The Revolution Begins in the Pews
I didn't vote last November 2nd. Not that friends and colleagues didn't beg me to perform my "civic duty." To them, Every Vote Counted in an epic conflict between the forces of light and darkness; to me, it was Imperialism, Plutocracy, and Capital Punishment versus Imperialism, Plutocracy, and Abortion. Eclipsed by those triads of iniquities, "my vision," to borrow Jim Wallis' words, "was not running in this election." So I stayed home on election night, watched a movie on the couch with my beloved wife, and retired in the knowledge that the empire would remain in someone's untrustworthy hands. (I also won $50 predicting both the winner and the margin of victory. Why should William Bennett have all the fun?)
The triumphant triad was the right-wing version of our nation's civil religion, the perverse religiosity of late-capitalist America, the current incarnation of the earthly city marked, as Augustine wrote, by "its lust after domination." That civil religion—whose sectarian disputes are the "culture wars"—defines redemption as inclusion in the capitalist market and pledges allegiance to what Philip Bobbitt has called a "market state," which facilitates capital mobility and labor "flexibility" while promising a bare and ever-shrinking minimum of justice and protection. Whatever the name of the covenant theology—"globalization," "neo-liberalism," "democratic capitalism"—its beatific vision is the worldwide expansion of individual "choices," whose mediation through "values" occasions the virulent but circumscribed sectarian differences. Its most compact creedal statement, promulgated by the Bush Administration in the fall of 2002, is the National Security Strategy of the United States, outlining the doctrines of "preemption"—what William Kristol of The Weekly Standard has candidly termed imperialism—and of "opening societies" to "the single sustainable model for national success": "free markets and free trade," i.e., deference to unfettered corporate prerogatives in investment and labor practices.
As its clerisy, the civil religion features a punditocracy whose job it is to control and patrol the borders of permissible discussion. These ubiquitous commentators do have their quarrels and indeed may be cast as bitter antagonists, conservative versus liberal, religious versus secular. And yet, oddly enough, wherever they take their stand in the culture wars, they never compromise their underlying commitment to the Empire of Expanding Choices.
Think of the wonderful disarray that would ensue if one violated the gravitational principles of this discursive universe and noted that "choice" is an ideological keyword both for defenders of abortion and for corporate elites; asserted that both groups ground their arguments in liberal individualist notions of selfhood at variance with Christian anthropology; and contended that any genuine "culture of life" requires a radical transformation of our political economy. If argued with skill, clarity, and force, these propositions would do more than reveal the profound affinity of factions now seen as enemies unto death, and expose the shabby foundations of contemporary political discourse. They would point to the possibility of a theological politics with its own laws of movement and inertia, a mode of critical and political engagement that uses but does not sacralize the foredoomed institutions of the earthly city.
As things stand, too many Christians speak only from scripts written in the sacralized imperial rhetoric. Thus, while President Bush's evangelical faith petrifies most liberals, his administration is more aptly characterized as evangelical-Straussian. Its foreign policies, as by now widely documented, are the progeny of an unnatural embrace between conservative evangelicals and devotees of the philosopher Leo Strauss, whose epigones now infest political science departments throughout the nation. And the Bush Administration's secrecy, duplicity, and indifference to empirical evidence derive heavily from that second faction, whose utterly utilitarian conception of religion—Athens for the elite, Jerusalem for the rabble—apparently does not concern or even interest evangelical leaders.
Seen in the light of this blandly imperious civil religion, the "Religious Right" looks different. It includes not only the likes of Jerry Falwell, cheering on soldiers encountering insurgents to "blow them all away in the name of the Lord," but also Michael Novak and his "theology of the corporation"—in which, for instance, Halliburton is "an analogue of the church" and akin to Isaiah's Suffering Servant—and all those who quote chapter and verse from the Gospel according to St. Reinhold as filtered through John Courtney Murray: prudence (i.e., what passes for reason in on Wall Street and in the Beltway); deference to "wise" and "responsible" authority (i.e., assent to every edict from the State and Defense Departments); and "realism" (i.e., whatever the bankers and generals think possible).1
Charles Marsh would recall that the civil rights movement owes little but grief to conservative evangelicals and Niebuhrian realists. Indeed, as Marsh demonstrates in The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today, St. Reinhold himself, polestar of gravitas in the liberal firmament, urged a suffocating "patience" on King and his movement, and was, thank God, rejected. Seldom has "realism" been so clearly exposed as the wisdom of the well-connected. Aiming squarely at the latest generation of pharisees, Marsh indicts their ministration to a twisted patriotism, "a cult of self-worship consecrated by court prophets robed in pinstriped suits."
