Blogs > Cliopatria > Democratization and Christianity

Dec 6, 2005 12:27 pm


Democratization and Christianity



In the current special issue of the Boston Review, there are several articles -- two by historians -- on"The Believers." As Henry Farrell points out, the articles feature"lots of interesting argument about the relationship between religion and the left."

One of the feature essays is by Albert J. Raboteau, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, author of Slave Religion: The"Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, and an Orthodox Christian. There is also an excellent piece by Gary B. Nash, emeritus Professor of History at UCLA, which uses three biographical sketches to show that the evangelical Christianity of the Great Awakening often empowered"ordinary people" to think and speak for themselves. Nash points to Richard Allen (one of the founding ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church), Jarena Lee (an African American woman who became an exhorter in Allen's church), and Lorenzo Dow (a poor but popular Methodist circuit rider without a formal education) as examples of what Nathan Hatch has described as the"democratization of American Christianity."

I was especially struck by Nash's discussion of the relationship between Jarena Lee and Richard Allen, because it contrasts with a similar relationship I've just been reading about. Lee's autobiography is published in Sisters of the Spirit, a collection that also includes the autobiography of Julia Foote, another African American woman who became conscious of a calling to preach after converting to Methodism. But Foote's experience with the elders of her AME church was very different from Lee's.

According to Nash, Richard Allen was initially reluctant to invite Jarena Lee into his pulpit. But after her repeated demonstrations of powerful preaching, he eventually relented. At the end of the 1830s, however, Julia Foote was cast out of the First AMEZ church in Boston, where the minister was African American abolitionist Jehiel C. Beman. Like Lee, Foote had ecstatic visions. She claimed to have heard the voice of God addressing her. But her charismatic sermons and her claims that she had been sanctified displeased her husband and the men of the church. In her autobiography, Foote recalled Beman forbidding her to preach her"holiness stuff" to the flock, despite the requests of some"elder sisters" to give her a hearing.

So Foote began preaching in small house meetings to disaffected members of the congregation. Needless to say, this did not make Beman happier, and according to Foote, he excommunicated her when she refused to stop preaching. Last Thursday, while reading about Foote and her visions in the beautiful new African American history reading room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I was moved by her description of Beman's skepticism. After one night of particularly vivid visions, Foote wrote,
... my minister, Jehial C. Beman, came to see me. He looked very coldly upon me and said: 'I guess you will find out your mistake before you are many months older.' He was a scholar, and a fine speaker; and the sneering, indifferent way in which he addressed me, said most plainly: 'You don't know anything.'

After reading Nash's article and reflecting back on Foote's story, I had two thoughts. They are not necessarily related to each other, and they are not directed at Nash's piece in particular:

The first thought: the democratization of American Christianity had important limits. On the one hand, Jehiel C. Beman himself could easily serve as another example for Nash's article. The son of a Connecticut slave who was freed after fighting in the American Revolution, Beman was a shoemaker who became a prominent pastor, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and a leader of African American voluntary associations in various parts of New England. But Beman's faith, while serving as an important agent of his own empowerment, did not necessarily entail Foote's empowerment. This would come as no surprise, of course -- to Nash or to Hatch, whose book charts a retreat by many American Methodists from their most democratic impulses. But I think it's important to include the stories of Footes and Bemans alongside the stories of Lees and Allens, if only to emphasize that the democratization spurred by Christianity was incomplete and fitful. It is also important to stress that even the"ordinary people" empowered by evangelical Christianity did not thereby find themselves in agreement on the scope of that empowerment.

A second thought: As the special issue of the Boston Review demonstrates, there are currently many efforts afoot to reclaim the democratic (small"d" or big"D") legacies of American evangelicalism. And pointing to figures like Foote serves these projects well. Yet I sense that many on the Left would like to applaud Foote's empowerment while simultaneously pooh-poohing her charismatic faith or endorsing her visions. In this sense, though, many scholars find themselves in the position of Beman. While disagreeing with his patriarchal repression of Foote's voice, they echo his"sneering, indifferent" condescension toward her"mistake." But if this is intended as a strategy for wooing evangelical Christians toward the Left, it seems to me like one that is doomed to fail. It does no good for democrats to say to"The Believers" that their history is progressive and democratic, if at the same time they say,"You don't know anything." It could be, of course, that many Democrats do not really mean to talk to"The Believers" at all. Perhaps many are mainly talking to each other about"The Believers," as if to say,"Those people sure don't know anything, but at least they're ordinary." I trust I don't need to point out why this will seem as cold and condescending to the Footes of the twenty-first century as Beman's reaction seemed to Julia Foote herself.

