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?
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.
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.
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.
This essay is part of a collection of papers on William E. Connolly’s ‘Capitalism and Christianity, American Style’ published in Political Theology 12.2.