To begin with, if there has never been a clearly identifiable religion of the state – as in Europe – or if China was not established in reaction to such religions – as with the USA – then what does that mean for the traditional and defining terminological opposition of religion and state? The way in which the narrative of political theory has been bequeathed to us in the West moves from inseparable connection to radical rupture. Or, it may trace a constant conflict between temporal popes and European emperors, only to lead to the humiliation of the pope’s temporal claims. Or, it may argue that all theories of the state are really secularised theologies (Schmitt). Yet all of this presupposes a strong contest between two powerful entities, which move back and forth between identity and difference. In a situation where there has never been such a struggle between two powerful entities, let alone a sustained and close alignment of religion and the state, the relation itself cannot be thought in these terms.
In “A Public Faith” I offer a sketch of an alternative to totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life. I write as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ. I am not writing as a generic religious person to adherents of all religions, a project that would fail from the start. To stay with the example of Qutb, it is a task of Muslim scholars to elaborate distinctly Islamic alternatives to Qutb. My task is to offer a vision of the role of the followers of Jesus Christ in public life, a role that stays clear of the dangers of both “exclusion” and “saturation.”
First, I want to take social practices and norms as foundational. They do not come from anywhere else, not from people or institutions or God. It is practices and norms all the way down, as it were. Second, I want to present practices and norms as always in conflict. Norms are derived from practices, but they always misrepresent practices; practices are pulled towards norms.
The image I have is of a balloon which now has too many people aboard and that, in order to stay airborne needs to throw some of its passengers overboard. I say this as what I believe is now happening is that too many people have been able to benefit from global capitalist growth over the last 20 years and that in a period of austerity and economic downturn access to the “goods” of global capitalism is going to be limited and rationed.
I have been only sporadically involved in politics throughout my ministry, generally considering political engagement by clergy to be a decidedly mixed bag. My high calling as a preacher didn’t seem to mesh well with the grubby compromise demanded by democratic politics.Then the church sent me to be bishop in Alabama.
What is the state of our democracy? Is democracy good for the world? How does religion support or hinder democratic practice? Throughout her career, Jean Bethke Elshtain has challenged both liberal and conservative approaches to politics, emphasizing the crucial role that the mediating institutions of civil society play in a successful democracy. She has identified the forces that oppose democracy: identity politics, utopianism, and an elitism that denies ordinary people the prerogatives of citizenship. Yet she has consistently maintained a realism tinged with hope, pointing to Jane Addams as an exemplar of lived democratic practice.