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1908 political rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania

The Underside of Populism

Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism…It also gave us President Trump.

A short review cannot do justice to this splendid work. Its wide-ranging sources and multiple insights are alone worth a careful read. In addition, it is a complex work that makes summarizing nearly impossible; yet attempting to do so is necessary in order not to miss its salient points and raise what, I hope, are appropriate, sympathetic questions. Christ and the Common Life guides the reader beyond a common binary in political theology between either an Augustinian-Reformed or an Aristotelian-Thomistic political vision. Refusing this either-or, Bretherton’s work is perhaps best understood as an Augustinian political theology of human flourishing. The argument unfolds in three parts. The first examines five “case studies” that generate the questions and key themes answered and developed in parts two and three. Part one moves dialectically from the strengths and limits of humanitarianism, the “frame” for western conceptions of “common life” (48), and of the Black Power Movement’s (BPM) necessary course correction by attending to power differentials. BPM exposed US democracy as a “Herrenvolk democracy” that was only effectively challenged in the 1965 Voting Rights Act (100). Bretherton’s observations here are profound, diagnosing well the current populism that taps into that debased form of democracy and seeks to undo the 1965 decision. It also begins to address one obvious objection his work gives rise to, and to which I will return: defending populism in the present political moment is difficult if not dangerous. Yet, this is where we, as a society, are headed, as Bretherton explains in the final two chapters. After discussing humanitarianism and BPM, Bretherton takes us through Pentecostal political theology with its diffuse, “populist, enchanted, apocalyptic vision of democratic citizenship” (142) and through Catholic Social Teaching and its centralized, authoritative structure. Anglican political theology then mediates between them with its consociationalist structure. I confess that I found consociationalism unclear in Bretherton’s previous work. O’Donovan has been telling us for some time that we need more Althusius in our political theology, and here, Bretherton provides specifics, making clearer why Althusius and consociationalism matter. That alone is a significant contribution.

Another recurring, yet subtle, theme is that political theology can do better than Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction. Politics conceives a common life; political theology should assist “sustaining” and “forming” it (parts two and three respectively). Communion, not class conflict, sustains a common life. It also requires affirming “secularity” but not “secularism.” Secularity is a proper theological work going back to Augustine that manifests itself in modernity as pluralism. “Secularism” was the marginalization and privatization of religion. It is no longer the church’s “problem” because the “secularization thesis” has been disproven (244). If “once there was no secular,” for Bretherton this can only refer to secularism. His primary object is not to move us beyond secular reason but to address the problem of pluralism through the virtues of tolerance and hospitality.

Having identified what sustains common life, Bretherton turns in part three to forming it. The first chapter in part three, “Humanity,” mirrors the first chapter in part one, “Humanitarianism.” Two themes are at work. First, politics requires a common conception of humanity. Second, Jesus alone fulfills “human personhood” (294, see also 166 and 306). Bringing these two themes together is a point of tension running throughout this book. How does the particularity of Christ and the common conception of humanity fit together? They are (somewhat) worked out by attending to economy, sovereignty, and the role of the “people” in democratic politics. Bretherton’s reflections on economics and politics are worth readers’ careful consideration. I will leave it to them to plumb the depths of those chapters, which are two of the most persuasive in the text. I will conclude by returning to Bretherton’s advocacy for populism, to which I admit I am “almost persuaded.”

