Recovering Democratic Faith

Around the Network, Essays

By Jonathon Kahn, Vassar College

Who are the fools among us who continue to have faith in democracy and in American democracy in particular? After a desultory three-year period of community organizing in the corner of Harlem that I call home, I find myself preoccupied with this question. My community was unable to bridge the gap between what came to be called the “old” and “new” Harlem. To be sure, there were moments that Bonnie Honig might call “democratic ruptures,” when my community tried to rework its own sense of “we-ness.” But these moments were fleeting. “Ordinary life,” as Honig says, “reasserts itself, with a bit of a vengeance.”[i] Democratic energies dissipate. Democratic energies fail.

And yet I find myself wanting to argue that democratic faith is possible and needed. Though I have no theistic beliefs of my own, I can find no way to move forward with democratic life except as a person of faith. What, then, do I mean by faith and why does democracy need it?

This is first in a series of posts based on papers delivered at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. Inquiries may be directed to david.true@wilson.edu.

By Jonathon Kahn, Vassar College

Who are the fools among us who continue to have faith in democracy and in American democracy in particular? After a desultory three-year period of community organizing in the corner of Harlem that I call home, I find myself preoccupied with this question. My community was unable to bridge the gap between what came to be called the “old” and “new” Harlem. To be sure, there were moments that Bonnie Honig might call “democratic ruptures,” when my community tried to rework its own sense of “we-ness.” But these moments were fleeting. “Ordinary life,” as Honig says, “reasserts itself, with a bit of a vengeance.”[i] Democratic energies dissipate. Democratic energies fail.

And yet I find myself wanting to argue that democratic faith is possible and needed. Though I have no theistic beliefs of my own, I can find no way to move forward with democratic life except as a person of faith. What, then, do I mean by faith and why does democracy need it?

I do not mean by democratic faith what Patrick Deneen means by it in his book Democratic Faith: a callow progressive optimism that enchants American democracy with promises of human mastery. Following Robert Adams, I would not be inclined to think of either liberal or Christian forms of democratic hubris as genuine forms of faith because neither are seriously tempted not to believe.  And being able to seriously entertain such doubts is what faith, on Adam’s view, requires. Faith properly conceived “coexists with an acute awareness of the ‘risk’ that it is wrong.”[ii] In this way, faith begins in moments of disillusionment, but also functions to sustain disillusionment.

As a result, faith becomes less about right belief, and much more about the practice or disposition to risk conflict with the world. A psychoanalyst might say that faith enacts the world’s resistances. Faiths are exhibited as modes of persistence. This is why Adams understands faith as a “dangerous virtue,” for at times faith requires refusing to revise in light of evidence at hand. Practicing faith well means knowing when and why it is crucial to refuse revisions. The virtue of faith is not a virtue of moderation. The virtue of faith requires reasoned immoderation.

 This notion of faith is helpful for democratic actors who are having serious doubts about democracy’s sufficiencies. Critics of democracy who disabuse us of gimlet-eyed “democratic faiths” actually create the conditions for democratic faith. I see the work of agonistic democratic theorists such as Honig, Wolin, and Chantal Mouffe as deeply important to the emergence of what I want to call democratic faith. By disabusing us of utopic illusions of reconciliation and by rooting democracy in modes of violence and coercion, these critics eschew bad forms of faith. They disenchant instead of redeem democracy, and thus renew conditions for democratic faith.

Yet political theorists talk very little of faith when it comes to democracy. Too rarely is a notion of faith readily and openly acknowledged as undergirding democratic practice. It might be said that the faith I am trying to evince is poorly recognized and is resisted by its very practitioners. Might the current Occupy movement be understood as faith-based? I do not hear faith being talked about as constitutive to their democratic practices.

Against the grain, George Shulman’s recent masterly work, American Prophecy, places a democratic faith of the sort I have been talking about at the heart of democratic practice. Most of the prophetic voices he is interested in are not classically religious, yet they “live by…faith rather than certainty.”[iii] Too often faith is taken to be the exclusive property of religion, and Shulman’s narrative helps us see the costs of limiting the imagination in this way.  We fail to see the way faith—the modulation of commitment in conditions of uncertainty—is at the heart of the democratic life.

Is it too facile to say that what I lacked, what my community lacked, during our community meetings was faith? What we unquestionably lacked was the language and skills for expressing the role that faith plays in democratic life. I wonder if we can develop such a language and skills. By this I keep the democratic faith.

Jonathon Kahn is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Vassar College. He is the author of Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (Oxford, 2009) and he is working on a project called The New Secular: Democratic Dispositions and Religious Virtues.


[i]Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 139.

[ii]Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 385.

[iii]George Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 30.


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