I’m nearing the end of my preliminary research on the first of the three theologians I’ll focus on, John Milbank, and thought I’d share some links.

a brief Time Magazine article from 2001 about him and his movement Radical Orthodoxy.

is a bit longer story about him from U.S. News & World Report in 2000.

And here’s
an article he wrote for PBS in 2003 on the divide in the Anglican Church over homosexuality.



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    Have you encountered Jeffrey Stout in your readings? I’m currently going through his Democracy and Tradition. He’s discussing democratic theory and it is my first real foray into the topic. Stout agrees with much of the neotraditionalist crticism of John Rawls, but he also takes Milbank, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas to task. Of those three I’ve only read some Hauerwas. Stout has taken a pragmatist approach to democracy as opposed to the contractarian model of Rawls (whom I also haven’t read) or the neotraditionalist approach. It’s very interesting. He seems to like Wolterstorff.

  2. 2
    elcaballo Says:

    Hey Tyler,

    Yeah, I’ve read Democracy and Tradition and Flight From Authority. I like him, though I think he gets a lot wrong about that what he calls the “New Traditionalists.” As Hauerwas says (in a response at the end of Performing the Faith), Stout’s main strategy is to change the subject. He doesn’t really answer any of Milbank’s claims, just says Milbank (et al) is bitter about secularism. And I don’t think the example about the (dis)use of the Bible in the British parliament really responds to Milbank’s concerns in any way. Milbank could care less how many times the Bible is quoted (he rarely does himself); the point, for Milbank, is that the discourse by the 17th century was already plagued by the assumption of violence in political organization. Stout’s pragmatic definition of democratic discourse doesn’t really overcome a basically antagonistic view of politics (which Milbank calls “ontological violence”).

    That said, I do think there is something to Stout’s overall vision, though it’s been too long since I’ve gotten into it. Flight From Authority (his first book) is really interesting, and some think he should have stayed with his arguments there.

    And I do think Stout’s right on about Rorty and Rawls. Actually Rorty changed his mind after reading Stout’s book. Pretty cool.

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    Jamie thanks for the links, made for some good reading. I haven’t read stout, just some of Yoder on Stout, but NO ONE takes MacIntyre to task! OKAY NO ONE! 😉 …ahhhhh Hi. I’d be interested to hear his criticism of the big three so maybe I should take a look.

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    Stout comes from a point of seeking to defend democracy as a moral tradition that helps the common good, rather than being an atomizing philosophy devoid of virtue. While I don’t want to psychoanalyze the dude, I think Stout is trying to stand against the New Traditionalists, who, in his reading, say that democracy isn’t a tradition, or at least it isn’t a good one. I think that he’s trying to find a moral tradition for himself as an atheist. It’s a fascinating discussion in Democracy and Tradition, but I find it interesting that he has to go back to Emerson, Ellison, Hegel, and others who have been dead for a long time to build his argument. Few contemporary democratic thinkers treat democracy as he does. Stout knows this and sets himself as standing against the contractarians like Rawls and the New Traditionalists, like MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Milbank. Stout argues that the New Traditionalists are hurting democratic progress because he sees them leaving the public square, where democracy is hashed out. He wants them to come back with all of their commitments and assumptions and work together with others in forming a just society. Stout disagrees with Rawls and others that we have to abandon religious convictions or religious language in order to form a pluralistic society.

    I’m enjoying Democracy and Tradition and am attracted to the pragmatic approach of Stout. Even if I’m influenced by some Anabaptist and New Traditionalist thinkers, I have not stood fully in those streams. I come from the more “culture warrior” tradition of American Christianity — I was raised on large portions of Focus on the Family — and I don’t care for that approach either. It seems to me that in the American Church, we have two competing voices (and I’m oversimplifying here). On the one hand we have Dobson et al. saying we are a Christian nation and it is our duty as Christians to put God back at the center by brute democratic force. On the other hand we have Hauerwas and others saying this has never been a Christian nation and we are not called to be good citizens of the US; we are called to be the Church. (Hauerwas called himself a theocrat during a lecture at the Calvin January Series a couple of years ago and I don’t think I can follow him down that road.) One option seems to see democracy as a means of employing its will and the other options seems to see democracy as a worthless endeavor and would rather leave it alone. Neither option gives me much of an idea of how to engage in democratic processes in our pluralistic society. I would want to ask Hauerwas, what in his theology gives him an understanding of why he should critique or petition the government or even vote? I would want to ask Dobson, what in his theology gives him an understanding of how he should work democratically with those who do not share his religious assumptions?