Many Christians—and not only those, like me, who stand on the socialist Left—have watched with mounting distress as the gospel is identified with this star-spangled Sanhedrin, while theology is tailored to the booming markets in avarice, pride, and fear. Against this civil religion, and especially against its sectarian variant on the Religious Right, Marsh commends the scandal of a Gospel unshackled from service to the idols of money and empire—as Jim Wallis does too in God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.
Wallis, as many readers will know, is the editor of Sojourners, the flagship journal of evangelical lefties, and his book, as well as the considerable buzz it's generated, are exemplary artifacts of religious liberalism, the leftish and weaker variant of the civil religion. He's currently a minor celebrity, appearing on radio, television, and panels on religion and politics. His appeal owes a lot to the low-rent quality of his antagonists: it's hard not to look good when you're pitted against a boor like Falwell, or when your book gets trashed in the Nation by the ever more tiresome and obsolescent Katha Pollitt. For many frustrated by the meagerness of what currently passes for religion in public life, Wallis embodies a religious progressivism ignored by the media and the academy.
But while God's Politics will surely be a go-to book for the op-ed intelligensia, it will just as surely disappoint anyone seeking a careful theological reflection on the American scene. This isn't entirely Wallis' fault. It's fair to assume that a large swath of the middle-class, middlebrow audience he desires has little or no acquaintance with theology, and so it's understandable that Wallis wouldn't linger like a scholar over subtleties and distinctions. But when Wallis himself asserts that "the answer to bad theology is not secularism, it is good theology," he thereby assumes the obligation to provide his readers with a thorough if not arcane theological education. Wallis' default on this "good theology" is the primary reason for the aesthetic and intellectual poverty of God's Politics.
It may seem frivolous to berate Wallis' prose, but mediocrities of style and substance are usually inseparable. Full of columns, open letters, lists of predictions, and accounts of Wallis' face-time with the Famous and Concerned, the book feels more assembled than composed, often reading like an extended Power Point presentation. Consider his frequent employment of "pro-this" and "anti-that" constructions, a practice that's cretinized our entire political culture. Reliance on these facile prefixes is a sure sign of intellectual laziness, as is the rhetoric of "values." "Values," Wallis writes, "will be the most important political question of the twenty-first century." I sure hope not, not because I consider them a distraction from "real" issues but because I don't know what "values" are. To my knowledge, ancient and medieval moral philosophers never heard of "values," and I gather from Alasdair MacIntyre and Fredric Jameson that they first make their vaporous appearance in liberal capitalist societies, where incommensurable things and practices are abstracted for the purpose of commodity exchange.
Therein lies the genuine merit of the "distraction" argument: talking about "values" is a way of not talking about practices, whose discussion mandates attention to the very quotidian and inescapably carnal ways we make love, raise children, and work in the office. "Values" palaver is so appealing because it enables evasion of the politics and pleasures of sexual embodiment; of the pressures placed on children to fight in their bourgeois parents' arms race of status; of the architecture of workplace power, and how our sexual relations and domestic arrangements are swept into the vortex of capital accumulation. So by partaking in the "values" conversation, Wallis ends up complicit in the very obfuscations he should be clarifying.
"Values" also substitute for theology, of which, good or bad, there's remarkably little in God's Politics. It's just not enough to counter the gospel of militarism and venality by invoking King, Dorothy Day, or Desmond Tutu. Exhortations to "compassion" or "working together for the common good" are not political theology, and knowing allusions to Niebuhrian "realism" do not establish savvy or street cred. Without the mediation of theological tradition, nourished but not supplanted by political philosophy, social theory, and historical experience, answers to questions like "What would Jesus do?" will inevitably degenerate into pabulum, narcissism, or platform boilerplate.
At times, Wallis seems aware of this problem—he derides Bill Clinton's "purposeless `national conversations on race' "—but his inattention to theology renders God's Politics oh-so tamely "unconventional." For all his insistence on getting "beyond right and left," Wallis shuttles between the two, remaining firmly entrenched in the comfortable world of liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Pro-This and Anti-That. This explains why, for instance, he waffles on abortion, nodding to the "seamless garment" ethic while falling back on the Clintonesque triangulation of "safe, legal, and rare." It explains why, despite his advocacy of a living wage, the words "Green," "Nader," and "union" never spot his pages, though they're about the only political actors who've supported such legislation without shame or equivocation.
