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Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square by Paul Rasor (review)
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Paul Rasor’s thoughtful book attempts to show how liberal religion can regain its prophetic role in America. A key theme is that religious liberals must be clear about the religious principles that support and guide their basic social-justice work. This is not easy for religious liberals, because of their commitment to religious freedom.

For Rasor, liberal religion seeks to be in tune with modern knowledge and culture and has a commitment to free religious inquiry. Religious liberals are found in all religious traditions. Religious liberals are not identical with but overlap the religious left, that is, religious people who hold progressive political and social views. Examining three recent surveys, he concludes that “at least a quarter of adult Americans, and perhaps as many as three in ten, may fairly be described as religious liberals—a reality about which the media and the American public remain sadly ignorant” (14).

Religious liberalism’s positive orientation toward modern culture is in tension with the needed critical distance. Furthermore, religious liberals often come from the educated middle and upper-middle classes and thus belong to the classes they need to critique. Their social location can interfere with a sustained commitment to social-justice work and with an ability to see the downside of the status quo. The liberal commitment to free religious inquiry also makes it difficult for religious liberals to embrace the kind of clear theological commitments needed for a strong prophetic voice. Another problem arises from the broad range of theological perspectives found in religious liberalism. This makes it hard to make communal affirmations. Fearful of saying something that might offend someone, they often say nothing at all. In addition, in today’s highly charged media climate with its focus on high-volume sound bites, reflective religious liberals have difficulty finding room for their voices.

The discomfort of religious liberals with religious discourse means that their religious commitments are frequently suppressed. This can weaken prophetic practice. Some people think that the liberal tradition requires not only the institutional separation of church and state but also a separation of religious ideas and political deliberation.

One political philosophy holds that religious reasons do not belong in public discourse. The other holds that religiously grounded arguments should be welcome in public discourse, even when conflicting values and assumptions are brought to the table. The question is why the first position came to be called liberal. Religion has always been part of American public life, and seeking to exclude religious arguments seems illiberal.

Many political theorists assume that religious convictions are always grounded in sources that lie beyond the reach of reason or in texts or institutions whose authority is limited to particular groups. However, prophetic practice grounded in liberal religion always strives to satisfy the principle of accessibility. Rasor cites a number of political theorists who argue for an inclusivist view that allows for public religious arguments.

Rasor fleshes out this somewhat abstract discussion by citing recent examples of prophetic liberal religion drawn from Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Univeralist statements, typically from specific political contexts. He points out both the theological grounding of these public statements and also their appeal to other sources, such as, for example, international human-rights norms.

Rasor notes that there is both an impulse toward American global military, economic, and cultural influence and a concentration of corporate and political power. These impulses are rooted in the ideologies of militarism and capitalism, ideologies that function as theologies shared by both conservatives and liberals. Our militarism is rooted in a soteriology of violence evident in the narratives of western novels, detective stories, and superheroes. “Bad violence” is overcome by “good violence.” Free-market fundamentalism is the theology that supports the unlimited accumulation of wealth and power by global corporations plus obscene inequality. The market is the god that creates order and will bring us salvation. Like any god it is self-justifying and has no need of moral accountability.

The union of global corporations and the US government is antidemocratic and undermines the spiritual dimension of democracy. It expects patriotism and resists an engaged citizenry that asks hard questions, encouraging shallow public discourse and low political...



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