20 November 2006

Wallis on religion and democracy

This is from last friday's entry by Jim Wallis on the God's Politics blog:

I believe that religion does indeed have a great contribution to the nation’s moral discourse on public life, but religion must be disciplined by democracy. That means that we don’t claim that our religious authority must be everyone’s or dictate their moral or political fate. Rather, religious people must win the debate, just like everybody else, about what is best—not for the religious community or only faith-inspired citizens—but for the common good [emphasis mine].

For a brief moment some thirty years ago, I was an enthusiast for Wallis' approach. This was long before he published a best-seller, and it was just before his flagship magazine, the Post-American, changed its name to Sojourners. I was enamoured by its vaunted radicalism and prophetic tone at a time when I was becoming disillusioned with the American civil religion so many Christians in that country accepted at face value.

Now I freely admit that I have changed in the ensuing decades (albeit not on civil religion), but I find myself wondering whether Wallis himself has modified his message since then. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but to argue that "religion must be disciplined by democracy" simply does not sound all that prophetic to me. Of course I understand what he's trying to get at with the above-quoted paragraph. Nevertheless, he seems to be making democracy the grand arbiter of what sorts of claims by people of faith are acceptable in the public square.

Furthermore, he ignores a long tradition that sees democracy in some sense as part of the problem. One thinks in this respect of the warnings of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill against the dangers of majoritarian tyranny. Indeed it would seem more "prophetic" (if I may be permitted that word) to recognize that a democracy undisciplined by a christian worldview is itself a potential danger to the common weal, as Robert Kraynak argues in the first part of his Christian Faith and Modern Democracy.

In his recent review of God's Politics, Paul Marshall points out that the Old Testament prophets called God's people back to obedience to his law. By contrast, contemporary Christians claiming the prophetic mantle are usually not similarly focussed. Wallis in particular is hardly proclaiming "thus saith the Lord" to his compatriots. Quite the contrary, he is urging people of faith to temper their claims for the sake of the common good, whatever he might mean by this.

Yet if all people are in the grip of some faith, whether or not it is conventionally labelled religious, why then would Wallis' warning not also extend to the followers of secularizing political ideologies claiming for themselves hegemony over the public square? Should liberalism and socialism also be "disciplined by democracy"? Or is the problem only with those who believe in a transcendent God with the temerity to tell his image-bearing creatures how they ought to live? If Wallis holds to the latter position, then one wonders what exactly he is calling people back to and in what sense he might still profess to be engaging in prophetic activity.

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