Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life addresses two crucial holes in contemporary understanding of religion and politics: one narrow but important for those interested in faith-based political engagement, the other broad and crucial for all of us interested in the role of religion and secularity in the public sphere. Both are important in 2016, as presidential politics in the United States, terrorism and nativism in Europe, and new forms of authoritarianism elsewhere raise questions that democracy in its current forms struggles to answer.
The narrower theme—albeit plenty broad enough to be worth careful reading—concerns the specific movement that provides the empirical focus for Bretherton’s book: the family of community organizing efforts that emerged from Saul Alinsky’s work from the 1930s to the 1970s and that recently have drawn substantial attention from scholars and thoughtful practitioners. Bretherton’s research shows how the recent emergence of broad-based community organizing (a.k.a. faith-based or institution-based community organizing) into both political prominence and scholarly awareness suggests new ways to address our democratic dilemmas.
The broader theme builds on this narrower concern to offer a careful and fascinating discussion of how political theory, social philosophy, and constitutional law can provide a more compelling model of public life and governing institutions, a model for how to rebuild real democratic life. Bretherton argues for a more “capacious” democratic arena that will allow both religiously oriented and secularly oriented actors to thrive on their own terms and within a shared public space. Given current tensions regarding the role of religious and secular discourse in shaping contemporary societies, Bretherton’s careful parsing of these issues offers citizens, leaders, and scholars alike grist for reflection.
Bretherton’s doctoral training in moral philosophy, Christian ethics, political theory, and political theology—combined with his deep ethnographic exposure to the work of London Citizens, a strong exemplar of one strand of community organizing—uniquely position him to address both themes. I discuss each theme in turn.
On the narrower terrain, the author summarizes the core argument as follows:
…we live in a time of economic and political turmoil when the efficacy of democracy in bringing accountability to financial markets and ruling elites is being tested. It is simultaneously a time when the relationship between different faiths and political life is under intense negotiation at a local, national, and international level throughout the world. It is my contention that community organizing provides a lens through which to constructively address these concerns and understand better the relationship between religious diversity, democratic citizenship, and economic and political accountability. Through examining the relationship between them the book tackles a core paradox that confronts the conceptualization of democracy in modern political thought: that is, how democratic citizenship is seen as an expression of individual liberty, but its performance and defense is in great measure dependent on participation in a group. Without being embedded in some form of association, the individual citizen is naked before the power of either the market or the state and lacks a vital means for his or her own self-cultivation…This book explores whether or not community organizing represents a paradoxical politics that draws on…religious beliefs and practices and democratic politics together to limit the power of market, state, and community over the individual.
The book holds that the stronger versions of community organizing (for which London Citizens and its national parent organization Citizens UK serve as case study) indeed represent a “paradoxical politics” through which cultural traditions and democracy can exist in a mutually strengthening relationship such that they can hold markets, the state, and communities accountable to aspirations of individual and collective fulfilment. Bretherton argues that whereas the black civil rights movement built a parallel between chattel slavery in the American South and the biblical bondage of the Israelites in Egypt, a reading of the Exodus narrative today profitably focuses on the fact that the Israelites were oppressed under debt bondage—and draws attention to the way contemporary financial markets, public policy, and consumer culture lead large numbers of poor, low-, and middle-income citizens and immigrants into a contemporary form of debt bondage. He then seeks to identify a form of democratic politics that can hold economic elites accountable for the resulting vast inequality by demanding real “political judgment” from democratic representatives—that is, demanding that politicians, rather than administering these exploitative social relationships, render political judgment on their unacceptability and pass corresponding laws to rein in the excesses of the market.
Such a democratic politics must be rooted in a vibrant civil society—which raises the concern of all partisans of individual freedom, who rightly recognize that empowering civil society can empower the most illiberal and intolerant of community traditions. So Bretherton seeks not a consensus model of civil society that will force a shared understanding of “the common good” upon all. Rather, he seeks a politics rooted in civil society in which different understandings of the good enter into dialogue and healthy conflict with one another, and thus build self-reform into civil society dynamics and generate a “common life” of shared commitment to democratic policy and societal reform. He shows that, when practiced artfully, broad-based/faith-based organizing offers a taste of what such a civil society–centered politics looks like, and how it demands accountability and judgment from economic and political elites.
