Prophets and Patriots

Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide

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Ruth Braunstein
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , May
     252 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Prophets and Patriots, Ruth Braunstein dramatically stages how different ways of imagining and narrating citizenship generate divergent and conflicting political repertoires, which nevertheless share a deep commitment to democratic politics. She achieves this through comparing and contrasting a faith-based community organizing coalition affiliated with the PICO network (People Improving Communities through Organizing) and a chapter of the Tea Party movement, connected to the FreedomWorks organization. Based on several years of ethnographic research, Braunstein’s book documents how these two groups understand and perform their respective ideals of what she calls “active citizenship.” For these two groups, active citizenship is a mode of participatory democracy that “fuses political vigilance with personal virtue” (7). It contrasts with “passive” and “deferential” forms of citizenship. The latter is seen as trusting government, experts, and elites to do what is best for the country; the former entails involvement in politics through means such as signing petitions, virtue signaling on social media, or volunteering, but not addressing structural issues or being personally engaged in the political process.

The first two chapters outline how political and religious discourses converge in both groups to construct a normative ideal of democratic citizenship. Braunstein names the community organizing group “prophets” and the Tea Party group “patriots,” delineating the differing political theologies each group draws on. Chapter 3 describes the narratives of American history each constructs to justify why their set of commitments and approach to active citizenship fulfills the ideal of American democracy. Chapters 4 and 5 compare and contrast the practices through which these groups’ respective ideals of citizenship are enacted, tracing how their practical choices are a self-conscious outworking of their “democratic imaginaries.” The final chapter assesses how and why judgments about what to do and how to do it are driven by considerations of how to conform to their democratic imaginary. In each chapter, through discussing how the groups converge and diverge from each other, the book develops a complex and multidimensional picture of democratic politics that rejects simplistic and binary constructions of goodies and baddies, progressives and reactionaries.

The virtues of the book are manifold. It gives a wonderfully cogent, clear, and sympathetic description of what are often misunderstood groups. The comparison of community organizing and the Tea Party leads to generative insights into how contemporary forms of democratic citizenship should be understood and assessed. Foremost among these is how different ways of imagining democracy and narrating the history of America shape judgments about organizational form and political strategy. Beyond policy disagreements, and despite a shared commitment to democracy, these differences of political style and repertoire generate deep suspicion of those with an alternative approach.

But alongside the virtues are some vices and missed opportunities. At a stylistic level, the book is repetitive. Braunstein frequently uses the same sentence when repeating or linking to an earlier point (e.g., 110 repeats what is written on 63). A more substantive issue is how she cites a broad range of other literature on community organizing but hardly engages with it. For example, other scholars develop extensive treatments of what is meant by self-interest, the place of anger and grief, the role of religion, and how cross-racial and interfaith dynamics operate in community organizing. Braunstein touches on or discusses each of these but fails to situate or assess what she observes in the light of other accounts of the same phenomenon. Drawing more directly on other scholars would have sharpened the concepts used and deepened the analysis in a number of places. It would also have filled out the comparative dimensions of the book, which is one of its stated aims.

In a similar vein, Braunstein’s rendition of secularism is problematic. Recent literature on the anthropology of the secular problematizes prior sociological accounts of secularization as denoting a decline in the public significance of religion due to processes of modernization. Given her involvement in the SSRC blog The Immanent Frame, I assume Braunstein is well aware of this critique. Yet she repeats the prior thesis, and in the process misreads Charles Taylor as supporting it (15). However, Taylor’s work points to how a more nuanced account is emerging of how religious and non-religious commitments and practices interact over time and across cultures and continents. This interaction generates different and varying formations of secularity. Constructions of the public sphere as secular can be as much a creation of religious beliefs and practices as of anti-clerical ideologies and modern processes such as industrialization. The irony is that Braunstein’s own description of the groups belies the account of secularization she adopts. In practice, her book chimes with “post-secular” accounts, identifying as it does how religious beliefs and practices co-construct and are interwoven with political beliefs and practices, how religious and secular formations exist on a continuum, and how combinations of these constitute multiple patterns of secularity even within the same polity. Parallel to Braunstein’s account of how each group embodies a different “democratic imaginary,” the description she gives suggests that each group also embodies a different way of imagining secularity that shapes judgments about what is and what is not considered appropriate for the actions of “good” citizens. This feels like a missed opportunity as the research cries out for a more complex conception of secularity than the one deployed.

Also falling into the category of missed opportunity is the lack of any substantive analysis or development of her description of both groups as populist. There is neither a constructive definition of populism nor any engagement with other accounts of populism. Given the increased level of concern about populism over the period this book covers and the significance of populism around the world today, this is a surprising omission. Again, despite this missed opportunity, what Braunstein provides is, in effect, a rich account of populism and the different styles of active citizenship it can take. An important, albeit tacit, contribution the book makes is to counter much recent academic work that views populism in wholly negative, monolithic, and frankly, shallow terms. As such, in a course on populism, the book would be a good complement to Laura Grattan’s more historically and theoretically driven, Populism's Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America (Oxford University Press, 2016).

The book’s flaws fall in the domain of unrealized potential. It needed more work on how its insights are framed theoretically and more attention given to putting the work into conversation with a wider field of scholarship. Overall, however, this is a very well written and carefully constructed book that makes a welcome addition to the literature on populism, the intersection of religion and grassroots democracy, and community organizing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth Braunstein is assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Connecticut. 


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