim the gospel, either as judgment or as promise. Perhaps, however, theology at this point finds itself in a position like that of liberal political theory when it struggles to reconcile religious commitment and public reason. It must be possible, since it is already happening.

Robin W. Lovin is William H. Scheide Senior Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics emeritus at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Lovin’s most recent books are Christian Realism and the New Realities (2008) and An Introduction to Christian Ethics(2011). He has also written extensively on religion and law and comparative religious ethics.

The True Order of Being

by Luke Bretherton on February 1, 2016

I am very grateful for Robin Lovin’s careful and insightful reading of the book. His pointing to some of the connections and differences between Stout’s and my accounts of community organizing is particularly helpful and suggestive. However, I want to respond to the incredibly important question that Lovin raises at the end of his review: that is, “whether we have an ecclesiology that fits the practical reasoning required for this kind of politics.” By “this kind of politics” I take Lovin to mean the vision I try to sketch in the book of a genuinely pluralistic, radical democratic politics in which no single conception of the good is hegemonic and a common life must be discovered between multiple others rather than determined and directed by an indivisible and transcendent sovereign authority. This common life politics occurs when no single tradition of belief and practice sets the terms and conditions of shared speech and action, and the generation of a pluralistic pattern of common life is a negotiated, multilateral endeavor. My ethnographic analysis of how one specific form of political practice (broad-based community organizing) navigates a particular context (London as a command point in the production of economic globalization and a “world city” characterized by hyper diversity) is done so as to identify what forms of democratic politics enable a common life to emerge amidst difference and can cope with the reality that people have multiple loyalties and identities. This is a prelude to an analysis of what kind of modern social and political order is best able to accommodate religious plurality and facilitate the negotiation of relationships of difference. Part of what is at stake in this analysis is whether the church can find ways of renouncing prior strategies for control, while at the same time regain confidence that it has good news to proclaim.

Lovin is right to say that a central concern of Christian political thought in the twentieth century has been to assert the independence of the church from cooption by the state, even as this has happened in practice time and again. But the focus on sovereign structures of the state has led to a myopia about how churches are always already participants in the formation of political life. Yet when politics is reduced to relations between formal, mostly legal structures and arrangements of, say, how church-state relations should be ordered, this becomes hidden from view. It tends to also assume we already know what kind of thing the church is and what kind of thing the state is. But both of these forms are now under intense interrogation and renegotiation in theory and practice. Some of this is being driven by dynamics I describe in the book, dynamics often bundled together under the heading of “globalization.”

At the same time, from the early nineteenth century onwards, democracy became the normative and aspirational form of political order in European and North American Christian political thought. Even those who are seen to be critical of democracy, such as my colleague Stanley Hauerwas, are only critical of a particular form, that of late modern liberal democracy, and do not propose monarchy or oligarchy as a constructive alternative. Theologians catalyzed and responded to the streams of political thought that shaped contemporary notions of democracy, such as socialism, anarchism, populism and pacifism. And alongside involvement in these supposedly “secular” ideologies, distinctively theological conceptions of democracy such as Christian Democracy and Christian Realism emerged.

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries democracy itself became a means through which the church responded to processes of modernization such as industrialization, the rise of the nation-state and capitalism and the new forms of social relationship that emerged through them. For example, Rerum Novarum (1893), and the whole stream of Catholic social teaching it initiates, was initially a response to social and economic conditions produced by industrial forms of production and urbanization. Catholic social teaching came to endorse a particular conception of democracy as a way of navigating between the Scylla of anticlerical and atheistic revolutionary ideologies and the Charybdis of authoritarian and then fascist ideologies that were themselves responses to emerging forms of social relationship. And through this kind of process understandings of what it means to be church were challenged and changed. This kind of process is perennial. Ecclesiology and debates about political order have always been co-emergent and mutually constitutive.