The shared, common conception of humanity Bretherton proposes is present in “the people,” and is the basis for populism outlined in the final chapter. The theological basis for populism is discerning “what it means to be the people of God” and how it relates to the “nature of political life” (398, 401). Populism provides the most fitting correlation between them. He differentiates populism as a “political actor” from nation, a revolutionary event, class, race, gender, or sexuality (422, 425). It also differs from “Marxist inspired movements” because the latter “viewed the sundering of people’s traditional communal and place-based ties as the prerequisite for freedom” (439). Populism affirms these ties. Sometimes it does so through “reinvigorating and redeeming” them by looking “forward.” Sometimes it looks “backward.” In the former case, it recovers something lost “by corrupt indifferent elites or foreign powers” to break the power of tyranny and domination. In the latter it can become authoritarian, a source of tyranny and domination. Actually, existing populisms have been “democratic” and “authoritarian” (441). President Trump and the drivers of Brexit “leveraged” a “retrospective” vision to their “antipolitical” visions of nostalgia (442). Bretherton differentiates, then, between a corrupt and a redemptive populism. Nonetheless, he counsels political theologians and others not to seek to “banish” populism, but to discover “what kind of populism to foster alongside structures of representation” (424). He highlights William Barber’s “fusion politics” as an example of the kind of populism that should be fostered. (419).

Given his nuanced advocacy for populism, his recognition that it can be dangerous as well as redemptive, and the actually existing populism currently sweeping up nations, should we heed Bretherton’s counsel? Or, perhaps, could more wisdom be found in book IX of Plato’s Republic? What we need is not “the people” as a political actor. The populus is the demos that morphs into tyranny. They can as easily be imagined chanting, “send her back” or “crucify him, crucify him” as “we shall overcome.” Rather than trusting in the people, we need a “politics of virtue” that combines an older tradition of “virtuous elites with greater popular participation” as Milbank and Pabst have argued in their Politics of Virtue (2016: 1–2). Bretherton agrees with them that we need a complex political space, but his vision is less aristocratic, less dependent upon a virtuous few, and less waiting upon a philosopher-king. The “ship’s captain” and not the philosopher-king, he tells us, is the “ideal ruler.” Philosopher-kings prize theoretical reasoning above practical. They glimpse a vision of truth and goodness and subordinate power to it. Ship’s captains have little time for abstract speculation. Formed by practical reasoning, they rely on “craft and quick-wittedness” (458). Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism; and it is “a perennial feature of Christianity” (416).

It also gave us President Trump (as Bretherton acknowledges), and that is why I echo Paul’s “almost persuaded.” Bretherton’s advocacy for populism is salutary but should be read in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” to resist any romanticizing of “ordinary” or “common” people, certainly an abstract category over-used in the politics of mass mobilization. Generally, Bretherton avoids any such romanticizing, but there are moments that caused me pause, such as when he dismisses critiques of populism by “elites” who see the populus as “common folk” and label them as “uneducated, vulgar and simplistic” (434). This kind of rhetoric overlooks the fact that sometimes some “common folk” are in fact “uneducated” and “simplistic.” None of this necessarily contradicts Bretherton, but I wonder if we should be so quick to abandon the quest for a philosopher-king, or at least what that quest represents? At its best, it seeks to subordinate power to truth. We need not look to Plato’s aristocratic ideal ruler, but we might look to Philo, who found something better than a philosopher-king in Moses, or to the Letter to the Hebrews that presented Jesus as our priest-king. Scripture and worship set forth Christ’s odd priest-kingship as a perennial feature of Christianity more so than it does populism. Each Sunday gathering repeats his enthronement, which at its best shows us power in service to truth. What is glaringly absent in the current, actually existing populism is truth. It is also absent in Christ and the Common Life. Populism, yes, but it is not the people who set us free. It is truth. Can the two be united? Perhaps that is the challenge facing political theology.

The Underside of Populism

Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism…It also gave us President Trump.

Unresolved Tensions: Common Humanity vs. Ethnographic Frameworks

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision.

Dreaming of a democracy driven by the preferential option for the poor…

Bretherton’s robust yet flexible understanding of democracy and politics offers the promise of engaging diverse others in constructing the common good for all, with particular care for the destiny of the poor and vulnerable…[but] I need to hear Bretherton witness to how the process of decentering the canon became foundational for building a Christian political theology.

Brethertonian Thinking

According to Luke Bretherton, theologians, in forgetting that prophetic critique presumes eschatological affirmation, have yet to understand what the work of theology comes to.

The Author’s Response

Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture…To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives.

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