    All the same, I think Stout does paint too rosy a picture of how secularism emerged. He tries to make the Enlightenment’s secularism religion-neutral and a purely pragmatic change in which people had to ask themselves how do we get all these people of different faiths to get along? Fair enough, but Stout seems to ignore statements like that of Diderot who said, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Despite his defense of democracy’s Enlightenment roots, I must agree with the New Traditionalists in that I don’t see how a purely secular democratic philosophy doesn’t lead to atomization.

    As for his MacIntyre critique, he doesn’t spend much time addressing After Virtue, but discusses Whose Justice? Which Rationality? at length. I haven’t read any MacIntyre (After Virtue is on my bookshelf), so I don’t know how accurate Stout’s critique is.

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    elcaballo Says:


    My main problem with Stout comes out in his opening chapters on African American literature. There he argues against peoplehood as a concept and/or practice that can (or should) apply to communities smaller than the nation state. His argument, if I remember it correctly, seems to be that claiming “peoplehood” can only devolve into the kind of interest-group politics that currently plagues most democracies.

    Aside from the fact that Stout’s argument is unduly offensive to Jews and blacks, for whom “peoplehood” has been a sustaining practice for a long, long time, I have major theological difficulties with it. If Christianity is anything–anything worth being a part of, at least–it is the lived reality of being a certain kind of people. And that reality can never be subordinated to a nation state’s (or market’s, or whatever’s) request, no matter how polite and “rational,” to identify primarily with the “people” of the nation.

    Another objection I have is that, if MacIntyre is right at all that “community” and “tradition” are only realities when shared ends are present, it is highly unlikely that anything like Stout’s pragmatic thesis can work. In fact, though he often overstates his case, I do think Milbank is correct to see pragmatic attempts to secure community without shared ends as basically violent and nihilistic. Milbank’s argument rests on his claim that such attempts rely on a notion of “ontological violence,” that is, a view of the world as inherently and perpetually in conflict. Politics is then just an effort of managing violence, never work towards a real peace. Christians, as Milbank argues (and I agree), see the world as a gift from God, created in and for peace. Political efforts that aim for that peace go, as Hauerwas, quoting Yoder, named a recent book, “with the grain of the universe,” even if they don’t seem to be “effective” at present.

    (Incidentally, I think it’s interesting how Milbank overcomes the Anabaptist/order of redemption vs. Calvinist/order of creation dualism by locating his argument for peace in creation. Not incidentally, Milbank is not a pacifist, a commitment that makes his whole project fall apart.)

    One thing I do admire about Stout is his candor about his (athiestic, naturalistic) “democratic piety.” I think Stout is moving to a recognition that you can only uphold liberal democracy if it is a kind of religion. That is, “democratic tolerance” is an exclusive and exclusionary faith in the way things are, with a concomitant vision of the way things should be. The other great recent pragmatist, Richard Rorty, realized this before his death, stating that his role as a university professor in a liberal democratic society was to convert Christians. (Actually, he names “fundamentalist” Christians, but Hauerwas is far from a fundamentalist and I imagine Rorty would have the same reaction to students informed by him–or anyone else that tries to get Christians to remember that they are a people set apart.)

