Community organizing is faith-based, at least in its best-known form. Since the 1940s, organizers in the mold of Saul Alinsky have worked with local congregations and civic groups to identify issues of shared interest and to marshal energies into action for social and economic change. Scholarship on community organizing, however, is surprisingly sparse. Work that treats religion non-reductively—as more than an interchangeable component in organizing—is sparser still. There are fine sociological studies, and earlier this century, reports of Barack Obama’s three years in Chicago brought bursts of scholarly and journalistic attention. But with Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, Luke Bretherton joins Romand Coles and Jeffrey Stout as one of the few scholars who treat community organizing as essential to discussions of political theory and the place of religion in the public square.
Resurrecting Democracy is an ambitious work. It is part ethnography (of London Citizens, a broad-based community organizing coalition); part intellectual history (of modern community organizing and its founding father, Saul Alinsky); part commentary on civil society, sovereignty, and modes of exchange. Perhaps it does too much. Certainly, Bretherton’s animating question is a complex one: how might we rightly relate the realities of religious diversity, the ideals and practices of our democratic citizenship, and our ability to hold to account political and economic institutions and elites? The answer he offers is twofold: First, these seemingly disparate elements are profoundly and properly interrelated within a consociational polity (in which distinct institutions and groups—not individuals “naked before the power of either the market or the state”—are federated together for a common purpose).1 And, second, these elements best work together within a polity that is faithfully secular (complexly religious and nonreligious, where no single tradition sets conditions for political speech and action).
Unlike many political theorists and theologians, however, Bretherton’s twofold answer is not in service of a general vision of society: what is often called the common good of all citizens. In our pluralistic context, this just is not possible. We do not share enough. Our aspirations and values are different. Instead, Bretherton thinks, we have politics to allow for a common life, forged together where we find ourselves.
Resurrecting Democracy’s politics is postsecular. It “portrays a form of secularity constructed as the meeting point of diverse and complexly religious and nonreligious positions.”2 But it is a postsecularity that is now and not yet.
The postsecular is decidedly now in the life of London Citizens, the Alinksyite broad-based community organizing coalition that is the subject of Bretherton’s participant-observer ethnography. In London Citizens, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and trade unionists find common cause to act against the ills of bank lending practices. They do so, however, for reasons that emerge from their own traditions. Muslims as Muslims, for example, have good reasons to call on the powers-that-be to regulate punitive interest rates on credit cards and other loans. Trade unionists have good, but different, reasons.
No one in Bretherton’s account is anxious about the public legitimacy of his or her reasons. People do not check that it is okay to speak as they do so. There is no recourse to procedural politics to determine the legitimacy of arguments or motivations, or to edit out distinctly religious voices. Perhaps this postsecular lack of anxiety is a fait accompli in London, where fifty percent of residents will be foreign born by 2031. Certainly, the politics Bretherton recounts is noisy and messy. His portrayal of various groups pragmatically coming together around shared interests, then, is simply a more realistic portrayal of twenty-first century politics than any premised on public reason.
Those who know community organizing, particularly in its “faith-based” forms, will recognize Bretherton’s account of “self-interest rightly organized.”3 London Citizens works through preexisting institutions (religious and otherwise), and shares organizing’s characteristic attention to building power: cultivating anger, generating confrontation, utilizing public action—including the festive and carnivalesque—and developing indigenous leadership. So this is politics as a craft: hewn procedures and practices to mobilize and inspire communities.
Bretherton mostly avoids offering a paean to organizing (although he turns its best-known weakness—that a local focus is ultimately ineffective—into a not entirely convincing plus: in our globalized economy, he argues, political action must engage networks of power and money precisely where they touch down in particular places). Organizing’s importance for Bretherton, however, is ultimately as an example. Community organizing speaks of a democratic political life that is not exhausted by the relationship of individuals to state and market, but which includes nonstate institutions, traditions, and customary practices.
And this is why the postsecular is not yet. Economic corporate power and customary practice are accepted—or rather, taken for granted—in contemporary politics, while corporate religious or cultural power is anomalous, even dangerous. The logic of the market dominates. “Equivalent exchange” is the presumed neutral in democratic politics, crowding out nonmarket values and considerations. You can buy a prison-cell upgrade. You can be a paid drug safety guinea pig. A properly postsecular order would make space for a wider set of economic relations, not just the market’s equivalent exchange or, indeed, the “redistribution” of the social democratic state. If the market were kept within its rightful bounds, there could be space for a political order premised on plural modes of economic relations. The structures and practices of our public political life could then include “gift exchange” (relationship mediated by symbols), “grace” (benevolent giving without expectation of return), and “communion” (the giving that happens as part of an ongoing life together: “just what friends and family do”).
Of course, Bretherton doesn’t merely respond to this postsecularity, partly realized or otherwise. That would not be enough in an era where many feel politically impotent, and where state and market have seemingly failed ordinary citizens. So Bretherton offers a vision. Now, it isn’t a grand vision for society as a whole (familiar from many political philosophies), nor is it a vision of communities of character gathered amid the wreckage of the modern world (familiar in many theological accounts). He rules these out. In fact, they are not even options to be ruled out, for they fail to account and allow for the pull of multiple, sometimes conflicting, loyalties which Bretherton takes as axiomatic in our lives.
