Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Citizenship

[My faith matters column for July 2nd issue of the Northwest Arkansas Gazette]

What I'm about to share with you, dear reader, is, admittedly, a strongly bibliophilic form of patriotism. It's not for everyone, but it works for me. For most of my adult life, I've made an effort, during the period between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, to read at least a few books on American government and citizenship. Often the publishing industry feeds my addiction, with new works on John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson appearing each summer.

For example, a few year's ago I read Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: The Secret World of the Supreme Court. I fell in love with the quirky asceticism of Justice David Souter and his "third way" approach to the constitution, and I gained a nuanced understanding of how Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's sensitivity to public consensus and the middle way kept judicial decision-making considerably in line with popular opinion through the era.

This year, I finally got around to reading the work of Jeffrey Stout. Stout's Democracy and Tradition is, for lack of a better term, a "game-changer." At the time of its publication, many people working at the crossroads of religion and democracy read and commented on it. Since then, it is often cited in bibliographies and footnotes.  

But not only that. Stout's book has reinvigorated commentary and conversation on, as well as commitment to, local democracy and citizenship (and so, not surprisingly, his most recent book bears the title Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America). Often it is religious communities and church leaders who are most likely to be about the business of grassroots community organizing. Faith traditions and democratic traditions, though not twins, feed and encourage one another.

Religious communities are often very good at feeding the hungry, collecting clothes for those in need, and even building shelter for the homeless. But the surprising narrative offered by Stout is that religious communities, at their best, although not always and certainly not in every place, do some of their most important work when they function as a critical voice in civil society, addressing the root causes of hunger, need, and homelessness rather than simply mitigating them. 

Which is to say that the exercise of critical thought and reason is, in this construal, one of the most important things religious communities can do in a democracy. It is our way of being patriotic, to explore "the role of free public reason in a political culture that includes conflicting religious conceptions of the good" (2). 

If you're pondering this weekend how to be a better citizen of our great nation, and religious to boot, consider Stout's admonition: "The point of view of a citizen is that of someone who accepts some measure of responsibility for the condition of society and, in particular, for the political arrangements it makes for itself. To adopt this point of view is to participate in the living moral tradition of one's people, understood as a civic nation. It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, to articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to public scrutiny" (5). 

Perhaps Stout's greatest metier is his willingness to charitably read those with whom he disagrees. This is both a mark of his theorizing as well as what he celebrates about democracy. Democracy encourages the formation of "publics of accountability," citizen groups that hold officials accountable, perpetually, generously struggling against injustice. Such critique is integral to democracy as such. It is what citizens do. "The cure for democracy's ills is... more democracy." 

Stout is very interested in ensuring that everyone has their say, and specifically that those who have religious commitments of any sort be able to bring their religious reasons to bear in the public sphere. "Any citizen who chooses to express religious reasons for a political conclusion would seem, then, to enjoy the protection of two rights in doing so: freedom of religion and freedom of expression... indeed, I would encourage religiously committed citizens to make use of their basic freedoms by expressing their premises in as much depth and detail as they see fit when trading reasons with the rest of us on issues of concern to the body politic" (64). Note what Stout is not saying. He is not saying that religious people can compel others to specific religious practices (like praying in school) in public. Rather, he is saying part of public reasoning includes articulating your religious premises for the conclusions you come to concerning the democracy we are together forming.

I can commend Stout's book to readers of this newspaper for many reasons, but finally, there is something pleasant about simply spending time with an author who understands himself to be working in a tradition first explored by folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Such an author ends up offering a bon mot like the following: "My advice, therefore, is to cultivate the virtues of democratic speech, love justice, and say what you please" (85). That's a word worth pondering while the fireworks fly. Happy Independence Day!

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