Had Wallis mentioned them, he might no longer gain admittance to confabs of the Other Business Party—oh, pardon me, the Democrats, for whose national committee God's Politics is, arguably, a resumé. That's not a swipe at Wallis—as Howard Dean courts evangelical voters, someone will have to remind him that Job is in the Old Testament. Still, like E. J. Dionne and other religious interlocutors for liberals, Wallis doesn't explain how the party is going to make economic injustice a "values issue" without frightening the corporate donors.
It's a quantum leap in style and substance to read Marsh's extraordinary volume, which ranks among the finest studies of the civil rights movement. A professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, Marsh has visited this subject before as the author of God's Long Summer, a remarkable study of the Freedom Summer Project of 1964. Commensurate to the quotidian grandeur of his subject—attempts by Christian radicals to live in "beloved community"—Marsh writes lucidly and lyrically, fusing theology and history with a vigorous and unobtrusive intelligence. No pro- or anti- here: in contrast to Wallis' pedestrian talking points, Marsh dispenses numerous gems of spiritual and historical insight, finely wrought but never precious. ("Aspirations to purity impervious to grace," he tells us, are "otherwise known as fanaticism"—as concise and exact a definition as I've ever read.) And where Wallis offers only the treacliest queries about what Jesus would do, Marsh draws openly and accessibly on the Protestant lineage of political theology exemplified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann. (Lest Catholics feel estranged, let me note that Henri de Lubac and Hans urs von Balthasar also appear in cameo.)
Responding to historical accounts that depict the civil rights movement as a secular phenomenon in religious guise, Marsh contends that it was rooted fundamentally in Christian faith; that King and other activists understood their cause as an episode in our journey to the Kingdom; and that the loss of this faith occasioned the corruption, decline, and fragmentation of the movement's moral energy. But Marsh also challenges the very protocols of historical writing itself by "interpreting the civil rights movement as theological drama." Asserting boldly (in a volume published—what portent is here?—by Basic Books) that history really is the medium of revelation, Marsh concludes that we must narrate the movement's story, not strictly in the useful but limited parlance of secular professionalism, but more directly in the language of theology. So there is more than literary flourish when Marsh writes that "God set a dramatic stage in Montgomery," or when he muses that the chaos precipitated by the freedom struggle bore "evidence of God's presence and promise," or when he affirms King's unembarrassed declaration that "God is working in history to bring about this new age."
This "new age" whose advent King proclaimed appeared in several "experiments in truth," as one activist called them, avant-gardes of the eschaton whose communities of love offered foretastes of the abundant banquet of the Kingdom. With the unsentimental clarity afforded by good theology, Marsh traces King's turbulent career from Montgomery to Memphis; the tragic trajectory of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the "faith-based socialism" of the Koinonia Community, an interracial cooperative farm near Americus, Georgia, and its founder, Clarence Jordan; the community work of John Perkins, whose leadership of the Christian Community Development Association was bound up with his personal redemption from the furies of vengeance; and the numerous mustard seeds of hope and charity scattered throughout the nation's cities, from Russell Jeung's Oak Park Project in Oakland to Eugene Rivers' Azusa Christian Community in Boston. (I loved Rivers' self-description as a "Pentecostal communist.") Along the way, we get an introduction to Os Guinness, whose Dust of Death was an ur-text for young, disaffected evangelicals; a subtle but decisive refutation of the over-praised Richard Rorty (there is little or no evidence, Marsh counters, that "the godless heart is capable of a more generous hope than the religious"); and penetrating reflection on the counterculture, whose "search for authenticity, deracinated from concrete engagement with the poor and excluded, spiraled into absurdity."
These "experiments," Marsh emphasizes, though they were often occasioned by racial conflict, were not intended primarily as forums for racial reconciliation. Rather, they were, like Jordan's conception of Koinonia, "wholly theological," leavened by the faith that only common practices of prayer, worship, study, and work, conducted for the sake of divine love alone, could overcome the lines of color and class. Ultimately impossible without this Trinitarian love, beloved community, Marsh insists, thrives "within the provenance of Christ's mystery in the world." Seen in this light, Koinonia's cooperative farming, SNCC's mass meetings, and Perkins' community development projects were also ecclesial radiations, luminous and anticipatory sites where the rancid order of profit and domination was transcended, however imperfectly. Thus Marsh can write—in a manner that recalls Stanley Hauerwas or John Milbank—that "beloved community depends on a theological, one might say ecclesiological, event."