What he offers instead is a faithful secularity. With the backdrop and conditions of postsecularity, there can be a democratic politics in which citizens can honor, coordinate, and negotiate their multiple loyalties. They can work out, in other words, how to be faithful to their nation, their civic and cultural affiliations, their families, their gods. The plural, complex space of postsecularity, then, is faithful where it allows individuals (in community) to fruitfully inhabit these multiple loyalties, whether transcendent or immanent.
Accordingly, institutions, traditions, and customary practices have a certain primacy in Bretherton’s account of political life. They provide the context for our loyalties. They may even be the subject of our loyalty! But in a democratic society, they do something more: they help form citizens for political life. If politics is agonistic and plural in the postsecular moment, then healthy politicking needs citizens with prior pieties: the belief, say, that friends and enemies alike possess dignity, or that common life together can be more than just aggregated individual choices.
Bretherton shares this emphasis on the pre-political formation of citizens with classical theorists and contemporary civic republicans. But, in pointed contrast, Resurrecting Democracy offers a tragic politics: a politics of compromise and limitation. Politics cannot always give us the right answers, let alone a flourishing life. And if there are virtues in political life, these come from the shtetl, the labor movement, and populism, not the agora, Pnyx hill, or Roman Senate. Turnout, pragmatism, and personal relationships are the stuff of political life, not the ancients’ benevolent disinterest or moderns’ technocratic, expert-based equivalent.
Politics, then, is a way to find connection and mutuality between diverse interests and loyalties. It is not the source of our identity, flourishing, or salvation. Yet politics is the context within which our communities of kin and kith, religious and cultural belonging, either find expression, or are otherwise silenced by the monist logic of state or market.
There are ironies to Resurrecting Democracy. It reports on the postsecular politics of community organizing, and calls for more of the same. The book, however, is primarily a work of social science. In other words, it’s passably “secular.”
The explanation for this secularity is religious. We can trace a genealogy. For a decade now, Christian political theologians inspired by their readings of Augustine of Hippo have articulated a vision—of both the political lives of Christians and the flourishing of democratic society—in which Christians enhance the welfare of all citizens by acting in Christian ways for Christian reasons. (This is both a rejection of “public reason”—the ideal that citizens in important political debate should only appeal to ideas and arguments that everyone finds justifiable—and a rejection of a dominant position within recent academic Christian theological ethics that the sole proper locus of Christian “political” life is the church.)
In Resurrecting Democracy, however, Bretherton’s focus is not distinctly Christian practices, but rather the opportunity for Christians or Muslims or Jews, or, indeed, Rawlsians or Reaganites or whomever, to forge a common life together through shared political action. However, shared political action does not mean shared reasons for action. Bretherton’s consociational vision of democratic life—exemplified by the give and take of the craft of community organizing—is an attempt to portray how varied traditions, acting in their own interests, can work in consort to enrich democracy. Marching to the Royal Bank of Scotland, a group from London Citizens attempted to present copies of the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an to the bank’s chairman with highlighted passages on the evils of usury.
Resurrecting Democracy is seemingly a secular work by a scholar who rejects the possibility of a “neutral” secularity. Its method and argument are accessible to any reader. It is ethnography, intellectual history, and essay in political thought. The work does, of course, toy with the postsecular: Bretherton’s terminology is sometimes self-consciously theological. (Think of his “grace” and “communion” as modes of economic exchange.) And there are moments where Bretherton declares the theological present: he offers an interpretation of a biblical text or recounts a tradition of religious thought that makes his discussed theme or idea pertinent. But even in these cases, religious insights are offered up to the reader as a means to think anew about a talked-out issue. So readers are provoked, but left assured that they need not be a coreligionist to get the point.
What place is there for this kind of work? More specifically: what place is there for Christian political thought written without expectation that its readers will share its motivating commitments?
We do not ask this question of the Rawlsian or the Reaganite. We just begin reading and decide along the way whether we are convinced. In this, academic work on religion remains overwhelming secular despite apparent postsecularity. Its concerns, at face value, are anthropological and descriptive.
London Citizens is another piece of evidence for the (partially realized) postsecularity of democratic society. Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy is a (partially realized) call for faithful secularity: a politics where citizens’ varied commitments strengthen, rather than hinder, the continual task of building a common life together. Why only partially realized? Well, Resurrecting Democracy doesn’t fully embrace the stance it advocates.4 The postsecular is more described than lived out. Then again, community organizers and Augustinians alike live out the tragic: getting things done comes at the expense of purity. And secular scholarship could all too easily ignore a wholeheartedly postsecular Resurrecting Democracy.
Bretherton identifies with Blue Labour: a movement within the UK’s center-left political party emphasizing the importance of traditionalism (religious and otherwise) in challenging the power of money in common life. Red Toryism is a similar tendency within the UK’s center-right political party.↩
What I’m terming the “postsecular,” Bretherton calls the “secular.”↩
For those less familiar with community organizing: In Alinskyite vernacular, “self-interest” is not a pejorative term. It is just whatever people deeply care about.↩
One consequence is that certain important ideas are undertheorized. Bretherton thinks, for instance, that community organizing works by pulling from the traditions of its constituent institutions, not by insisting on a particular framework or metanarrative. But the details of how this happens are left unexplored. Bretherton depicts rather than explores.↩