    To tackle some of your other points briefly:

    (1) Why Hauerwas thinks he can critique the state: Two reasons (at least): First, because the church needs to know what it should not be, and second, because the church is called to proclaim the gospel to the nations. Contrary to popular belief, Hauerwas has never said Christians shouldn’t be involved in the politics of the nation state. Indeed, his writings over the years contain many specific policy injunctions on issues like medicine, care for the mentally retarded, and economics. But he certainly has said that it matters how Christians are involved, and that you can’t really answer the “how” until you start talking about who Christians are. Sure, he may overemphasize the latter point (though I’m not sure if that’s possible), but the policy injunctions are still there–though unfortunately overlooked time and time again. I do think (and this is an argument I’m developing in my thesis) that he should talk about certain kinds of engagements with the nation state and market as practices that are essential to the church’s identity, as they are partially constitutive of its mission. He sometimes implies that the church can work out its identity first, then start enganging in this kind of political practice. Insofar as he does that, he’s wrong, but he certainly doesn’t always do that.

    (2) Hauerwas’s claimed theocracy is indeed problematic. I haven’t worked out the arguments yet, but it seems that there’s a confusion of eschatological hope with the church’s limited mission in the present. Though our politics must derive from a vision of heaven, I am not sure that we have the gift of imagining what an entire Christian society would look like. Rather, like the Jews, we have the gift of a particular way of life that is of universal relevance, though it will be rarely received.

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    elcaballo Says:


    I know you have unconditional love for the Mac, but Milbank really does a number on him. Near the end of Theology and Social Theory, Milbank argues that MacIntyre is still wedded to a “secular” paradigm insofar as he thinks philosophy can operate with complete independence from theology (and actually, MacIntyre wrote an essay confirming that he sees his philosophy as basically secular, rather than committed to any particular theological tradition). This commitment leads MacIntyre to uphold the ancient Greek virtues rather than the Christian virtues; the former, as Milbank shows earlier in TST, are rooted in a vision of an “ontological violence” that can only breed antagonism and chaos.

    Typically, Milbank makes it sound as if MacIntyre is pretty much worthless, even as he claims him as one of his major influences. You and I both know that MacIntyre is great, but Milbank’s criticisms should be taken account of.

    (Hauerwas explicitly agrees with Milbank over MacIntyre in an essay in his mid-90s book In Good Company. And I would love to know what Murphy thinks about all this.)

  7. 7

    Thanks for interacting with my comment. From what I can remember of Stout’s discussion regarding African-American literature, I don’t think he states that people groups smaller than the state cannot or should not exist. In his discussion about African-American literature, he juxtaposes what he sees as a right way of going about peoplehood and a wrong way. His examples of the right way include Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. The wrong way would be Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam approach, which Stout compares to professional wrestling. He sees Ellison as rightly demanding equal say in society and democracy, whereas he sees Farrakhan as removing himself from democratic discourse. Ellison holds onto his ethnicity and culture as he engages in the larger society; Farrakhan uses his understanding of ethnicity and culture to distance himself from others who he sees as less than himself because they are not like him. Stout is clear in the next chapter, that he embraces everyone’s right to having “deep commitments” whether they be a religion, a peoplehood identity, or a democratic theory. Stout contrasts his acceptance of different traditions and values to Rawls’ demands for a neutral reasoning (and in doing so, agrees with the New Traditionalists against the contractarian model). I actually found myself and my identity as a member of Christ’s body accepted in Stout’s view, whereas I feel handcuffed in the contractarian view.

    I haven’t read Milbank, so I cannot fully address his claim that “pragmatic attempts to secure community without shared ends as basically violent and nihilistic.” I am pulled towards and away from the claim at the same time. A part of me agrees with it in that I believe the only way of true peace and community is through a commitment to God’s kingdom. A part of me disagrees because I see no hope or basis for a pluaralistic state or society — which exists — since not all follow Christ (and no one who follows Christ does so perfectly). Where I like Stout here is that he can say for example, “Everyone wants justice. Everyone has a different definition of justice. Let us come together with our different definitions, our different assumptions, and different commitments and work towards justice as vague and imperfect it might be.”

    I think you’re correct in seeing Stout’s view of liberal democracy as “a kind of religion.” Even if Stout wants to critique MacIntyre for emphasizing tradition, it seems that he implicitly agrees with MacIntyre. He just disagrees that democracy is atomizing and void of virtue. I can appreciate Stout’s claim, but I fear that history hasn’t proven either narrative.

