Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama

Faith and the Civic Life of Democracy

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Giorgi Areshidze
American Political Thought
  • Lawrence, KS: 
    University of Kansas Press
    , June
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Toleration is central to the relationship between religion and liberal democratic societies. But how exactly does that relationship work, and what are the limits of toleration? Is true neutrality really possible? Today in the United States, especially in regard to same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues, it might seem that too much toleration of religion will lead to intolerance for others. But if religion must be tolerant in public, does this public requirement begin to shape changes in religious beliefs and doctrines as well? In other words, does the private practice of religion begin to reflect its public expressions?

In Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama, Giorgi Areshidze surveys liberal approaches to these questions, from John Locke and Jonas Proast’s arguments about toleration and true religion at the turn of the eighteenth century to Barack Obama’s re-worked Rawlsian liberalism in the twenty-first century. Though Areshidze takes up a number of key questions, the most persistent one is about the effects that toleration and public engagement have on religion. Does the expectation that religious beliefs must be translated into public discourse necessarily change religion? If public pronouncements should be reasonable—that is, adhering to public standards of reason, whatever those are in a given context—then does religion itself change, as its theology changes, to reflect its public discourse? With apologies for the spoiler, Areshidze’s answer is yes. How he gets there, though, is perhaps more interesting than the answer. Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama covers well-trod ground, but it makes valuable contributions by bringing an assortment of thinkers from across different time periods—John Rawls, Obama, Locke, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jürgen Habermas, and Alexis de Tocqueville, in that order—into conversation with each other.

According to many accounts of religion in the contemporary United States, including sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010), orthodoxy is waning, and religious believers are either embracing or, in smaller numbers, doubling down on theological and social divisions. Neither of these two trajectories is good for a healthy liberal democracy, Areshidze argues, but both are predictable outcomes of “fundamental tensions between religion and liberalism” (3). We can see these tensions in Rawls’s influential ideas, particularly his requirement that public speech meet an agreed-upon standard of “reasonableness.” Areshidze argues that this doctrine has a deep Enlightenment legacy, beginning with Locke. However, for Locke, unlike Rawls, toleration was a matter of Christian theology, and thus Areshidze argues that Locke “developed a form of political philosophy that was directly engaged with theological disputation and cross-examination of revelation, and that his ultimate aim was to transform Christianity into a tolerant faith” (12). In this way, Areshidze agrees with secularization narratives that pin disenchantment and privatization on Protestant theology, a view recently argued by Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (Belknap, 2012). As Areshidze shows with a discussion of Proast and Locke’s exchanges, Lockean liberalism itself was formed as a contribution to Anglican theological disputes.

While debates about religion and liberalism retain a Lockean framework, in recent decades they have become particularly Rawlsian. For this reason, it is important for Areshidze to trace a genealogy from Locke to Rawls and forward to Obama. After an opening chapter on Rawls, Areshidze turns to Obama, who has claimed on numerous occasions, including his First Inaugural Address, “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers” ( 20 January 2009). This prompts us to ask, “to what extent is it possible to update American civil religion so as to take into account the nation’s increasing pluralism without at the same time diluting religion so much as to render its contribution to democracy practically useless” (35)? From here, Areshidze looks back at two of the most commonly celebrated and overtly theological contributions to American public discourse: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Perhaps the most convincing piece of analysis shows how King’s theology blended Thomism with theological and political liberalism.

The final chapter reads Tocqueville and Habermas together to ask whether liberalism can appropriate the moral content of religion if it jettisons its theological specificity. Habermas, in his later works, especially his debates with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), has advocated a “post-secular society” in which, as Areshidze puts it, “the two prongs of the Enlightenment strategy—the secularization of the state and the (still unsuccessful) secularization of society, which were initially joined at the hip—should now be separated…[to] save liberal constitutionalism from its excesses” (119). But can the state be secularized without secularizing society? And can religious doctrines ever really be sufficiently translated into a public, secular register? One of the primary problems here is that if religion is primarily or even largely about experience, those religious experiences never can be “translated” into public discourse. So, what is religion when stripped of the very quality that makes it religious?

Areshidze ends up agreeing with Tocqueville, who argued, in Areshidze’s words, that democracy “will not leave religion intact, and its tendency to reshape beliefs in its own image will mean that religion’s emphasis on theological dogma, transcendent spiritualism, and moral duty become attenuated” (134). Whether readers ultimately agree with Areshidze’s (and Tocqueville’s) argument will have a lot do with their agreement or disagreement with Putnam and Campbell and other sociologists’ findings that modern American religion has been stripped of theological specificity, in favor of a nonspecific faith where everyone might go to heaven. Areshidze concludes with a call for a newly robust religion—one that makes “sharp truth claims about theology and morality and [that] will maintain a critical distance from democracy’s moral and cultural currents” (146)—as this will benefit both religion and democracy. This might be a tough sell for certain readers, but the case is well made. Whatever conclusion one reaches, Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama is a thought-provoking and valuable book with a potentially very broad readership. It could be ideal for undergraduates, perhaps even as the textbook for an entire course with primary sources to supplement

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles McCrary is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giorgi Areshidze is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California.


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