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Democracy is not neutral

One of the standard critiques of Rawlsian liberalism is that its supposed neutrality with respect to comprehensive visions of the good, especially religious visions, masks a bias that rules out a priori certain religious ways of thinking about political questions. This critique usually goes hand in hand with the conviction that all forms of rationality are situated in a tradition and only “make sense” within that tradition, so pretending to a tradition-neutral form of rationality could only ever be a smokescreen.

Jeffrey Stout’s way of dealing with this critique–which I find extremely refreshing–is to bite the bullet: he grants the latter point, arguing that democracy is also a tradition, and as such, is not simply neutral with respect to other traditions. Democracy is not just empty space within which Christianity, Deism, and Emersonian perfectionism can equally flourish; it disciplines and shapes the other forms of life it circumscribes, even while it encourages them to remain true to themselves.

As one can imagine, this is not much consolation to the “radical Christian,” who still perceives this as an effort to subjugate Christian rationality to the rationality of the state. But it should be consoling; it should be something Christians embrace. For one thing, it’s not a matter of subjugation but rather of conversation. Stout’s democracy, which he takes to be expressive of an actual lived tradition with deep roots in American culture, is entirely open to being critiqued and developed by religious constituents for religious reasons, as its deep dependence on Christian concepts easily shows. Democracy and its constituent comprehensive traditions are mutually conditioning. And moreover, Stout’s democracy makes no claim to be comprehensive in the way religious traditions usually do. It dictates no all-determining master narrative. Its challenges to particular traditions are local and specific. To theologians: don’t imitate other discourses, be true to your own rationality; don’t encourage resentment toward the broader order, but critical constructive engagement and open cooperation; don’t set yourselves up as hierarchs or give others reason to do so; leave space for dissent. Encourage gratitude to one’s forebears but not absolute obedience, hope that political solutions to present problems can be found, love for even those around us who disagree with us at a fundamental level.

What’s here for Christians to oppose? Most of it, in fact, is partly derivable from things Christianity bequeathed democracy to begin with! Surely one can and must find serious questions to ask, both about Stout’s vision (how does this tradition deal with being yoked to coercive power?) and about its instantiation (has it not all been transformed by another logic, that of the market?)—but democracy encourages those questions, even, as part of its non-neutrality towards other traditions, demands them. And so democracy demands of “radical Christianity” the genuinely critical voice that it pretends to offer in calling democratic order the anti-Christ, which is actually far too easy, and far too closed off to further conversation.

  1. Pensans
    March 17, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Democracy is a war machine. As President Wilson put it in declaring war on Germany, democracies cannot coexist with any non-democratic form of government because openness is vulnerable to aristocratic closedness. For this reason, Wilson praised the atheist revolutionaries in Russia as preferable to the Christian aristocrats of Europe, on whom he insisted that democracies must declare war.

    Wilson was right. Open forms of government must eliminate less open forms of government. More democratic systems must declare war and eliminate less democratic forms.

    The horror is the openness fundamentally requires the hollowing out of all society, especially of authentic Christian communities that become “aristocratic” and “closed” compared to the howling emptiness of properly democratic masses.

    • March 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

      If I’m understanding you, you’re saying that more than not being neutral towards other more “closed” traditions, democracy can’t help but declare war on them with the intent to eliminate them entirely. Insofar as Stout’s account of American democracy is expressively accurate, though—and you’re welcome to contest it—this just isn’t true. For one thing, this democracy isn’t just “howling emptiness”; it is also “closed” in determinate, though circumscribed, ways. And it challenges to “Christian aristocrats” are specific rather than global. That is, the democratic does not condemn Christianity tout court (as you do democracy), but particular practices and teachings.

      Not to mention, I have a theological stake in denying that “authentic Christian communities” are aristocratic or closed in any relevant sense.

  2. Alex
    May 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    1. Cheers very much for the link to my post on Zizek versus Milbank.

    2. I think that Stout’s book is a warm, well thought through and smart critique of those opposed to ‘liberalism’. His chapter on Macintyre genuinely moved me – I loved the way he symphatetically read him, yet turned his own critique against him. The critique of Milbank via Barth was persuasive. I’d recommend it to anyone.

  3. May 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    1. Glad to do it! Thanks for the summary.

    2. I completely agree. The chapter on MacIntyre is now firmly planted in my head as a kind of definitive friendly critique.

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