    I should have been more clear regarding my questions for Hauerwas. I think it’s fair for him or anyone to critique the state in a general sense. What I meant — but didn’t explicate — was that when I wrote “what in his theology gives him an understanding of why he should critique…the government,” was what in his theology brings him into democratic discourse. Hauerwas may have “never said Christians shouldn’t be involved in the politics of the nation state,” but what in his theology allows him to be involved in the politics of the nation state? (And I don’t mean simply electoral politics, though they do come into play. I mean more of the politics of shaping policy, shaping the government, and petitioning the government.) What in his theology allows for direct democratic action? If democracy is the project of a secular enlightenment, why engage in democratic action? Why not call for the end of democracy? Or why not go the route of the Amish and withdraw from the sinking ship altogether? I don’t mean to sound pushy as these are genuine questions and I haven’t read enough Hauerwas to know how he would answer.

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    I wrote a long post on Stout’s arguments regarding keeping our commitments over on my blog.

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    elcaballo Says:


    Some thoughts before I sleep:

    I haven’t read Stout in over a year, so I can’t fully respond to the first part of your post. My impression was that he thought “peoplehood” is a bad idea when applied to groups smaller than the nation. Not that smaller communities can’t exist, but that they really shouldn’t see themselves as a distinct “people,” with all that entails. If he doesn’t say that, good; if he does, then my eariler arguments apply.

    Stout is certainly way better than Rawls, and I do think I’d happier in a Stout-led system than a Rawlsian system. But I’m still not sure that I “find myself” in his program. Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to be a “good citizen” of any nation–however benevolently run–if that means I can’t welcome Christian brothers and sisters at any time from any other part of the world, or if that means I support in any way state-sponsored killing (in all its forms). I guess I think the social agenda of the church is too radical to be ever fully captured within a state-like system. That’s why Revelation pictures it as an entire “new earth,” not just a new state.

    Stout does say some great things I can get on board with regarding collaboration with others with whom we disagree. Hauerwas does say (once, as far as I’ve seen) that this kind of collaboration is great, so long as we Christians are really clear about the limits of our collaboration–e.g., that it won’t involve us killing people. I think Hauerwas is right about this, and I would hope for the same honesty from the other partners in the collaboration. But let me say that I do wish Hauerwas would be more clear or persistent in bringing up issues like this.

    That said, Hauerwas has offered numerous justifications over the years for what you call “engaged democratic action.” One would be his constant injunction to Christian mission and proclamation of the Gospel. Another would be that Christians, as a fact, have no place to withdraw to. We are quite simply surrounded. The call to be “resident aliens” is not to hide out but to aggressively challenge culture with Christian practice. Christian practice always has to be discerned, so there’s nothing saying, a priori, that Christians won’t end up doing “normal” “political” things like voting or petitioning the government. He does, however, want Christians to think deeply about what Christian practice means, and thereby what such “engaging in democratic practice” means for Christians. For example, I am deeply uneasy with the idea that Christians can or should “shape the government” if that is supposed to happen in any disciplined, systematic way. I just don’t know where we get the resources for such a project. And the resources we have, namely, the practices of the church, seem more useful for ad hoc projects of potential “shaping,” that is, we can offer our practices, but realize we may be persecuted or ignored rather than welcomed to the “shaping” table.

    Personally, I think Christians ought to be a lot more agressive than Hauerwas seems to be about participating in democracy by cultivating and institutionalizing concrete practices that can be given to the world. You are exactly right to see this as the logic behind Body Politics, because I think that is the most radical modern statement of what it means to be church that we have. Hauerwas approaches this brilliance often, and Milbank occasionally, but it’s Yoder who took the furthest steps.