I think it is important for historians to tell the stories of people like Dow, Allen, Beman, Foote, and Lee. Many people who identify America as a"Christian nation" tell the history of evangelicalism as if its telos were the radical social conservatism of people like Tom DeLay. And articles like Nash's are useful for proving that Christianity in this nation has often been more open and democratic than the Christianity of its latter-day adherents. But ultimately, these historical ripostes to conservative Christians have a limited usefulness. First, they require historians of Christianity to follow Christians propagandists in ironing out the wrinkles in their favored visions of the past. As I've argued before, the major problem with lobbyists like David Barton of Wallbuilders is that their historical arguments are selective and oversimplified: they wave a copy of a Thanksgiving Day sermon and declare that the nation has Christian foundations. It's tempting to do the same thing from the other side: to wave a copy of Julia Foote's autobiography and declare that American Christianity has democratic foundations. But the more important contribution for historians to make is to point out the complications in both attempts to make the past staightforwardly"usable" in the present.

Second, and more importantly, offering duelling histories of American Christianity often keeps discussions in the past. And although (as an historian, of course!) I am all for discussions about the past, we must be careful not to put off indefinitely the hard conversations between"The Believers" and"The Non-believers" that need to be taking place in the present. At some point, those who think that Julia Foote is a democratic exemplar of Christian empowerment are actually going to have to listen and talk to the"ordinary people" who believe in God as fervently as she did. I do think that in many cases these conversations are beginning to get underway, and I wish them long life.

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Ralph E. Luker - 4/13/2005

Oh, I quite agree that there are remarkable examples of individual Catholics who were to the Left and that right wing nativism often made allying with native conservatism problemmatic.


David J Merkowitz - 4/12/2005

I would day Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, was rather left-leaning in a nineteenth century Catholic sort of way. Dorothy Day also comes to mind. Mainstream Catholicism was rarely left of center except during the 1970s and 1980s for sure, but they still do not seem to fit as well into the right side of the spectrum across time. The Purcell brothers in Cincinnati are a couple of anti-slavery if not abolitionist Catholics.


Van L. Hayhow - 4/12/2005

I only got 16 right. I feel stupid. A couple of my wrong answers were inexplicable.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2005

I think part of the solution to your idealized democracy, and to the problem of extremism and unruly discursants (that's not a word, is it?), is that we don't function in an ideal democracy: we function in a constitutional republican society which provides minimal (but I believe very useful) structures and rules for the discourse. Or rather, the discourse may careen out of control, but the discourse cannot by itself enact policy which violates standards of non-establishment, etc.

I like the concept of discursive virtues and vices, by the way: I strongly suspect that's a phrase I will find myself using in the future.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/12/2005

I'm not sure when you Or McGreevey think that Catholics stood clearly to the left of mainstream American society and religion. If you refer to Catholic affinities with organized labor and the New Deal, perhaps, but organized labor and the New Deal were, well, pretty mainstream. If you refer to earlier periods, the prejudice and discrimination against Catholics _might_ make them appear as if they are to the left, but in fact much of the articulated reason for the discrimination was a fear of Catholics' alien and reactionary commitments to authority, hierarchy, etc. I find it telling, for example, that we really can't identify a single important Catholic abolitionist in 19th century America. Sure, Catholics tended to become Democrats, but being a Democrat in 19th or most of 20th century America hardly means standing significantly to the Left of anything.


David J Merkowitz - 4/12/2005

Beyond the always obvious point that religion in America does not fit well within a dualistic right left situation. I can't say that I agree that more 'right-wing' religion has been more public than left-wing over the course of American history. If you meant in the present rather than historically I'd say you are mostly correct, though Jews and Catholics make it hard to generalize. Two groups mentioned already, the Jews and Catholics at different points in their history stood clearly to left of mainstream American society and religion and yet made very public claims about what America should be like. John McGreevey has shown this well in both of his books. In contrast, the post-Scopes fundamentalism while never as silent as the history books made them, certainly were not as publicly active until the 1960s or so.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/12/2005

Yes, Caleb, for a moment there, we had mistaken you for Pat Robertson. It's a good thing we got that cleared up. For what it's worth, I got a 17, which embarrasses me. I suspect that, if it had been a Freedom for Religion Foundation quiz, my score would have been higher.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/12/2005

I got a 19 too ... which will hopefully lay to rest any suspicions that I'm a would-be theocrat! (Although even more hopefully, no one had such suspicions in the first place!) Thanks, Manan.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2005

For those of you wondering, it's a test of US Church-State law and history. Pretty decent one.... I got 19 (it's a 21 question test).