The spiritual and political centrality of theology is illustrated, for Marsh, in the demise of SNCC, which followed directly, he writes, upon its "retreat from [its] theological experiment." Frustrated by the violence and agility of white resistance, and increasingly unbound to an "ecclesial anchor," SNCC "went cosmic," imagining connections with national liberation movements around the globe. Many SNCC activists morphed into black nationalists, while beloved community soured into the clichéd machismo of Black Power or the self-absorption of identity politics. Indeed, the secularism of identity politics was born from SNCC's repudiation of theology, which implies (though Marsh doesn't) that only theology can overcome the tepidly reformist narcissism that such a politics has fostered.
I'm loath to note this book's limitations, but it has some peculiar silences. Marsh pays no attention to James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality, which emerged in the 1940s as a deliberate attempt, through small-scale cooperative communities, to link the battles against racism and economic injustice. He relegates the theologian Howard Thurman to a footnote, an undeserved oblivion for the author of Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) and the pastor of San Francisco's ecumenical and racially integrated Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Marsh also ignores the significance of beloved community for the fledgling women's movement, which grew, in part, out of the civil rights movement and thus shared in the secularism of its decline. Were Redstockings and NOW the only possible alternatives in Women's Liberation? If not, what sort of feminism might have developed if gender and sexuality had received the same theological and reparative attention as race?
Marsh also writes little about class and capitalism. Noting rightly that Black Power discerned the evasions of white liberals, Marsh ignores that movement's more important insistence on economic power to make "reconciliation" real and durable. King himself, in his final years, became convinced that some kind of democratic socialism was essential for the eradication of racism, economic injustice, and American imperial ambition. He had long been a student of socialist thought, and he included among his closest advisers socialists such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. But the ideological climate of the Cold War, together with the more immediately pressing issues of segregation and civil rights, forced King to mute or dissemble his debts to the secular and religious socialist traditions—a mystification perpetuated, unfortunately, on every celebration of his holiday.
So while Marsh suggests that race must occupy the center of a revitalized movement of "beloved community," I suggest, drawing on King, that class must become the fulcrum of a new theological politics, and that, to amend Wallis, capitalism will be our most important political question. I'll hasten to make the first criticisms here. As Marsh observes, Koinonia's "faith-based socialism" was enormously difficult to live, since "the practice of a common purse proved to be a greater obstacle to racial unity than theological doctrine." Moreover, despite the vogue for "radical orthodoxy" among many young Christian intellectuals, there's nothing even approaching a Christian Socialist party in America, with an orthodox theology and an attractive program. (Here, I have to add that Marsh's account of Americus' pressure on Koinonia—boycotts, violence, denial of loans, refusal of medical care—demonstrates the limitations of intentional communities, which must still exist in larger, more powerful structures of sin.)
Still, as Marsh reminds us, "the revolution begins in the pews." If last November teaches any lesson, it's the dotage of the secular Left. It was inevitable, of course; for all human strivings toward beloved community will wither without the love of God. But as we look at a country frenzied and fatigued by the race for riches, armored and overextended in its expansive rage and fear, we will need, for lack of a better term, a new New Left, a movement of people who combine, in Alasdair MacIntyre's wonderful couplet, "Trotsky and St. Benedict"; and I suspect that many of us, knowing in our marrow that business as usual cannot be allowed to continue, are more than ready for a militant renewal of the urge to make all things new. When that renewal arrives—who knows but that it may already be here?—we will speak no more of "values"; have no more of specious "prudence"; bow no more to bogus "realism." Let the skinflint pharisees preach about "responsibility." We must be on the move again, beloved.
Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities at Villanova University. Next year, he will be a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and will complete his second book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
1. I refer those who think this heavy-handed to articles by Peter Dula and William Cavanaugh in Commonweal, hardly a rag of the radical Left: Peter Dula, "The War in Iraq: How Conservative Intellectuals Got it Wrong," December 3, 2004; and William Cavanaugh, "At Odds with the Pope," May 23, 2003.
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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