    It should be noted that Hauewras is releasing a book in January called Christianity, Democracy, and The Radical Ordinary that I hear will address some of these issues directly. The book is co-written with Romand Coles, a political philosopher at Duke, who is an atheist activist with the Industrial Areas Foundation. I’ve seen a blog quote from one of Hauerwas’s students that has Hauerwas saying something like “my work has always been about trying to make Christians worthy of the kind of political action that IAF does.”

    Okay, you’ve kept me up far too late two nights in a row. I look forward to reading your Stout post soon. Good night!

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    elcaballo Says:

    Okay, okay. One other thing very briefly: if the sentence “A part of me disagrees because I see no hope or basis for a pluaralistic state or society — which exists — since not all follow Christ…” is supposed to mean that a pluralistic society in fact exists, then I must disagree. The society that exists, in America at least, is fairly monocultural. Only when we buy into the Enlightenment idea that religions are simply “beliefs” can the “pluralistic” thesis hold. But if religions (or at least Christianity) are sets of practices, then it’s hard to say that any true pluralism exists. Rather, we are singularly consumeristic, liberal democrats. Alternative practices (like welcoming immigrants or refusing to pay war taxes) are not tolerated, because they don’t adhere to the capitalist/liberal ethos–which, as I said before, I take to be its own kind of religion. (I could also get into what it might mean for a “society” to exist that doesn’t share any substantive ends in common; I think Aristotle would roll in his grave.)

    Stanley Fish has just written a provocative op-ed on just this issue in the New York Times.

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    For what it’s worth, I’ve really dug the work IAF does. I’m acquainted with it’s branch here in Southern California, One LA. I’d be curious to see how Hauerwas would engage this thinking. Oddly enough, the largest contingency of IAF here (and I think in the rest of the country, but I can’t be sure) are Catholic congregations. The IAF representatives I’ve had the most interaction with are a nun and a Catholic who left the church but then came back once he began his organizing work.

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    You’ve got my juices flowing. This is fun and let me say that none of my positions are set in stone. My views on the matter of faith and state politics are in the process of forming, so I appreciate your interactions with me. I never took a political science course and am coming to the discussion rather unsystematically. Heck, I didn’t read Christ and Culture until after seminary (not that I’m into that book).

    I’d like to respond to your last comment. I really like and agree with you that religion is not merely mental beliefs but embodied in practices. That said, I do think a pluralistic society does exist, both in thoughts and practices. That there are norms in practices does not mean that we are not pluralistic. People still worship as they wish in general — we have decided that certain religious practices are out of bounds, such as human sacrifice or cultic prostitution. That we have decided as a society for certain norms is not as troublesome for me. Is it an infringement on religious practices for the state to require that taxes be paid for wars? Perhaps. I know others who would rather withhold from paying taxes for things like Medicaid or public schooling on religious grounds, but we wouldn’t accept that either. That’s not to say that the norms are just. Norms change, which is part of democracy.

    I agree that the capitalist/liberal ideology is a religion and like most other religions, I think there are things within it that agree and disagree with Christianity. I share a hesitancy I see in your comment regarding Christians at the shaping table. Often when religion and state politics have mixed, politics shapes religion more than the other way around. I am uncomfortable with having Christians at the table, but I am just as uncomfortable with them excluding themselves. (MLK is something of an example for me in terms of faith embodied in democratic action, though I do not want to communicate that I understand King perfectly or agree with him entirely.) I say all this because I fear that my previous paragraph could be read as supporting the status quo uncritically. My point is merely to say that in a pluralistic democracy, no one is truly at liberty to live as they wish. All will have limits placed upon them and norms for acceptable behavior will emerge, be debated, and change. I like the resident alien imagery; thank you for bringing that up. It seems that Hauerwas emphasizes the alien part of that formulation whereas I have questions regarding the resident side of it.

    I am with you that I think we as a Church should have greater concrete practices “before the watching world” that announce and embody God’s kingdom and Yoder pushes hard in the right direction — though I have some quibbles with Yoder’s sacramentology. Where I wholeheartedly agree with Hauerwas is that I don’t think the Church acts much like the Church and we would do well to repent. We would likely differ as to what exactly those practices should be or look like (e.g., I am not a pacifist). Again, I am not an Anabaptist, though I find myself deeply influenced by that theology.

