Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Democracy needs more democracy-- and church

Last week I read Jeffrey Stout's spectacular and seminal Democracy and Tradition (New Forum Books). Stout is splendid in trying to bring the form of democracy he learned from Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, into the contemporary conversation concerning democracy and its relationship to faith, specifically democracy as itself a "tradition." It's one of those books I had seen in footnotes over and over, and was finally able to sit down and read. The book was additionally helpful in engaging the new traditionalists (Hauerwas and MacIntyre, to be precise) and criticizing them precisely at the point where they fail to engage democracy faithfully. I found his summaries of these two, the first the most influential theologian of the 20th century in America, and the second perhaps the most respected philosopher, to be lucid and helpful. If you've seen Hauerwas and MacIntyre in the footnotes of other books, but ever read, them, you could start with the chapters on them in this book, and be well-served.

Now Stout is back with a book that is more like ethnographic research from the field than philosophical inquiry. He's examining grassroots democracy, and especially community organizing movements. It's the kind of book I think every pastor and church leader should read, especially now in these patriot days between Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Lots of books have been written, and are being written, on politics and political life in America, but I've not seen much new literature on community organizing in the past five to ten years. Of course, our current president was a community organizer (Gamaliel), so his books are a description of how they engaged in community organizing in Chicago, but Obama's book is just one story, and (depending on how you look at it) a polarizing or at least partisan approach, because we know where Obama goes after.

Stout, on the other hand, has a gift for coming to conclusions only from first premises, which means, he doesn't have a bias and then prove it, but develops a viewpoint out of close research and reading. He reads people who disagrees with him, and does so graciously.

In Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Stout travels prominent community organizing groups in various places around the country (especially the south, such as New Orleans, Rio Grande Valley, and Los Angeles) and interview leaders of these community organizing groups concerning their work. If you would like a snapshot of what community organizing is, and how it functions, this is a good book for that.

But Stout is primarily interested in whether or not community organizing can function as a means of ensuring that our democracy remains democratic. Democracy depends, as has famously been noted, on what citizens "do." Stout is trying to prove or disprove the thesis that grassroots organizing on a broad scale is required to keep elites from exercising their power arbitrarily over ordinary people.

Here's a central discovery of Stout's: "By constituting enduring publics of accountability, citizens' organizations can make the activity of holding officials responsible a perpetual, rather than merely episodic, affair" (111). This is what democracy looks like between the elections, from the citizens' side of the equation.

Churches and religious communities are integral to this process (in fact Stout's enduring commitment is to proving that religious communities fully participating in the public square is integral to the practice of democracy). He even devotes one chapter to pastors and flocks. This chapter, together with the chapter on face-to-face meetings, has been integral in redirecting how I plan to spend some of my pastoral energy this summer "rambling about."What's the point of such rambling? Well, for a church to be a good neighbor in the community, I'm learning that the pastor, together with other leaders, need to meet the neighbors. "It is one thing to be approached by an organizer [read church leader] who already knows what the issue is [do you want to come to our church?], and another to be approached by someone who ultimately wants to discover what your concerns are" (150).

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