Recovering Democratic Politics

Luke Bretherton
Luke Bretherton is Robert E. Cushman Distinguished Professor of Moral and Political Theology at Duke Divinity School, Duke University. His most recent book is Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Eerdmans, 2019).

How shall we live together? Alongside, What is going on? and, What is to be done? this is one of the most basic questions of moral philosophy. The real answer is always the same. We must do politics.

Politics? Surely not. But underneath the polarization, dyspeptic rallies, back-room deals, and rage tweets is the reality that politics is the description of something good, and the stark alternative to three other options that are decidedly less so.

When I meet someone with whom I disagree, whom I dislike, or whom I find threatening, I can do one of four things. I can kill them, I can create a structure of coercion so I can control them, or I can make life so difficult that they run away. Or I can do politics. That is to say, I can form, norm, and sustain some kind of common life amid asymmetries of power, competing visions of the good, and my own feelings of aversion or fear without killing, coercing, or causing them to flee.

Today in America, across the political spectrum, it seems many are on the verge of giving up on politics as the answer to the problem of how to live together and are intent on pursuing one of the other options. This lack of faith in politics is particularly acute in the churches. A recent report by Lifeways Research notes that 49 percent of Protestant pastors report having to address conspiratorial beliefs in their congregations—conspiracies that foster exclusionary nationalism, an authoritarian politics, and violent responses to societal problems. These are conspiracies that demonize and vilify those with whom their subscribers disagree, those whom they dislike.

Beyond conspiracy theories is a general paranoid politics that assumes the bad faith of those disagreed with or who have a different set of beliefs and practices. This paranoid, conspiracy-laden politics was most obviously on full display on January 6, 2021, when Christianity was woven into the rhetoric, symbols, and actions of those who took part in the violent attack on the Capitol. Yet an assumption of bad faith and a deep suspicion of those who have a different set of beliefs and practices can be found across all points of the ideological spectrum.

In fact, the problem goes beyond the assumption of bad faith: according to a recent study by the group More in Common, Americans prove largely unable to accurately describe the beliefs of those in an “enemy” political camp. The study found something that will surprise no one who works in a university: the best-educated and most “politically involved” people tend to have the most distorted views of what the “other side” believes.

Despite the sociology, the answer to the question of how Christians should live with others not like them and with whom they disagree is still politics. Why? Because loving our neighbors cannot and should not entail killing, coercing, or causing them to flee. But if politics is the answer, we must still ask what this means in practice. Amid a highly volatile and dangerously polarized political culture in which Christianity is a key factor generating division, how can Christians find ways of healing divisions, rebuilding social trust, and undertaking the slow and respectful work of building a common life with others?

This generation is not the first to face these questions. Christian philosophers and theologians faced a parallel set of challenges in the early decades of the twentieth century. Confronted with the rise of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and a highly polarized and paranoid politics in the 1930s and 1940s, William Temple, Jacques Maritain, and Reinhold Niebuhr all made powerful, timely cases for why Christians should invest in democracy as the answer to these problems.The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Roman Catholic philosopher, and the American Protestant theologian found themselves arguing in parallel: they claimed that while Christians do not need democracy to practice their faith, democracy enshrines central Christian commitments, and so democracy should be an aspirational feature of political order for Christians.

When I meet someone with whom I disagree, whom I dislike, or whom I find threatening, I can do one of four things. I can kill them, I can create a structure of coercion so I can control them, or I can make life so difficult that they run away. Or I can do politics.

But what is meant by democracy? And how can democracy be the answer when it seems to be part of the problem? Temple, Maritain, and Niebuhr gave one set of answers to these questions. However, their answers tended to conflate democracy with the institutions and structures of the liberal democratic state. In what follows I give my own set of answers, ones that develop a more bottom-up understanding of the relationship between Christianity and democracy and that are more relevant to the contemporary moment.

Democracy is not reducible to voting and party politics. It is not first and foremost a system of government, or set of laws, or an ideology. Rather, it is rooted in three things, and it is these things that form the point of connection with central Christian confessions.

The first is a commitment to listen. We must listen to others who differ from us in background and belief because their experiences, their stories, who they are as people matter.

Listening should be the most basic act for Christians. God’s address—the Word—is heard before it is read or seen or smelled or touched. The opening of John’s Gospel—“In the beginning was the Word”—alerts us that creation is born out of an act of communication: we must hear first so as to be able to respond. St. John is of course deliberately echoing the opening of Genesis, when God creates the world through his Word. Through hearing and responding, the Word becomes our flesh: we are baptized into Christ and become his body, to do his work in the world. We become Christians through faith, which, St. Paul says, “comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17). The fourth-century theologian and bishop Ambrose of Milan echoes this primacy of hearing in relation to the formation of the people of God. Quoting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–6), which is the fundamental prayer of Israel, Ambrose exhorts: “The law says: Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God.’ It said not: ‘Speak,’ but ‘Hear.’. . . Be silent therefore first of all, and hearken, that thou fail not in thy tongue.”