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    elcaballo Says:


    Yes, I realize shifting norms are a part of democracy, but those norms must shift within a framework. My claim is that, were Christians to take their political obligations seriously, they wouldn’t fit very well within that framework. Rawls talks about how democracies can accept any “reasonable” religions. We like that because, of course, we think of ourselves as rational. But once we get into what “reasonable” means, it becomes clear that it’s only religions that uphold the status quo that are really acceptable.

    Now, I realize you’re not a Rawlsian, but I see these same patterns as necessarily repeated by Stout. Liberal democracy, in all its guises, assumes some aim(s) or goal(s) of human life (and not just that we don’t agree on the aim). An account of the good life is implicit to it, and other accounts must be excluded. I’m not faulting it for that; every religion must offer some notion of orthodoxy for it to remain coherent. But we must be careful to distinguish between orthodoxies. Both liberal and conservative Christians in America tend to define their orthodoxy by “what fits in with (their conception of) American democracy.”

    Though there may be even a great deal of overlap between what Christians and liberal democrats think is the good life, the importance is in the differences. And that’s because discipleship is a total claim on the community of believers. We don’t get to pick and choose, saying, “I’ll follow Jesus on X, but not Y because liberal democracy doesn’t like that.” So war tax resisters, among many others, are left with a serious challenge in this society. One can, and perhaps should, council patience here: if war tax is such a big deal for such a small minority, then surely the government will excuse a few people to follow their religion. But that’s not how it works. A war tax exception bill has been placed before the U.S. Congress every year for something like 25 years. Are war tax resisters–and I’m talking about people with serious theological arguments here–just supposed to stop being disciples until the bill is passed?

    In the end, it seems like the only way to resolve these issues is to have a total discipleship ethic, with all the messiness that it entails, or to embrace some sort of “two ethics” approach, whether a Lutheran “two kingdoms” or a Niebuhrian realism in which Jesus’ ethic is simply impossible. Theologically, I find the latter options unacceptable. But to embrace discipleship means to open oneself up to being at odds with any and every other power that walks the earth, including liberal democracy.

    I suppose you might agree with me up to this point, but still object that there is nothing that you really see yourself at odds with the American project on, at least nothing that can’t be resolved through typical means (i.e., protest, lobby, etc.). You aren’t a pacifist, so war taxes and so forth aren’t an issue. On one hand, I would be somewhat suspicious of a faith that doesn’t find itself in serious tension with the world. On the other hand, allowing for the possibility that this may be a rare moment in history when Christians and the government can get along, then I would have to question you on specific understandings of discipleship. For instance, what does it mean to call someone your Christian sister when your government calls her an “illegal alien”? What does it mean, under just war principles, to give financial support to a government that has never even pretended to fight a just war? What does it mean to affirm an interethnic eschaton when, to pick just one example, nearly half of the U.S. prison system is made up of African-Americans?

    The point I’m getting at is that it’s hard for me to imagine a substantive discipleship ethic that isn’t seriously at odds with America. And though we may rightly hope for and work towards a better America, we cannot be deceived by the false promise of the word “democracy” to think that one day it will be dramatically better. But, yes, we do work, not because democracy is so great, but because we have a radical hope in God.

    A quick word on the phrase “resident aliens.” In his defense, Hauerwas does have much to say about what the “resident” part means: it means going to church and taking the moral formation we get there seriously. It also means playing games like baseball seriously as moral formation. Hauerwas, as the name of his new book, “The Radical Ordinary,” indicates, is not trying to articulate something that fits in nicely into the “revolutionary” camp. He’s advocating quite ordinary, common ways that lead us to be a different kind of people. Now, I confess that I’m not sure these are enough. Yoder’s essay on the Babylonian exile as paradigmatic for Christian existence does a better job of getting at these questions. But we do need to recognize that Hauerwas talks about these things all the time.

