THEOLOGY, DEMOCRACY, AND THE PROJECT OF LIBERALISM

Scott Holland

In the midst of preparations for this issue of CrossCurrents, I found myself in Indonesia, working in partnership with the Decade to Overcome Violence, a peace initiative sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Over the past year, this work has taken me to far-flung locales in Asia, Africa, Europe and all across North America. Everywhere in my travels, I am confronted by the sobering recognition that, at this particular juncture in world history, religion serves both as a source of life-giving transformation—and of terror.

We are indeed living in a world marked by increasing fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, and violence. With so much of today's "God-talk" resulting in zealotry, bloody conflict, and murderous clashes between warring theologies in the public square, how do we as persons of peaceable faith name ourselves—and render God's name—in history?

Whether in Nairobi, Amsterdam, Bali, or New York, I consistently encounter religious leaders who passionately pose the same urgent questions: How can faith traditions and confessional communities move beyond tribalism and conflict? How might they instead contribute to a politics characterized by tolerance, safety, and hospitality towards individuals of diverse religions, philosophies, and lifestyles? To some, such probing inquiries regarding religion's place in the public square come uncomfortably close to breaching the free exercise clause and potentially capitulating to the kind of politico-religious tendencies that John Howard Yoder has memorably deemed "Constantinian." Yet these profoundly human and spiritual issues are central to the hopes of those cultures seeking peace in a blessed, broken world. In fact, they lie at the core of the most pressing contemporary concerns regarding religion, democracy, and liberalism.

Good politics, like good religion, these religious leaders insist, cares not only for its own, but for the pilgrim, the stranger, the alien, the Other.

A future issue of CrossCurrents will bring some of the voices from Asia and Africa on religion, democracy, and liberalism to our readership. We begin this issue with one of America's most interesting public commentators in the realm of religion and democracy. Unlike those who fail to grasp the distinction between deep democracy and imperial democracy, Bill Moyers articulates an engaging spiritual view of public life, one in which a pluralistic and liberal ethos is not only good politics but good theology as well. Moyer's piece, first given as a convocation at Union Theological Seminary, is followed by an article on the history of liberal theology by Union's most recently appointed Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Gary Dorrien. Professor Dorrien is one of the finest interpreters and theologians of liberalism writing today.

Two young scholars trained at Duke, Peter Dula and Alex Sider, offer a literate corrective to the notion of mere liberal democracy by bringing "radical democracy" and ecclesiology into productive dialogue. Their close critique of democracy is not merely theoretical: as I write, Peter is in Jordan, moving in and out of Iraq with a religious peace service organization and witnessing the violent aftermath of that country's "democratization."

Long after the so-called Barthian revolt, an emergent "postliberal" movement mounted a robust challenge to then-predominant liberalist theological assumptions. Robert Jones and Melissa Stewart provide a helpful treatment of postliberalism, along with a fascinating look at the conservative Dixieland reception of a rather radical, postliberal theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. Such a conservative reception and reading of Hauerwas, in the South and elsewhere, comes as no surprise to James Logan. He suggests that Hauerwas's somewhat lofty, separatist ecclesiology—one that seems to theologically reject social liberalism—risks leading his disciples to neglect one of America's most troubling social issues (and sins): racism.

We are also pleased to offer a new essay by Stanley Hauerwas on "Democratic Time." In response to a powerful critique offered in Jeff Stout's Democracy and Tradition, Hauerwas presents his most recent and intellectually rigorous reflections on religion and democracy. Casual readers of Hauerwas are familiar with his antipathy towards liberalism and "culture Christianity," in large part owing to their proximity to Yoder's "Constantinianism." Close readers of Hauerwas will discover in this essay a more profound critique of liberal democracy. Drawing from the work of Yoder and Wolin, Hauerwas alerts readers to the importance of what he calls "fugitive democracy." A mere liberal democracy, in contrast to a fugitive democracy, can flatten, colonize or exile the voices of dissidents, aliens, strangers, and heretics. In this piece, Professor Hauerwas presents himself as a true ally of a democracy neither imperial nor liberal, but radical and fugitive. Those truly concerned about the creation of a hospitable public space cannot dismiss his arguments.

Essayist and theologian Holly White revisits the vision and voice of Albert Camus. After decades of neglect, Camus's thought has regained currency in many literary, philosophical, and political circles. Shunned by the more radical Jean Paul Sartre and his adherents because of his liberal democratic sensibilities as a member of the non-Communist left, Camus is now recognized as the more insightful political thinker, and thus, it could be argued, the more humane philosopher.

Those of us who were dismayed by the New York Times' sneering obituary for Jacques Derrida owe a debt of gratitude to his good friend and America's most inspiring Continental philosopher, Jack Caputo, for his affectionate eulogy to this most complex Jewish saint. As a critic of Enlightenment liberalism, Derrida, like his teacher Levinas, reminded us that good religion and politics, like the good life, is attentive to that which is Other.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2005-06, Vol. 55,  No 4.