Inclusive Populism

Creating Citizens in the Global Age

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Angus Ritchie
Contending Modernities
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , September
     2019.
     202 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780268105778.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in the Global Age by Angus Ritchie is published through a collaboration between the Contending Modernities initiative and the University of Notre Dame Press. The Contending Modernities series “seeks, through publications engaging multiple disciplines, to generate new knowledge and greater understanding of the ways in which religious traditions and secular actors encounter and engage each other in the modern world” (series page). This book fits well within that scope.

Ritchie posits that, due to limitations to both “secularizing liberalism” and far-right populism, these extremes need to be replaced by what he terms inclusive populism. This alternative, according to Ritchie, allows all to have an active role in public life and is a “path to democratic renewal” that welcomes religious and secular perspectives as well as other diverse views (ix). Such renewal can be brought about through community organizing and the society and relationships that that it brings about. Foundational to Ritchie’s understanding of inclusion is the theology and politics of Pope Francis, to whom he refers at least twenty times throughout the text. The author upholds the pope as “the most prominent global opponent of both ‘fake populism’ and the injustices of our current economic order” (151). The solution he proposes is based in Pope Francis’s “three Ls—land, labor, and lodging” (135).

Moving beyond the theoretical and into the practical, Ritchie draws data from over sixty interviews and written accounts with community organizers, academics, and religious leaders (most of them with Citizens UK). In addition to including the voices of the interviewees and authors, Ritchie speaks from his own extensive experience. The result is a very accessible work that not only discusses building relationships but demonstrates some of the listening that is required for such work to be accomplished.

Throughout Inclusive Populism, community organizing is highlighted as more than simply inclusive and pluralistic—it is also required by justice. Because community organizing “not only involves action by the ‘suffering poor’ but is a movement funded by their own money” it is “a challenge to the stereotyped narrative of powerlessness and dependency” (35). Active involvement in decision-making by those impacted means the decision makers “are motivated to achieve a more just solution and willing to be pragmatic” (41). Similarly, and later in the work, Ritchie points out that “in addressing the process by which policy is formed, organizing ensures that the perspectives of the poorest and most marginalized communities are brought to bear on the issues at hand” (134).

The form that community organizing takes can be varied, and it is more than gatherings of large groups of people—in fact, at the center of such organizing is individual meetings that help build relationships and share self-interest. This interest is critical to organizing as it helps to ensure that the priorities for the effort are set by those most impacted by, and invested in, the movement. As Ritchie points out, a “focus on self-interest is essential if community organizing is to be a movement of and not just for the poorest in society” (40).

The author engages with questions and concerns about community organizing, including those related to, among other things, the amount of influence paid organizers should have, fears that the power it brings about could be used for destructive purposes, and whether regressive groups might be given a platform (70). He acknowledges that it can be the case that problematic power dynamics or other issues can arise in community organizing movements, but that “what is distinctive about organizing is its self-correcting nature, embodied in the maxim that ‘all organizing is re-organizing’” (102).

Ritchie argues against the “myth that a nonreligious public square could somehow be a neutral one” and asserts that pluralism that invites collaboration with religious organizations and institutions is central to community organizing (152). Pluralism “requires...confidence in traditions” and the “mediating institutions that embody them” (137-138). Countering objections that such activism might dilute “the distinctive mission of religious congregations, as places of spiritual encounter” (96), Richie, somewhat confusingly to this reviewer, highlights the ministry of Pope Francis, who “shows how to focus on popular rather than merely activist spirituality” (97). Additionally, he points to “a ‘spiritual populism’ that corresponds to the wider populism of the organizing movement” (98).

Healthy pluralism is respectful and includes “engaging with the distinctive beliefs and spiritual practices of churches, mosques, and synagogues.” This approach can utilize the capacity of such religious institutions for “building and sustaining relationships” (149). Ritchie concludes that the example of Pope Francis demonstrates that “The experience of congregations involved in organizing is clear: Engaging across difference need not lead to a dilution in faithfulness” (153).

In this text, Ritchie carefully describes general theoretical and philosophical stances related to community organizing and then includes practical examples. It would have been good to include more diverse illustrations to support his assertions around pluralism. Most of his discussions center around Western Christian perspectives and trends. This is quite upfront in the book, from the mention of Western on the first page of the Preface, but with such a focus on pluralism in the book, including a balance of examples from various traditions would be helpful.

The book is highly readable and the organization of the text itself is quite good, with useful concluding sections at the end of some of the chapters. Inclusive Populism can be of great benefit to scholars and students of religion, political science, sociology, and anyone interested in understanding ways to counter the rising extremism in some societies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Beth Yount is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Neumann University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angus Ritchie heads the Centre for Theology and Community in London.

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