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    “I would be somewhat suspicious of a faith that doesn’t find itself in serious tension with the world.” I am in absolute agreement with you in this value, though, again, we may differ on the details. Discipleship is not a la carte.

    Regarding the specific issues you address — war and taxes, immigration, prisons — I am challenged greatly by how America has historically and currently addressed these topics. Comparing my faith and many of the policies of the US, causes cognitive dissonance. On matters of immigration and prison reform, I imagine you and I are closer than your last comment lets on. I don’t assume that the US is a necessarily just nation. I find the just war theory the best of the options in front of me, but you are correct in that the majority of the wars the US has fought have been unjust (e.g., the current war in Iraq) or unjustly prosecuted by that theory’s principles (e.g., the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). That creates a tension in me. Nor do I believe that the US will ever be an entirely just nation, and thus I agree with you that our hope is not that democracy is so great, but that God is great. I am committed to working towards justice now and I think that of the governmental systems created by humanity, that democracy best lends itself to adaptation. It is not perfect, but it has proven to be a better option than the alternatives. My interest lies in finding the resources and practices for Christians in the US who constitutionally possess democratic tools to change the system so that the government and politics of the US more greatly reflects God’s kingdom. You mentioned in a previous comment that some practices of Christians won’t be tolerated. Going back to MLK, he engaged in just practices that weren’t tolerated by the powers of his day. His goal was twofold: to embody the beloved community in his context and by doing so to change the larger society in which he lived.

    Perhaps we’re in heated agreement on a lot of this. I admit that in my reading of your comments, I’ve thought, you’re just taking your ball and going home. This comes from your critique of Stout in the paragraph concerning Stout and Rawls. What I’ve read in Stout and have been impressed by, is his willingness to tackle the question of how do we get people of all different faiths (including “no faith”) to live together and function as a nation? You and I have both addressed issues beyond this question and my reading of you isn’t fair given what you’ve actually said here and the work you’ve done regarding several of the issues you’ve mentioned.

    I think a place where you and I are going to split is in this statement: “The point I’m getting at is that it’s hard for me to imagine a substantive discipleship ethic that isn’t seriously at odds with America.” I assume by America, that you mean a liberal-capitalist culture, and to a degree, we are all affected by that narrative. But I fear that you’re painting with too large of a brush. Again we’re back to the question of whether the US is pluralistic or not, and we have established that you and I are in disagreement. Certainly there are many aspects of Christian discipleship that would be at odds with many of the values of America, but I would like to see how you would account for how other narratives, particularly the Christian narrative, have shaped America and democracy in general. I think it is right to say Christianity and democracy are not equivalent, but certainly there has been some influence. To what extent that influence has been good is certainly up for discussion. Wolterstorff has an interesting defense of democracy as stemming from Christian tradition in his talk at the Veritas forum, which you can find here.

    Also, could you fill out this statement: “Both liberal and conservative Christians in America tend to define their orthodoxy by ‘what fits in with (their conception of) American democracy.'”” What do you mean by orthodoxy? Just curious.

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    elcaballo Says:


    I agree, I very well may be painting with too large a brush. I do get annoyed (and I winced re-reading the “tension with America” line) by overblown, overgeneral rhetoric that fails to do the critical, more narrowly-focused work. But however textured an approach we may take to the terms like America and democracy, I still think our Christian approach will be largely critical. And that’s simply because we as Christians know that, between resurrection and parousia, things in the world are going to be pretty bad. Not all bad, of course, but still dominated by powers and authorities who haven’t yet admitted defeat.

    So, sure, let’s celebrate the “Christian” influences on American democracy. (I haven’t had time to listen to the Wolterstorff lecture, but I look forward to listening to it.) There are certainly Christian roots to liberty, human rights, equality, freedom, and other concepts central to American democracy. Strong historical connections can be made between, on the one hand, Puritanism, early Baptists like Roger Williams, and even Anabaptists and Quakers and, on the the other hand, the shaping of American liberal democracy. And beyond the initial shaping, prophetic Christian movements from Great Awakenings to the Civil Rights Movement continue to shape what America is becoming.

