Thoughts on Democracy & Faith

Around the Network, Essays

During the past two decades, political liberalism has been put on trial. Political theorists indebted to Sheldon Wolin (William Connolly, Romand Coles, Bonnie Honig) have, in various ways, exposed liberalism’s tendency to conceal or downplay significant dimensions of political struggle. These authors indict liberalism for its narrow understanding of public reason, an understanding that underestimates qualities, practices and interactions within our lifeworlds that tend to thwart liberalism’s drive toward consensus and agreement (here I am thinking of clashing visions of the good life, memory of injustice, or the emergence of new movements that challenge our very notion of publicity and reason). This trend within political theory resembles developments in religious studies and theology. Recent discussions between Stanley Hauerwas, Jeff Stout, and Cornel West revolve around liberalism’s tendency to depoliticize religious commitments by relegating them to the private sphere. For these authors, this inclination overlooks the deep connections between democratic struggle and religious practice within American history. These authors remind us that democracy and faith are bedfellows (and not necessarily strange ones).

Jonathan Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, in recent blog posts here, attempt to move these discussions further and potentially in new directions…

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

During the past two decades, political liberalism has been put on trial.   Political theorists indebted to Sheldon Wolin (William Connolly, Romand Coles, Bonnie Honig) have, in various ways, exposed liberalism’s tendency to conceal or downplay significant dimensions of political struggle.   These authors indict liberalism for its narrow understanding of public reason, an understanding that underestimates qualities, practices and interactions within our lifeworlds that tend to thwart liberalism’s drive toward consensus and agreement (here I am thinking of clashing visions of the good life, memory of injustice, or the emergence of new movements that challenge our very notion of publicity and reason).  This trend within political theory resembles developments in religious studies and theology.  Recent discussions between Stanley Hauerwas, Jeff Stout, and Cornel West revolve around liberalism’s tendency to depoliticize religious commitments by relegating them to the private sphere.  For these authors, this inclination overlooks the deep connections between democratic struggle and religious practice within American history.   These authors remind us that democracy and faith are bedfellows (and not necessarily strange ones).

Jonathan Kahn and Vincent Lloyd, in recent blog posts on this site, here and here, attempt to move these discussions further and potentially in new directions.  (Due to limited space, I want to proceed by highlighting the overlapping concerns between these two authors.)  Both Kahn and Lloyd move beyond the prosaic claim that democracy and faith are compatible.  They are not merely suggesting that faith talk can be neatly integrated within democratic theory and practice, leaving our assumptions about democracy unscathed.  Both thinkers argue that the language of “faith” supplements our understanding of democracy by exposing fissures, limitations, and forms of blindness within extant democratic visions.

Kahn, for instance, wants to imagine democracy as a kind of faith.  Faith for him is not some inner state of consciousness; it is a set of bodily dispositions and attitudes toward the world.  Faith, for Kahn, resists and undermines the kind of democratic optimism that is typically, and perhaps unfairly, associated with American pragmatism.  Faith registers the tragic quality of our endeavors to make the world a better, more equitable place; it embraces the uncertainty and contingency that always accompanies our interactions and practices.  At the same time, faith for Kahn has something to do with what Charles Sanders Peirce called tenacity – a commitment to democratic possibility in the face of evidence that a “rational” person might use to reject democracy.

Lloyd similarly suggests that faith language compensates for a void in contemporary political theory.  Yet he gets to his position in a more roundabout way.  In response to civic republicanism’s understanding of freedom as non-domination, Lloyd reminds us that domination does not always operate through the arbitrary will of an agent.  In other words, domination is not always intentional.  Lloyd presses us to think about the forms of domination that are internal to normative practices.   Exclusion, coercion, and violence are much more pervasive and constitutive than civic republicanism would have us believe.  Lloyd concludes by suggesting that the language of sin (or something like that) might illumine the kinds of systematic exclusions that constitute the underside of “freedom as constraint by norms.”

I am deeply sympathetic to the concerns and arguments put forth by these authors.  Insofar as the language of faith (and related concepts like sin) draw our attention to the ways in which tragedy, doubt, uncertainty, and exclusion mark our democratic practices, I am on board with the inclusion of faith talk in theoretical discussions about politics, democracy, and so forth.  But several questions and concerns remain.  What is the distinctive value of faith talk?  What does the language of faith do for democratic theorists that other concepts cannot do?  What are the dangers of revalorizing the notion of faith (especially at a moment when religious studies students have been trained to be suspicious of this term and the history of downplaying the importance of ritual and practice)?  What are the dangers of introducing the notion of sin and all of its baggage into democratic discourses?

I can only offer a preliminary response to some of these questions.  When Kahn talks about faith (and the kinds of qualities, dispositions, and desires that this idea refers to), I cannot help thinking that this is not different from Stout’s notion of hope or West’s understanding of the tragic-comic.  Hope for Stout is not optimism.  It denotes a commitment to possibilities that are often obscured and even rendered untenable by the present order of things.  Hope involves risk, uncertainty, and a sense of the tragic quality of human interactions.  West’s notion of the tragic-comic maintains a tension between our recognition of human limitation/failure and our willingness to laugh, love, and hope in the face of the catostrophic.  It is not clear to me how Kahn’s use of Adams’s notion of faith operates much differently than Stout’s “hope” and West’s “tragic-comic.”  (This seems to be important because of Kahn’s accusation that contemporary democratic theorists, including West and Stout, avoid the language of faith.)

My response to Lloyd is very similar.  It is not clear to me why we should “re-insert” the language of sin into political theory when a constellation of other concepts might be more effective.  If sin is used to expose the underside of “freedom as constraint by norms,” why not just highlight things like exclusion, abjection, alienation, loss and so forth.  Perhaps sin for Lloyd gets at the structural dimension of exclusion in ways that other categories cannot.  Because he introduces the language of sin at the end of his reflections, we will have to wait to hear his rationale for privileging this term.

Both authors offer provocative and timely reflections on the relationship between democracy and faith. I am glad to be part of this ongoing conversation.

 

Joseph Winters is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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