Caleb McDaniel - 4/12/2005

I think maybe I've overstated my case as well, because I certainly agree with this:

... those who use [religious premises] need to recognize that they are not likely to be convincing to those participants who do not share those premises.

Right. While democratic conversation does not depend on shared premises, it does depend on certain discursive virtues like respect for our interlocutors' premises. And that respect has to go both ways. But I don't think calling this mutual respect a necessary virtue depends on mutual assent to some restricted concept of public reason.

... elected or appointed officials ... need to be careful about the areas in which they have the freedom to apply those beliefs and need to be aware of the fact that they are in positions not just of prominence, but power.

Also agreed. I also think you and Ralph are right about the "overidentification" of different groups with their most extreme adherents.

You probably detected that my dismissal of the specter of theocracy was half-hearted, because that specter spooks me as well, and I'm not sure I've exorcised it here. At the same time, I don't think anything I've said here gives solace to a theocrat. What I'm arguing for is a radical (and probably utopian) kind of democracy -- something akin to Rorty's "great conversation of mankind," but without the ground rules that limit the conversation to secular premises. A theocrat isn't likely to be happy with this way of describing what our nation should look like, because a theocrat, more than anyone, wants to set up very stringent ground rules for conversation.

The Big Contradiction In The Back of the Room for my argument is this: I obviously think we do need to share a commitment to open-ended democratic conversation and Socratic dialogue. What happens when theocrats and radical secularists won't buy into that shared vision? Am I just insisting on my own "shared premise," and thus contradicting my own claim that shared premises are not necessary for public, democratic discourse?

Maybe. But maybe there's a way out of this contradiction. Perhaps there's a way to describe what's wrong with both theocrats and radical secularists that faults them for discursive vices (as opposed to discursive virtues like "respect"). In that case, maybe we could still say that theocrats and radical secularists lack certain required democratic virtues without sneaking a "shared premise" in the back door ... ? I'm not really even convincing myself with this response, so that's a good sign I should probably stop. (Far from taking the legs out from under you, I think I'm pretty much hopping on one leg myself!)

A final point: Of course everything I've said here offers a very idealized picture of democracy. The fact of the matter is that some people don't want to talk: they just want to have their way. How to deal with such people is a problem that I don't have surefire answers for. I at least know I don't want to become like those people, and that impels me to keep talking ... even when it seems like that is fanciful or futile.


Manan Ahmed - 4/12/2005

I went and scored a measely 14.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/12/2005

Ralph

I think you're on to something, but I would suggest that "coming out" really is religious. After all, it is somewhat like marriage (a sacrament) in which the person makes a public statement of allegiance or of identity that alters their relationship with much of the surrounding world.

Possibly confirmation is the better parallel, but confirmations have little power outside of the specific church. That's not because church membership is meaningless, but because in a society in which all denominations get to heaven, one's particuarly affiliation is not so crucial.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/12/2005

In some odd way, the secular Left has flipped the public/ private thing in re religion and sexuality, so that now it seems morally obligatory to testify about one's sexuality and "coming out" is the born again experience. On the other hand, religion has been relegated to a "private" sphere and it seems uncivil to drag it into the glaring light of day for a public examination.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

I don't know if I'm overstating my case, but I keep having to clarify it. I don't really mean that religious premises should be excluded from public discussion, but that those who use them need to recognize that they are not likely to be convincing to those participants who do not share those premises. I don't mean that elected or appointed officials can't have deeply held beliefs (or even shallow whims) but that they need to be careful about the areas in which they have the freedom to apply those beliefs and need to be aware of the fact that they are in positions not just of prominence, but power.

Yes, I want to limit civil servants from publicly making theological judgements in the course of their duties. If they can't justify the decisions made in the course of their duties on non-theological grounds, then either their job is defined too broadly or they are going beyond their mandates. This doesn't mean that civil servants can't go out and publicly be religious or campaign for changes. Note: this is administrative responsibility I'm talking about here; elected officials have a broader field of action because they are elected to exercise their judgement and implement their beliefs -- within the limits of non-establishment -- and to convince others to follow their lead.