Ecclesiology cannot be done without attention to political theory and political theology. In the New Testament, Greco-Roman conceptualizations of political life are pillaged in order to think about what it means to be the church. One key term used in the ecclesiologies of the New Testament can exemplify the nature of the relationship. Etymologically, liturgy was originally a political term drawn from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning a public work of service or duty undertaken by a wealthy citizen and done for the benefit of the people or wider community (leitos). As a work of service an act of Christian leitourgia is both a political act that builds up and maintains the people of God and a Spirit-filled act that builds up and mediates the work of the God in the world. In New Testament usage, the term is reorientated and in the process transformed wherein such acts of service cease to connote the magnanimous, patrician and unilateral gesture of an elite individual and denote instead a public and common work undertaken by a people and the Spirit. Within this common, divine-human labor there is a human hierarchy, but it is one based on covenant, vocation and gifting, not kinship ties or property ownership. Moreover, it is one where the hierarchy of status is determined not by wealth, ownership or political connections but by a complex interaction of moral excellence/virtue and the workings of the Spirit. The fruits of this labor are distributed and consumed both by the participants, as each has need, and by the world, that the working people represent before God in their prayers, songs and words. Use of political terms such as leitourgia or ekklesia entail redefining and reorientating them so that they take on a different telos through theological adoption. Early theologians continued to turn political categories to ecclesial ends, with Augustine’s reconceptualization of Cicero’s definition of a people being a particularly important example.1 The process of reorientation suggests that analogies between political and ecclesial concepts are never simply direct but dialectical. Neither are they unidirectional.

The adoption of political categories to describe the church and the subsequent borrowing of these transmuted terms to theorize political life and how these political conceptualizations are fed back into ecclesial self-reflection means the relationship between theological and political concepts is peculiarly complex and multifarious. The historical relationship between natural rights, the emergence of concepts such as human rights and the subsequent adoption of subjective rights discourses by churches in the contemporary context as ways of framing their political claims are examples of the crisscrossing between theological and political concepts. Moreover, the relationship between, for example, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr; Arendt and Augustine; John Rawls and his early Christian commitments and the subsequent engagement by theologians with Rawls; Jacob Taubes, Georgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou and St. Paul and the current engagement by theologians with their readings of Scripture, all suggest the traffic continues to flow in both directions.

The relationship between Christianity and democracy is but another iteration of this process and informs not just questions about ecclesiology but also debates about the doctrine of God. The modern restatement of the Trinitarian conception of God is directly related to attempts to conceptualize God outside of monarchical political imaginaries. This is exemplified in the work of Catherine LaCugna, Jürgen Moltmann, and Kathryn Tanner. Conversely, with the recovery of a Trinitarian theology, good order comes to be seen not as the result of the exercise of sovereign will, but instead constituted through participation in right relationships as encountered and empowered through participation in the perichoretic communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In place of images of political rulers (emperors, kings, or lords), music, drama, and dance become more common analogies for the nature of God. In such accounts God is no distant sovereign but both loving Creator and intimately and vulnerably involved in creation through the ongoing work of the Son and the Spirit. In the light of this kind of God, monarchical, absolute, and indivisible claims to political sovereignty that override the freedom and dignity of the one, the few, or the many are revealed as in opposition to the divine nature. The true order of being is one of harmonious difference in relation. Likewise, humans are not monadic individuals but persons constituted through relationships with various others (including non-human life) and whose dignity and worth is not reducible to or definable by any immanent social, economic, or political claims upon them. However, as debates in Trinitarian theology make clear, the Trinity cannot and should not provide the basis for a social program.2

So to understand the theological questions raised by how different currents of democratic thought conceptualize modern social, economic and political relations is necessarily part of understanding better not only contemporary debates about the relationship between Christianity and democracy but also, conceptions of what it means to be church and the nature of divine-human relations. On this basis I contend that the book is as much a contribution to theological anthropology as it is to political theory and is a vital starting point for answering Lovin’s question of “whether we have an ecclesiology that fits the practical reasoning required for this kind of politics.” If the world cannot understand itself as world without the church, the church cannot understand itself as church without the world.

Luke Bretherton is professor of theological ethics and senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. His primary areas of research, supervision and teaching are Christian ethics/moral theology, the intellectual and social history of Christian political thought, political theology, the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, missiology, and practices of social, political and economic witness.


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Date Added: 2/3/2016 Date Revised: 2/3/2016 7:48:55 PM

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