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.
By Matt Lacey
We are presented with the question: are we called to be Americans first, or Christians first? Are we called to claim our heritage as our coincidental place of birth, or our Christian heritage that transcends political and continental borders?
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.
The main problem is, we the people have given and continue to give it to them. Notice in the text that it is not Aaron who first announces that the calf is the god that delivered Israel from Egypt. It is the people themselves who identify this false connection, just as we ourselves are complicit in this perverse deification of injustice.
Locating a middle requires, first, the critique of ideology, which determines the options that appear before us. But the critique of ideology requires an attentiveness to tradition, and to social practices and norms. The “Continental” side talks a lot about ideology critique, but rarely does more than gesture towards those social realities.
In his final book, Why Niebuhr Now?, the late John Patrick Diggins exposes what he claims are false appropriations of Niebuhr and offers in their place Niebuhr’s critique of power. It is this insight, says Diggins, that is especially needed today. This is a significant argument, one worth discussing. And so we asked two scholars, Elliot Ratzman and Ron Stone, to help us launch the conversation.