Yes, it does raise the spectre of theocracy, and this is where Ralph's complaint about the overidentification of the radical theocrats with the larger body of people of faith comes in. For that matter, Ralph's complaints overidentify secularists of faith like me -- who want non-establishment to include social and cultural assumptions as well as political power, who acknowledge the tensions created by the interaction of theology and history -- with radical secularists who want to obliterate religion from human experience.

I'm not sure I've actually answered your points here, but I did my taxes last night and I need a break. I'll check back later and see whether you've left me a leg to stand on.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

And I want to agree with all concerned (most of my disagreements I'll handle in the other thread) about the importance of the history of religion and the importance of religion in history. If history is to be a rational (sorry) study of forces and events it needs to take into account religious motivations and idea systems, faith communities and their sometimes extraordinary members.

One of the really challenging things about religious history, in my opinion, is the balance between eternal and contingent factors: for example, theological innovations like religious liberalism can be seen as being shallow echoes of secular processes, or they can be seen as part of an ongoing authentic tradition of varying relationships between individual conscience and interpretation and religious authority of text and temple. I struggle with this whenever I have to do the Reformation (in an hour and change), because it is not just a "reponse to the Renaissance" but an outgrowth of deeply held faiths (some of which had cropped up before and elsewhere) on all sides (Except maybe Henry VIII).


Caleb McDaniel - 4/11/2005

Just wanted to add my agreement to the agreement you have already reached!

I completely agree that the religious history used on sites like Family Policy is spurious. And part of what I was suggesting at the end of my post was that people who oppose Family-Policy types should be careful not to simply do the same thing in reverse, by arguing that because some past evangelicals were empowered by democraticization, that should dictate the way that Christians should view their faith today. Very often in these debates about a "Christian nation" or a populist strain in Christianity, appeals to history are used to short-circuit conversations about real differences of opinion in the present. But showing that Thomas Jefferson was a deist doesn't settle these debates in favor of those who think that our public discourse must be secular, any more than showing that Charles Carroll believed in Jesus settles the debate for those who think our public discourse must be Christian.

Also, Rebecca Goetz says:

I honestly do prefer a secular civil discourse in which people's religious beliefs stay private ...

At the risk of pressing a point that I've already belabored in the thread with Jonathan Dresner's comment, why? The strength of democratic liberalism, it seems to me, is that it encourages public discourse on beliefs of every kind. Why should religious beliefs in particular need to be kept private? As I've suggested in the other thread, preferring that people just don't talk about their most deeply held beliefs basically invites deception: the the ideas and actions of religious people will continue to be informed by their religious beliefs, but they simply won't bring those beliefs into the light of day where they can be examined and interrogated by all. How is that better for our civil discourse?


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 4/11/2005

I don't disagree with you, either. Shall we agree to agree? :) You are right, too, that we have to stop assuming that the religious right is the only group of politically active religious people in America these days. I tend to think, and feel free to correct me on this, that most left-leaning religious people tend to keep their beliefs private. While those beliefs might be powerful motivators, they aren't out there telling everyone about it. I don't know why this is...perhaps left-leaning people are more likely to fear offending someone? I don't know the answer to that question, and maybe my initial assumptions are wrong. As to whether or not the left, or more specifically the Dems, need to engage more explicitly with America's religious communities, I don't know the answer to that. I honestly do prefer a secular civil discourse in which people's religious beliefs stay private (in that, I guess I'm closer to what Jonathan Dresner prefers?). But if engaging non-religious-right groups of believers effectively challenges the frankly poisonous and dangerous Biblical rhetoric on the right, I think I'd support it.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2005

I don't think I disagree with any of this, Ms. Goetz. But one of the problems that those of us who have religious commitments is that much of the discourse on the Left has simply assumed that the Religious Right spoke for America's religious communities. Of course, the Religious Right is happy for the Left to make that assumption -- so that those of us on what I suppose I'd have to call the Religious Left felt as if we had to carry on two battles at once: the battle to convince our political allies that it was a mistake to launch forth as if there were no need to attend to America's religious communities and the battle with our religious allies who tend to conflate religious values with a triumphalist Americanism that finds odd alliance with provincial readings of religious texts.


