Resurrecting Democracy

Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life

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Luke Bretherton
Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     2014.
     490 pages.
     $36.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781107641969.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is an important book that has already spurred important conversations among community organizers, political and social theorists, religion scholars, and theologians, and will continue to do so in the future. Its main merit lies in providing a comprehensive and nuanced account of broad-based community organizing (BBCO), a phenomenon that has come to the fore in recent years but has rarely been engaged in a systematic way. By focusing on the practice, commitments, and intellectual history of community organizing, author Luke Bretherton develops an alternative vision of citizenship and democracy that overcomes many of the false dichotomies that dominate current political and theological debates. In the process, he envisions a new way of articulating the relationship between market, state, and community that opens up the possibility of a common life in the midst of the complex pluralism that characterizes contemporary Western democracies.

Of particular interest for religion scholars is Bretherton’s ongoing attempt to move beyond the binary opposition between the “religious” and the “secular” that has, until recently, characterized a great deal of scholarship. Bretherton portrays a form of faithful secularity that does not marginalize religious beliefs and practices into the private sphere, recognizing the vital role that religious institutions play in fostering the space for common action and mutual relationship in a world dominated by political and economic self-interest. At the same time, he also emphasizes that people always participate in a multiplicity of loyalties and identities that meet and interweave in a genuinely plural space. No tradition of belief and practice sets the terms for speech and action in our society, and accordingly, the relationship between religious commitments and the obligations of citizenship needs to be constantly negotiated.

The book is very rich and Bretherton’s research is at once detailed and extensive. Part 1 develops “a historical and ethnographic description and analysis that immerses the reader in the practice of community organizing” (16). Bretherton gives a thorough account of community organizing, whose strength is the combination of the author’s scholarly knowledge of the topic and his involvement from 2008 to 2012 in the work of London Citizens/Citizens UK, a broad-based community organization that has been engaged in groundbreaking anti-usury and pro-living-wage campaigns. After a first chapter about the intellectual history of the origins of community organizing and its grandfather, Saul Alinsky, chapters 2 through 5 are devoted to a description of the practices and presuppositions that make up community organizing. The political campaigns in which the author was involved are narrated and reflected upon by connecting ethnographic and anecdotal observations to broader theoretical frameworks, so that by the end of the first part of the book, the reader acquires familiarity with the tactics, practices, and strategies that are used by community organizers, and the philosophical, political, and theological conversations that are spurred on by, and implicit in, their work. In the process, Bretherton argues that “Alinsky’s approach to community organizing represents one of the most important forms of contemporary democratic politics available for…it prioritizes social relationships and refuses to subordinate these relations to political or economic imperatives,” and “constitutes a means of enabling ruled and rulers to arrive at political judgments together” (21). It does so by creating a “federated alliance of institutions with often divergent and conflicting beliefs and practices…founded on the identification of mutual need for each other, shared interests, and the pursuit of goods in common” (241). In this way, the voices of those who are disempowered can be heard by those who hold the power to decide, and an ongoing relationship of reciprocal and affective recognition between haves and have-nots can be created and sustained.

Drawing on the thick account of community organizing developed in the first part of the book, Bretherton uses Part 2 to articulate a way of negotiating the relationship between faith, citizenship, and money based on the consociational, populist, and practice-based politics embodied by BBCO. Community organizing represents “a politics of a common life in which multiple traditions…create locations within which a sensus communis is forged” (192); this, in turn, allows the creation of shared political judgments, for within the mutual pursuit of shared goods, commonalities are recognized and conflicts reconciled. Implicit in such a practice and understanding of democratic politics is, first, a conception of civil society as a complex body politic in which different economic, state, familial, and religious institutions interact by way of convergence, cooperation, communication, and conflict. Second, it implies a complex consociational vision of both sovereignty and democracy that recognizes the essential plurality of the political order, and thus seeks to build a common life through the coordination, rather than the annulment, of differences and particularities. Third, it requires the recognition that money has power and that it is not neutral. When left to itself, the market leads to the general commodification of all social relationships and creates forms of domination and exclusion. Accordingly, there is a need to re-create a participatory economic democracy that reaffirms the subordination of economic relations to social ones by introducing legislation that protects the vulnerable, by creating alternative forms of mutual aid, and by instituting associational modes of production that uphold the dignity of labor and embed capital in the body politics.

Such a brief summary does not even come close to conveying the vast spectrum of conversations Bretherton is involved in, or the breadth of the book’s engaging arguments. With great skill and erudition, Bretherton immerses the reader in a complex web of discussions that are used to build an inventive proposal that critically appropriates, disapproves, and integrates the thoughts of many other important scholars. In this way, the reader is not only enriched by the constructive thesis that Bretherton develops, but they are also empowered to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the issues debated in the book, and to creatively engage with the author’s core arguments by referring to the many sources that Bretherton uses. I highly recommend this book to all those interested in the intersection of religion and politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alessandro Rovati is Adjunct Professor of Theology and Political Philosophy at Belmont Abbey College.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, North Carolina. Before Duke, he was Reader in Theology and Politics at King's College London (2004–12). His other books include Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (2006) and Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (2010), winner of the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing. As well as academic journals and books he writes for the media on issues related to religion and politics. This book grows out of a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project for which he was principal investigator (2008–11).

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