It’s no secret that the last number of years have been rather dispiriting, socially and politically, for Christians of almost all stripes in the United States. For social conservatives, the constitutional affirmation of gay marriage and the attendant shift in Americans’ views on sex and sexuality more generally showed just how much their political strategies of the last 40 years have failed, leading some of them to throw their lot in with someone of rather questionable personal and political pedigree, Donald Trump. For progressives, Trump’s election in 2016 heralded a potential reversal in what they had hoped for on all manner of issues of “social justice.” For all believers, the seeming secularization, especially of younger Americans, heralds a future within which Christians will again need to think deeply about the nature and purpose of politics and their relation to the American democratic order.
For several decades now, one of the more interesting voices trying to help Christians (in the US and elsewhere) think about these sorts of issues has been the British scholar Luke Bretherton, now a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School. Bretherton has written extensively about the interrelationship of Christianity and democracy with an eye toward encouraging Christians to embrace democracy as a comprehensive social ethos, not just as a pretty decent means of organizing politics. His latest book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, pulls together a number of previously published articles and threads them together with some new writing in an attempt to help us map out how living in the midst of our pluralist, conflict-ridden, and often frustrating democratic polities can help inform—and be informed by—the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
A Mapping Exercise
Though Bretherton often offers what amounts to a pretty standard set of politically progressive nostrums—he seems particularly vexed by market capitalism—the book is not merely a brief for whatever currently passes for liberal politics in contemporary Western democracies. He also knocks certain strands of liberation theology for being overly indebted to “worldly” frames of social analysis, expresses skepticism regarding some aspects of state-centric social democratic programs, and suggests that too much of modern “humanitarianism” functions as a kind of noblesse oblige, salving the conscience of the rich without materially changing the causes of unjust poverty. The reader who attempts to pull out any kind of straightforward political program or even a detailed political theology is likely to finish rather frustrated.
But that is hardly a vice, for the book really is a mapping exercise, a set of theological and practical reflections that emerge out of Bretherton’s own engagement with particular theological and political traditions and the sorts of practical problems we find all around us. Indeed, the book sometimes feels like a bit of a bewildering slog, as it churns through arguments about black theology, Pentecostalism, sovereignty, the global economy, and much else over the course of 14 chapters and roughly 460 pages. I suspect that a book about half the size would have really sparkled, but I also suspect that in cutting so much, he would have undermined the purpose of his theological method. At some point, I came to realize—and I hope this was his intent—that engaging this long list of particular subjects is precisely the point: Understanding how to think about the world in light of Christ necessarily means allowing the world to help us make sense of Christ’s revelation. And that means working through others’ views and experiences.
In one sense, this is both right and necessary. The democratic order, for example, is premised on the inalienable dignity of the human person, and though Christianity and Judaism bore that truth into the world, we Christians have only come to realize its political implications in any kind of full-bodied way through an engagement with modernity, even if modernity itself is always simultaneously attempting to draw from and escape its own theological sources. We have and should learn even from our most vociferous critics. So regardless of whether we might agree with Bretherton’s particular judgments in this or that case, the book as a whole is a reminder that even the most abstract attempt to reflect theologically on the nature and purpose of politics will find itself caught up in the particular contexts of its day—and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
But as with any map, we can find ourselves misled by what the map (or author) chooses to emphasize (or ignore)—or by grievous mistakes, innocent and otherwise. Context matters, but context can (and does) mislead. For example, any number of recent writers and scholars have taken up, with great learning and fervor, the story of how too much of Western Christianity wove into its practices and theological commitments the deep-seated racism swirling about in early modern Europe. Bretherton’s book compels us to ask: What we can learn from our neighbors and enemies? And also: What deep errors are we currently weaving out of that context into the fabric of our theology and practices?
Bretherton’s substantive claim, though, is that Christians have good theological, moral, and practical reasons for embracing democracy as not just a set of political practices but as a social and religious ethos, well beyond their “normal” places such as elections, legislatures, and the like. He is eager to extend what he calls “the capacity of ordinary people to act collectively to reconstitute their common life through shared speech and action” not just to the full range of politics as we ordinarily understand it but also to economic life and maybe even the life of the church.
And he has good reasons for this. All human beings do indeed possess an inalienable dignity that demands more than just protection against inhumane treatment. That same dignity also means having the capacity to participate in ordering our individual and collective lives—in other words, to participate in individual and collective self-government. I think Bretherton is right to suppose that our democracy would be better off if we would affirm both the opportunity and responsibility to engage one another politically over how to define, secure, and defend the social and political goods we have in common, rather than leaving them to the tender mercies of, say, the Supreme Court or far-away bureaucratic regulatory agencies. Particularly at a time when political, economic, cultural, and religious elites seem increasingly ill-suited for the tasks they claim for themselves, it is entirely understandable to desire a society with greater responsiveness to popular—perhaps even outright populist—pressures.
Embracing Democratic Messiness
Even affirming all that, though, I have a few worries: Are we really all quite so capable or even interested in self-government as the democratic brief suggests? Or even if we are, can that be sustained in a world where we are both deeply suspicious of national and supra-national elites and all too eager to hand them authority in exchange for promises to make us secure and prosperous?
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worries that democratic individualists will find themselves unable or unwilling to order their lives in any meaningful way without morally authoritative social institutions. As a result, he feared that they might simply turn inward, focusing on their own private pleasures at the expense of their public obligations and opportunities. Anyone who has been a part of an organization knows the old 20–80 rule, whereby 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. (Or, as the sociologist Robert Michels memorably put it, “he who says organization says oligarchy.”) Bretherton is no naïf; he understands that democracy conceived as a kind of Rousseauian “general will” is just obtuse. But I wonder just how well his call for democratizing most everything squares with this sociological reality. Our elites may be terrible at times, but I’m not sure the people are really much better.
Politics is quite the messy business, as anyone who has studied or participated in it can attest. Bretherton has made an interesting and provocative effort to encourage us, in a sense, to embrace our democratic messiness, ordering our lives together in a way that, hopefully, reflects the best of ourselves and—as much as we can this side of heaven—Christ’s revelation. We could do worse and, truth be told, probably will.
Bryan McGraw is dean of social sciences and associate professor of politics at Wheaton College.