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 4/11/2005

I've read through this post and the thread and I've found it very interesting, and so wanted to offer a tangential comment. As a self-avowed secular humanist who is also an historian of religion, the main problem I find from the right is an annoying propensity to assume that Christianity, historically, has functioned exactly the same way as it does today. That is, I find that *most* people on the right believe that patterns of belief, worship, theological debate, and Christian meaning do not change over time, so that what THomas Jefferson said or did in 1790 is *exactly* what Christians should believe today, and should let what TJ said or did dictate the way that all true Christians view their Constitution and public life today. Poppycock, if you ask me, but here's a great example of the type: http://familypolicy.net/?p=17
This sort of rhetoric is counterproductive but it is what drives the modern religious conservative movement. It is also views like these that make it difficult to write about religion without having to confront questions like I do everyday: are you Christian? when were you converted? If you're not religious, why are you so interested in religion? The history of Christianity isn't solely the province of the religious right, any more than it is solely the province of the religious. I think once we realize that, the discussion about who is properly religious and what the place of religion should be in public life will become much more amiable, especially since we'll be able to recognize that both concepts change over time.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/11/2005

Jonathan, thanks again for the comments and the discussion. I think there are two conversations going on here simultaneously, which are related but separable.

A. A discussion about the parameters and premises of public discourse.

B. A discussion about how elected officials ought to think about their civic duties.

Re: Discussion A. You say: "public discourse does not necessarily need to be on secular terms, but it does need to be on broadly shared terms." Let me ask, for the sake of argument, why? As you point out, it is pretty difficult -- if not impossible -- to find robust premises on which everyone in a pluralistic democracy can agree. So why set the bar for public discourse so impossibly high?

Since the reality is that our various premises and terms for debate are so diverse, insisting that we must reason from shared premises often leads to a rather illiberal concept of public discourse. By forcing consensus on what must be kept out-of-bounds in our conversations, we actually compromise what should be a touchstone of liberal democracy: that no individual's expressions or ideas should be ruled out in advance of their being heard. So not only is the idea that we must hold public conversations on shared terms unrealistic; it ends up being undemocratic.

What's the alternative then? Well, the fact that we don't share all of the same premises doesn't make conversation impossible, although it certainly makes it more difficult. We don't have the luxury of fixing the terms of debate beforehand, because we can't agree on those terms. So we have to face the harder task of Socratic dialogue, in which we each try to persuade each other, but without the benefit of mutually agreed upon conversational rules that keep some ideas out of bounds. When Thrasymachus says "justice is a vice," Socrates is startled, but he doesn't say, "You can't say that! We have to agree that justice is a virtue before we can even talk about justice!" Instead, he sets about showing Thrasymachus that, based on the other things he believes, he really can't believe that justice is a vice and injustice is a virtue. In other words, Socratic dialogue offers us a way of talking with and persuading each other without the benefit of rules that dictate the terms of the conversation.

Perhaps what I'm saying is disconcerting because it seems to raise the specter of theocracy. If we allow people to make public arguments on the basis of religion, aren't we threatening the separation of church and state? Well, in the first place, not necessarily. Saying that religious premises are allowed in public discourse isn't the same as saying that Congress should make a law establishing religion, or interfering with the free exercise thereof.

But in the second place, if certain religious arguments on offer in today's public discourses threaten democratic liberalism, then there's nothing to do but engage the people making those arguments in conversation. It won't do to simply rule those arguments out: the idea that such a rule will simply stop people from reasoning a certain way is a pleasing fiction, but it is a fiction. Moreover, if we deal with religious interlocutors by simply insisting that they put aside their deeply held beliefs and agree to our terms, we are actually given up one of our most deeply held beliefs -- that agreement cannot be coerced by rules, but must be reached by argument. (Throughout this discussion of Subject A, when I say "rules," I don't mean "laws." I'm talking about conversational rules for public discourse.)

Turning to Discussion B. I still think it might be asking too much of anyone -- regardless of whether they are public servants or not -- to compartmentalize their public and private selves in such a way that the twain never meet. If we ask people not to bring their religious commitments into their decision-making processes, we're probably just encouraging them not to tell us about how those religious commitments are operating in the background. And that's not conducive to democratic conversation either. It also seems odd to expect of our elected representatives what we would not expect of electors. If I'm right on Discussion A -- that everything should be ruled in from a conversational point of view -- then that applies to elected officials no less than anyone in a democracy. Why would we want to limit the kinds of reasons that civil servants can give for their decisions? Don't we want them to simply be honest with us about those reasons, so that we can address and refute them if necessary? If so, it would be counterproductive to simply say, "You can't say that in your role as a civil servant. Religious arguments can factor into your decisions, but keep them to yourselves, and don't allow them to bias your decisions." If I were an elected official, and someone gave me that advice, I confess I wouldn't know exactly what I was supposed to do.