Christians are to echo this in their response to others. As the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in his book Life Together, “The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. . . . God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.” For Bonhoeffer, listening with the “ears of God” is the necessary precursor to being able to proclaim the Word of God because those who do not listen to others, or who presume to already know what the other person has to say, will soon no longer listen to God.

Listening should be the most basic act for Christians.

Small-“d” democratic politics begins with listening. Listening honors fundamental premises of democracy: it marks a way of respecting the dignity of each individual, the importance of dialogue as against killing and coercion as means of resolving conflicts, and the principle that people should have a say in decisions that affect them and the opportunity to shape the world around them.

To really listen to others, however, entails ensuring that they can speak freely so that they may speak truthfully. Free speech, in the sense of the freedom to speak candidly, is therefore the complement to the need to listen. Such speech can take the form of passionate cries, stirring lament, and angry polemic, all of which are on occasion vital forms of democratic communication. This is true particularly when speaking against those who hold concentrated power or who are acting oppressively but who refuse to listen. Voicing and enacting (in marches, sit-ins, etc.) what we grieve for or what we are angry about is crucial for generating change. From the Hebrew prophets and Psalms onward, personal lament, anger, and grief birth public speech and action that contest an unjust status quo.

However, while prophetic jeremiads can be powerful, they suffer from the law of diminishing returns, especially if they are the only form of public speech deployed. Moreover, to be sustained, both listening and free speech require anchoring in a shared commitment to the formation of a common life in which the thriving of all is the aim. So while we have a responsibility to listen to dissenters, and thereby not merely tolerate but honor dissent as a part of democratic politics, dissent itself has responsibilities. One of these is the duty is to communicate in a way that can be heard. Yelling denunciations at those with whom we disagree provides invigorating emotional compensation to the ones shouting, but screaming rarely produces understanding, let alone change. And no one is under any obligation to listen to vitriolic, contemptuous, ad hominem, libelous slurs, a contemporary example of which is online trolling.

If the first point of connection between Christianity and the practice of democratic politics is listening, the second is assembly. We must gather together as a people, in order to form a polity with each other. We see this organizing dynamicat work throughout the Old and New Testaments. The people of God are founded through covenants, agreements between God and his people, and the first step toward a covenant is organizing an assembly. The people must be brought together to hear God give the law (Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 18:16). This assembly is gathered again before entering the promised land (Deuteronomy 31:30), and again on entering the promised land (Joshua 8:30–35). After the first assembly, all the people (including women, children, and resident aliens) were supposed to assemble every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10–13). At crucial points in the story of Israel, it is a congregation or assembly of the people that is the basis of the reconstitution of the people of God as holy: Israel assembles to rededicate itself to God, to renounce idolatry, and to recommit to walking in justice and mercy. For example, in Nehemiah 5, an assembly of the people is organized that places limits on the power of aristocratic elites. The completion of the city walls (depicted in chapters 8‒9) needed the approval of the assembled people to go ahead.

If democracy is about more than voting, and primarily identified with the negotiation of a common life through shared speech and action by a broad cross-section of an entire polity, then all the instances cited thus far reflect how democratic assembly is a necessary part of political and judicial arrangements in the constitution of Israel as a covenantal people. The church, too, is the ekklesia—the word itself is a Greek term for a political assembly. And ultimately the fulfillment of the people of God and the fulfillment of all creation is marked by an assembly of all nations before God at the eschaton (e.g., Matthew 25:31–46). Organizing assemblies is the first step toward constituting the people as those who stand in covenantal relation to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation.

When they assemble, the people are not passive recipients of the commands of God. They are instead active recipients, and the fullest expression and paradigmatic form of God’s rule are the assemblies where God and the people speak to and hear each other, often mediated by Spirit-anointed leaders such as Moses, David, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, or Peter. These public assemblies include various kinds of Spirit-anointed speech, including reasoned deliberation, prophetic indictment, legal proclamation, exhortation, cries of repentance, and shouts of acclamation, all of which help constitute the people of God. In Christianity the importance of assembly is marked by the commitment to seeking the collective wisdom generated through an assembly’s reflective deliberation (e.g., in a synod or parish council; the great ecumenical councils, beginning with the Council of Jerusalem, are the paradigmatic examples here).

Assembly, whether as a congregation or a demos, does not just happen: it needs organizing. And if the people gathered in this place, at this time, is to be democratic, those people need to organize among themselves to determine their living and working conditions. If ordinary people don’t get organized then they are subject to others acting on them, the conditions of their lives being determined by systems and structures controlled by others who either won’t listen to them, don’t have their interests at heart, or are actively hostile.

And finally, alongside listening and organizing, both Christianity and democratic politics entail shared action. Listening and organizing are the means of coming together, but at a certain point people must act together to move the world as it is toward becoming a more just and generous one in which all may flourish. In acting together, rather than simply being acted on or responding to the decisions others make on their behalf, individuals discover their agency, forge a common world of meaning and action, and in doing so reweave the fabric of social trust and solidarity that makes society among strangers possible.