In this model, cultural traditions that share a common life within civil society—a common life that includes dialogue and conflict, societal reform, and the self-reform of the cultural traditions themselves—play a disciplining role over against economically and politically powerful sectors. Bretherton’s argument is especially crucial for contemporary debates about the democratic public sphere because he explicitly includes secular cosmopolitan liberalism, trade unionism, and democratic socialism among those traditions that, alongside religion, can play this disciplining role. This side of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, any argument for religion in a democratic public sphere must bridge across to such secular actors; Bretherton shows how broad-based/faith-based organizing does so via its institutional base in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish congregations plus a variety of secular organizations such as labor unions, secular organizing efforts, and other social movements.
At this individual level, the key ethical insight of Resurrecting Democracy is grounded in a kind of neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics: Bretherton highlights the role of virtue in overcoming the attractions of “insatiable desire” and the role of democratic politics in overcoming economic inequality. He highlights how contemporary politics must simultaneously demand structural reform and cultivate the democratic virtues of citizenship, and under the rubric of “consociational democracy” argues for a particular model for how this can occur.
At this point we cross over to the broader argument that makes Resurrecting Democracy crucial for a wide audience struggling with how we can rebuild truly democratic politics in 2016 and beyond. Bretherton ranges widely to draw insight from liberal and conservative critiques of modern democracy, mining political theorists as diverse as Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, Chantal Mouffe, Jeffrey Alexander, and Karl Polanyi to show how each contributes partial solutions to the tensions inherent in democratic life: tensions between political authority in the state versus freedom in society; tensions between the market’s need for political and moral regulation and its tendency to try to assert market logic against both political authority and moral commitments. Yet, he argues, none of these theorists manages to offer a model that can do justice to these legitimate tensions and cross-cutting interests while also pulling them into fruitful interchange. Ultimately, Bretherton argues for “reembedding markets in political and social relationships” and suggests consociationalism as an overarching approach to that task and the other dilemmas of contemporary democracy. Bretherton’s consociationalism is distinct from its more familiar forms in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Bosnia, associated with the work of Arend Lijphart. He draws on Elinor Ostrom, Hardt and Negri, Polanyi, and others to articulate a more society-centered understanding of consociational forms. In Bretherton’s consociational democracy, differing groups and institutions collaborate to reclaim democracy for all. The resulting networks of relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions—interrelated via society, the state, and the market—build a common life premised on contestation and compromise regarding the common good.
Bretherton places community organizing within this orientation by noting how it generally avoids “simplistic dichotomies and oppositions between the state and the market,” and instead interrogates both state and market:
First, what does the state need in order to be a means of establishing the conditions of liberty without crushing a just and generous common life? Second, what do markets need so they can genuinely be a market and not become an overweening substitute for the state…? And third, how can the market and state serve and prioritize social existence while providing the disciplining forces of law, mobility, and innovation so that social practices themselves do not ossify into structures of oppression but feed into the formation of a just and generous common life?
Instead of a just and generous common life, debt bondage traps millions of young adults, the elderly, and the poor and former middle class in chains forged through superficially legitimate financial transactions:
Whereas chattel slavery operates by violently ripping people from their contexts so that they are thoroughly dehumanized and removed from all that constitutes them as persons in relations with others, debt-bondage constitutes a form of intense, internal exile. Indebtedness is like digging a well for much needed water only to have the sides collapse as one digs such that one is buried alive by the very means through which alleviation is sought.
Thus, Resurrecting Democracy makes the case for an urgent effort to “embed market relations within wider and prior moral and legal relationships,” and offers evidence that the stronger forms of community today are striving to do precisely this—with significant albeit only very partial success.
Bretherton’s consociational democracy offers a model for a democratic public sphere that is “faithfully secular”: faithful to the notion of a public sphere within which all voices, those premised on secular reason as well as those premised on religious reason from diverse traditions, can participate in dialogue and contestation regarding societal goals and the best ways and means of achieving them. By giving broad sectors of citizens and a diverse array of institutions ongoing experience of contestation and compromise within civil society, consociational democracy seeks to constitute the virtues and habits of democratic life, rather than hoping that those virtues and habits will somehow survive hostile market and political milieus. By grounding his analysis in real-world efforts to engage politically from a faith-based orientation, Bretherton powerfully challenges many of the assumptions regarding the place of religious faith in democratic politics, especially those shaped in the highly secularized milieus of political theory and social philosophy.
In closing, I must confess that I read Resurrecting Democracy out of interest in community organizing as a form, and with significant skepticism toward its argument for consociational democracy. Do we really need another theoretical position vis-à-vis the best institutional shape for democratic life? After deep immersion in Bretherton’s argument, I come away convinced that we do. Consociationalism is unlikely to have the last word in the debate over democratic forms, but it offers a fertile view into the challenges we face in 2016 and well beyond.