    But where do these statements get us? Does demonstrating a causal link between certain forms of Christianity and certain dimensions of American democracy really tell us anything? I can make historically undeniable links between Christianity and all sorts of unpleasant things (the Crusades, Nazism, the Rawandan Genocide, various instances of slavery), but those links don’t definitively refute either the events or Christianity. We still are left with the hard task of analyzing our theology and our present surroundings to see if either are any good.

    The same goes for discussing liberal democracy as a better form of government than anything else we’ve got. I wholeheartedly agree. But what else do we have? Admittedly, not much. To say liberal democracy is “better than” doesn’t, in any way, mean that it’s “good.” We are still talking about a form of government that, in its various historical incarnations, has perpetuated an unbelievable amount of unjust violence. And, I would argue, that’s not a simple deviation from a more pure form of liberalism, but something inherent in a theory which has as its best aim the bureaucratic management of competing individuals.

    It should be noted that, for his part, Milbank repeatedly identifies Christianity as the culprit behind most of the world’s current totalitarianisms, including liberal democracy. In Milbank’s eyes, the “Christian influence” is much of the problem behind liberalism, not grounds for its amnesty. We need to be much more critical with our inherited forms of Christianity rather than assuming the beneficence of their progeny.

    As for my statement on liberal and conservative “orthodoxy,” I was using orthodoxy literally, as a notion of right and true belief, in this case as held by two opposing camps. I see the theological orthodoxies of both the Christian right and left in America as heavily determined by the atomic individualism, craven commercialism, and empty “freedom” of liberal democracy. So we have conservatives whose mission is converting individuals so that they can regularly attend a mall-church, attain some banal middle-class existence, and, when all is said and done, “fulfill their dreams” in heaven. And we have liberals who want to “free” everyone from any substantive commitments and authority at all, with the bizarre idea that, once “freed,” individuals will desire to work for the “freedom” of others. Not surprisingly, the only “politics” either of these groups can talk about involve the nation-state, and rarely the church. When the church is recognized as a political player, it’s usually only as an instrument (a constituency) for achievement within the “real” political sphere of the nation.

    Finally, I want to address MLK, protest, and hope. MLK is one of the most extraordinary figures in American political history. We need to be careful, however, of holding him up as a success story. Yes, his movement was at least partially responsible for primary school integration, the Voting Rights Act, and etc. But many blacks perceived King as going too slow, and increasingly diverted their attention to extremist, violent methods. And many white, conservative Christians thought those limited successes (among other things) were so troubling, they started organizing what became the Religious Right. The latter force has played an undeniable, and undeniably “Christian,” role in shaping American democracy over the last 30 years. And now, just when the death knells were ringing out, they seem poised to strike again–Mike Huckabee, anyone? It’s not without reason that James Cone and other black intellectuals wonder how, 50 years after Malcolm and Martin, blacks in America are worse off than they were then.

    These arguments are not at all meant to deny the power of direct protest of the kind that MLK practiced. MLK has reshaped the political landscape, as the fact that we are talking about him at all indicates. But let’s not overestimate our prospects here.

    So why, you will ask, engage in any democratic politics at all? That’s a serious question, one that a lot more of us should ask. For my part, it’s because, even though the prospects are limited, I believe we are to be a people of hope, of a reckless hope that keeps us coming back for more, even when failure is almost certain. I will never “take my ball and go home,” not only because I’ve no home to return to (and that is a theologically significant point), but because I believe we are motivated by the hope of peace to keep trying.

    Our efforts will never establish the kingdom, and I doubt they will even come close. Our efforts may meet with little success “in the wider world” at all, but isn’t this precisely what Jesus warned his disciples over and over? We follow the cross–filled with the hope of resurrection–so we enter the temple, declare it barren and demand justice. But make no mistake, it’s a cross we’re following, not the path to a throne or even an election victory.

    The current form of government shouldn’t dramatically change our expectations regarding the reception of the gospel. Nor should it diminish the hope that leads us to preach it.

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