Shared action that generates democratic politics entails being both salt and light. Salt is a preservative: Being salt means identifying and conserving what is good in our society that we receive from those who came before us, tending and cultivating it so that it can be handed on to the next generation. Light, meanwhile, exposes the deeds of darkness and brings understanding: Being light means identifying what needs changing if we are to move from the world as it is to a more just and generous one. Such movement entails shared action that symbolically and physically contests oppressive or corrupt structures, groups, and practices. This contestation aims at delegitimizing existing arrangements through various kinds of direct action: marches, demonstrations, occupations, boycotts, and the like. But being light also means nurturing and forming new practices and institutional arrangements that prefiguratively embody and exemplify the kingdom of God: “we” become the change we seek, and in the process, we can learn to take delight in one another.

In general, democratic politics builds on the contention that the best way to build up a common life, sustain mutually responsible social relationships, and pursue human flourishing is not first and foremost through law or some technocratic procedure but through associating for common action. To build and sustain the quality and character of relationships that make democratic association possible takes discipline and loyalty. Loyalty or faithfulness is vital both to receiving, passing on, and developing any kind of common life, and to the shared action necessary for countering injustice or corruption, whether systemic or not. Faithfulness denotes reliability, commitment, and trustworthiness. Without it, promises are broken, relations of trust dissolve, and so the ability to deliberate and act together and the long-term reciprocal relations needed to organize and assemble over time atrophy. In this sense, both Christianity and democracy are acts of faith.

In the American and British contexts, forms of popular, local self-organization and common action emerged within the abolitionist, Chartist, labor, temperance, and civil rights movements. These were aligned and had a symbiotic relationship with popular religion. The nineteenth-century Populists provide a good example. Their critique of monopolistic forms of power combined with the language of the Methodist camp meetings and Baptist revivals generated a powerful rhetoric with which to challenge the status quo. What these movements represent, and what they offer democratic politics, is the assertion of the priority of covenantal forms of social relationships—and the loyalty and solidarity such relations generate. By prioritizing society over state or market, covenantal forms of association are vital to upholding common values and a common life over and against their instrumentalization, commodification, or destruction through state-driven and economic processes.

One concrete approach to doing small-“d” democratic politics of the kind described here is community organizing. This is a practice that begins with listening and has particular ways of assembling people together and generating shared action toward common ends. Community organizing is an approach that transcends political camps and is committed to doing concrete good that addresses what communities actually need. It thereby promises a means by which we may be able to work together across partisan divides at the local level. It provides a concrete model of democratic politics that is nonpartisan and directly addresses, in real ways, urgent social issues such as the need for affordable housing, police reform, quality education, and economic agency. It is a form of politics that provides a meaningful, on-the-ground alternative to forms of authoritarian politics on the rise around the world and in which many Christians are involved as well as to the highly polarized party politics that dominates the headlines.

As a form of small-“d” democratic politics, community organizing is one in which churches have been the key institutions involved since its inception in the 1940s. Recent research by Richard Woods and Brad Fulton shows that there are now over five thousand community-based institutions involved in this work in the United States, and of them around thirty-five hundred are religious congregations. These are spread across all denominations. The numbers of individuals directly involved is hard to calculate but is in the tens of thousands. Yet despite being one of the most significant and innovative forms of democratic politics to emerge over the past fifty years, community organizing is little understood either within or outside of the church.

Having researched community organizing extensively and out of a concern that church leaders and many others were struggling to know how to address issues of polarization and political conflict in a meaningful way, I started a podcast that tells the stories and outlines the practices of community organizing. Appropriately enough it’s called Listen, Organize, Act! In each episode, I talk to organizers and leaders around the United States working in marginalized communities to effect real change for the better through bottom-up, grassroots efforts. I highlight also the places where the church plays a key role in that work. My guests and I discuss theology and Scripture, as well as political philosophy—but we focus on the practical. Each episode is a stand-alone discussion, but when listened to together, the episodes build on each other, with the series as a whole being a foundational course in the meaning, purpose, and mechanics of community organizing. The discussions focus as well on how organizing can connect congregations with local communities to help foster meaningful and transformational change for the better, in both the communities and in the congregations.

What these conversations confirm is that community organizing can help connect democracy and Christianity in meaningful and significant ways, particularly at a local, congregational level. They also bear witness to how organizing embodies a distinctive vision and practice of democratic politics, one that it is vital to foreground in our contemporary moment. Today, many see democracy itself either as an implausible way of solving shared problems ranging from climate change to structural racism, as impossible due to polarization, or as dangerous due to its potential for co-option by authoritarian forms of rule. The initiative for the podcast is born of a sense of urgency that unless churches find ways of practicing democratic politics, the alternatives to politics—namely killing, coercion, and causing others to flee—will become the norm. And none of these represent any kind of way to love God—let alone our neighbors.

The podcast is available across all delivery platforms; details and accompanying readings can be found here.