It’s relatively rare that a whole issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion is directly relevant to theologians, so for those of you who don’t receive it, I thought it worth mentioning that the most recent one (78.2, June 2010) is. The whole issue is devoted to theology, secularity, and political participation.
Table of contents:
- “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular”—by Ingolf U. Dalferth
- “After the Secular: Toward a Pragmatic Public Theology”—by Michael S. Hogue
- “Turning to Narrative: Toward a Feminist Theological Interpretation of Political Participation and Personhood”—by Rosemary P. Carbine
- “Pragmatism and Democracy: Assessing Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition“—panel discussion with Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas and Jeffrey Stout, edited by Jason Springs
- “Radical Islam and Human Rights Values: A ‘Religious-Minded’ Critique of Secular Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”—by Jenna Reinbold
- “The Return of Comparative Theology”—by Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson
There’s one other essay, “The Romans and Ritual Murder” by Celia E. Schultz, which the editor says was meant to belong to the last issue.
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.