Again, I'm grateful for this discussion. I'm not sure I really believe that everything I'm saying is right (that's another wrinkle in all of this: not only do conversation sometimes take place without shared premises, they sometimes take place even when the interlocutors are not firmly convinced of their own premises!), but that's why I value your feedback.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

I would argue that public discourse does not necessarily need to be on secular terms, but it does need to be on broadly shared terms. And it is almost as hard to find shared political premises between Jews and Christians (then there all the sects, and other religions, etc) as it is to find them between Christians and secularists.

And when I say "performance of duties" I mean just that: doing our jobs. I don't mean that we have to clear our hearts of other motives, but that -- and I'm mostly looking towards public servants and elected officials -- they not place their principles as Christians above their duties as citizen servants in the performance of their public duties; and if there is a conflict between them (besides what can be handled with the usual scheduling accomodations, etc) then either get out or convince people to change the definition of the job (see: pharmacists). I meant it when I made the comparison to the politics/academia nexus: we have ideologies and beliefs which can be our deep motives and which can shape our priorities, but when we step into the classroom, or grade a paper, or advise a student, then we need to be professionals who recognize that we are serving others.

I agree that the search for common ground has to proceed to some extent outside of the realm of strictly shared agreement in principle to allow for differences in principle which nonetheless produce practical alliance. The problem comes, and we've covered this ground before, when we fail to recognize that common ground does not cover all the territory, that coalitions are not generally permanent though they may endure, and that respect for differing premises really must go both ways (actually, more than two, usually, but let's keep it simple) for it to work.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/11/2005

I agree with Ralph that democratic discourse does not have to be grounded on secular premises. Mainly, this is because I think the Rawlsian idea of a secular "public reason" that everyone can accept is chimerical; he underestimates how deeply held religious convictions are for many people in a democracy, and overestimates how well "public reason" can serve as a consensual framework for discussion. So in a similar way, I'm not sure what Jonathan means by "the performance of duties in a neutral fashion." When are any of the things that human beings do "neutral"? Our concepts of duties are also tied up with our concepts of the world and ourselves, and it may be too much to ask Christians or Jews or Muslims or anyone to denude their selves of those other concepts in order to enter the public sphere. (I'm ventriloquizing Jeffrey Stout a little here, mainly because I've been trying out his arguments in Democracy and Tradition for a while to see if I really do agree with them.)

That said, I didn't really intend this post to be making those points. In fact, part of what I wanted to say was closer to Jonathan's point that Christianity and democracy are two different things. My above paragraph should make clear why they have to be. Democracy is the form of government and society that allows both Christians and members of all other faiths the freedom of expression and religion, so democracy and Christianity are clearly not the same things. And I would go farther: although democratic theorists and theologians might reach conclusions that look isomorphic -- that "all men are created equal," for instance -- those conclusions will be grounded in very different premises. Christians say things like "in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free"; democratic theorists don't say precisely the same thing -- they drop the "in Christ," for one thing. So to look at a statement like this, or examples of its being realized in practice, and declare that Christianity is democratic might be the same confusion exhibited when others declare that a democracy is Christian. The theological implications of the one and the theoretical implications of the other are not necessarily the same, although they may be similar.

It's okay to say they're similar in order to get small-d secular democrats and Christians talking. There is some common ground between the two. But ultimately, that talk is going to reach the point where Christians start saying things like "in Christ." This isn't the point, though, where conversation ends; it's really the first point at which conversation is actually starting. So it would be the most un-democratic thing of all to sneer at Christian interlocutors, to say clearly, "In Christ! You don't know anything." Does that mean that the democratic conversationalist has to become a Christian in order to continue the conversation? Not at all! He or she simply has to respect the premises of his or her Christian interlocutor enough to engage with them. Instead of saying, "You don't know anything," say, "Doesn't your faith tradition hold that in Christ there is neither slave nor free? Shouldn't that commit you to freedom for all?" Conversely, the Christan might say to the democrat, "Don't you believe that there is neither slave nor free, that there is freedom for all? Shouldn't that constrain you from constraining my freedom of religious expression?" These questions are not rhetorical of course: they raise hard issues that don't have easy answers. But answers certainly won't be reached if (a) both sides are more interested in triumphally claiming the mantle of democracy either for secularism or faith and (b) both sides impute ignorance or worse to the other.

