Robin Lovin’s What Do We Do When Nobody Is Listening? Leading the Church in a Polarized Society should appeal to several audiences. The subtitle’s phrase “leading the church” indicates the primary audience is church leaders, and the guidance offered to them concentrates in the book’s second part, “Listening.” As the phrase “in a polarized society” signals, the book also develops—in the first part, “Divisions”—an analysis of political-cultural polarization in contemporary US society. While the political analysis sets the foundation for the guidance to church leaders, the analysis itself should interest a broader audience concerned with the current American moment. There is a third audience for this book—political and theological ethicists. Although Lovin faithfully serves his primary audience by keeping academic concerns in the background, along the way he carries out a series of masterful, low-key engagements with canonical figures, movements, and themes in political and theological ethics. Lovin is, among other things, an expert reader of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and, as this review highlights, he weaves throughout the book a powerful interpretation and application of Bonhoeffer’s ethics.
But first, the political analysis. Lovin traces the history of American politics through the “uneasy cultural and political unity of the 1950s, the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the fragmentation into single issue politics that marked the end of the century,” setting the stage for the “polarization of American politics in the first two decades of the twenty-first century” (35). Even casual observers of politics will be familiar with polarization. But, as Lovin shows, we may not yet have reckoned with the significance of polarization for our broader political thinking or our ethical and theological reflection.
As evidence of our failure to reckon with polarization, see the widespread sentiment that our politics faces a crisis of authoritarianism. That our politics is polarized counts against the diagnosis of crisis, if that term means the immanent collapse of the political system. The dynamics of polarization are, in fact, stable and predictable. Political consensus eludes, governance gridlocks, each side blames the other, and power toggles predictably between the only two political parties. On the cultural front, we can say with near certainty that any event—as serious as a pandemic or as trivial as a Super Bowl halftime show—will be processed into two opposing narratives through the reliable culture war machine. Polarization means dynamic stability rather than crisis.
Similarly, warnings of authoritarianism belie a structural disanalogy between authoritarian and polarized political systems. It is true that polarization engenders a rhetoric of authoritarianism. Polarized politics becomes less about cooperative work on shared problems and more about defining “us” against “them.” But while each side might call the other Nazis, the underlying political dynamics diverge from those in the Third Reich: “An authoritarian system strictly limits dissent and suppresses any mass opposition. In a polarized society, the entire system depends on raucous opposition that clears out the middle ground and drives everyone toward the poles” (57). Authoritarianism suppresses resistance; polarization needs it. So, laments about the impending crisis of authoritarianism suggest we have not yet taken seriously the implications of polarization.
Lovin’s reading of Bonhoeffer, like his reading of the political situation, is both persuasive and contrarian. Arguably, the dominant reading of Bonhoeffer’s contemporary significance emphasizes resistance, asking: How can we, inspired by Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis, resist here and now? But, Lovin writes, “it is hard to see how resistance to an authoritarian state tells us much about how to deal with our divided society” (57). In a polarized society, resistance simply gets caught up in the dynamics of polarization: “If the only way we know to be the church is an idealized version of the Confessing Church in the 1930s in Germany, we will need to find ourselves a Hitler to resist, and by identifying someone as the Hitler we need, we will end up contributing to the culture of polarization that we intended to resist” (60).
By resisting the resistance-reading of Bonhoeffer, Lovin in effect plays with Bonhoeffer’s ethical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary times. Resistance is a response to extraordinary circumstances, so the resistance-reading of Bonhoeffer’s significance treats our moment as extraordinary. But, supported by his political analysis, Lovin highlights the ordinariness—the predictability and stability—of our polarized politics. This move clears the way for Lovin to mine Bonhoeffer’s ethics of the ordinary, which resistance-readings push to the background.
Arguably, the structural feature of Bonhoeffer’s ethics that is most important for Lovin’s argument is the distinction between ultimate and penultimate things. “Polarization, to put the matter bluntly, achieves its purposes by giving ultimate significance to penultimate goods” (100). In contrast, “Bonhoeffer understood . . . that the theological task is not only to maintain the distinction between the ultimate and the penultimate, but also to take the penultimate seriously on its own terms” (64). With the recognition that God is the ultimate good, politics can assume its appropriate place, not as the locus of ultimate good but as the sphere for the provisional negotiation of proximate goods. In turn, other spheres of responsibility (“mandates,” in Bonhoeffer’s language), such as family and work, are freed to pursue their own proximate, internally constituted goods without deriving their significance from a political ideology.
The work of the church can be seen to follow directly from this. The church is to proclaim a vision of reality that includes the proper relationship between ultimate and penultimate, and to form believers in this vision. Believers in turn participate in family, work, and politics with eyes on the proximate goods they secure, freed from the need to treat these as the battlegrounds of “us” versus “them.”
Lovin has thought deeply about the politics, ethics, rhetoric, psychology, and theology of polarization. For those who want to do the same, this book is highly recommended.
Michael P. DeJonge is the James F. Strange Endowed Chair of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida.
Michael P. DeJonge
Date Of Review:
March 24, 2023
Robin W. Lovin is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He formerly served as the William H. Scheide Senior Fellow in Theology at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey; as the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University; and as dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology. He is also a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics and a contributing editor to The Christian Century. His other books include An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues and Christian Realism and the New Realities.
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