A final point: I think it's important to keep the question of "how democratic Christianity's implications are" separate from the question of "how Christianity contributed historically to the rise of democracy." Hatch and Nash are really answering the second question, but that doesn't necessarily mean they've answered the first. In fact, if Christianity's theological implications are democratic (I've already expressed my discomfort with locutions like that, but bear with me) it won't be because evangelical Christians have historically been "ordinary people." Those points are and should be separate ... or at least so I think as of this typing.

Thanks for the discussion!


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

I'm not sure you've captured my position fully. I have no problem with your civil behavior being informed by your Christianity, but in the realm of civil discourse I don't accept your (specifically) Christian premises as sound bases for convincing arguments. You don't accept my Jewish premises, either, when we disagree, but you respect my right to come to my own conclusions on my own terms and you object strenuously if I over-extend the arguments into what you see as your private realm.

In the public realm, which is to say, in the realm of government, I have no problem with people of faith serving, even serving out of principles of faith; I do have a problem when that faith conflicts with the performance of duties in a neutral fashion. Kind of the same way I feel about politics in academia, actually.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2005

One of the things that I never quite understand is the relationship between your belief in a secular democracy and your commitment to Judaism or Jewishness. What I keep hearing from you is that I and my fellow Christians must behave publically as if we are committed to secularism as the only acceptable common ground, when we are not committed to it and it is not common ground, but that as Christians we must respect public Judaism or Jewishness. I have no problem with the latter, but it is when you tell me that my Christianity must not inform by civil behavior that I have a problem.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

Economic Liberalism is a third thing, fully congruent with neither Christianity nor Democracy.

I would trace the roots back to Desiderius Erasmus, rather than Calvin, myself (and not just because he has my second favorite reformation name), which just highlights part of the problem: Erasmus was influenced by the Renaissance, the renewal of interest in pre-Christian thought and (Religiously based but ultimately secular) Humanism.

I don't mean to say that you or Caleb or Mr. Nelson think they are the same thing; I merely mean to suggest that disappointment in our differences is not justified when the mere existence of our society is itself so theoretically unlikely....


Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2005

Caleb McDaniel is fully capable of speaking for himself, but I don't think either he or I believe that Christianity and Democracy are different names for the same thing. Nonetheless, democracy's modern history is deeply intertwined with the modern history of Christianity. That's not to say that democracy can't take root in non-Christian contexts. It obviously has and will. But in its European and North American forms, democracy emerged as the political expression of liberalism. Western liberalism, in turn, expresses the individualistic assumptions of a tradition largely traceable back to John Calvin. That individualism finally means, politically, one person/one vote. Economically, it means each individual pursuing her or his own economic interest ultimately results in the greatest good to society as a whole. And, religiously, it challenges the communitarian claims of both Judaism and Catholicism that we are saved collectively.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

Democracy and Christianity (and this is true of most religions) are two entirely different things, with unique and separate origins, different purposes, different scales and values. It's entirely conceivable that neither a Democratic Christianity nor a Christian Democracy may ever exist. What is remarkable is not that there are limits to the overlap between them, but that there is any overlap between them at all.

It's true that the conversations are worth having; I would not want to hold out false hope that the deep tensions and outright contradictions can be "overcome" or "reconciled" in a meaningful fashion in the short term for a large portion of the population.


Jason Nelson - 4/11/2005

Mr. Luker,

I wanted you to know that I agree with you and Mr. McDaniel on this point. I thought it was worth mentioning because sometimes it seems to me that you take my occasional disagreement with you as a contrivance, and not a sincere disagreement. I wanted to illustrate that I will agree with you when I believe that you are right.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2005

Caleb, It won't be any surprise to most of our colleagues at Cliopatria that I agree almost entirely or, even, entirely with the thrust of your post. Both here and at Crooked Timber, I've repeatedly argued that it may appear to be self-evident to those on the secular Left that the only common ground on which we can stand is secular. That might seem self-evident, but it is also self-serving. In a debate or a discussion, I always want the "others" to accept my premises as their own and, once they've done that, we can reach a quick agreement. I've never quite understood why those on the secular Left fail to see that secular premises are neither self-evidently true nor can they be the only common ground on which we can stand together. Those premises are merely theirs.

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