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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 271-278
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Religion and Radical Democracy after the 1960s
At the heart of this book is a largely sympathetic analysis of three religious-political groups: the evangelical left Sojourners community led by Jim Wallis, the radical pacifist and left-leaning Catholic Jonah House founded by Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, and an organization of the New Christian Right (NCR) called the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), led by Michael Farris. These groups are important in their own right. Moreover, Jason Bivins correctly points out that the disciplines he uses to analyze them—religious studies, cultural history, and political theory—have important complementary strengths that are too seldom brought to bear on the same cases at the same time. Thus his book is also an interesting model for the grounded interdisciplinary analysis of religion, steering between the extremes of a public discourse that devalues religion and an uncritical blanket endorsement of religious values. Although Bivins's model is not entirely satisfying in the end, it yields valuable insights along the way.
What do the above groups have in common and why does Bivins call them "antiliberal"? According to Bivins, they share three characteristics. First, each is "politically illegible." This means that Bivins does not recommend introducing and categorizing them in the way that I have just introduced and categorized them, in terms of their place on a left-right spectrum or their theological/denominational traditions. Their antiliberalism (in the senses discussed below) is more fundamental. Second, each emphasizes "sacred registers of politics." Religious commitments are central to their sense of political identity, in something akin to a religious form of identity politics. Third, each uses ritual protest in its activism; a classic example is the 1968 Catonsville action in which Daniel and Philip Berrigan destroyed draft files with homemade napalm. These characteristics come together in a composite theme of koinonia, a Biblical [End Page 271] word for community. Although Bivins highlights just one of these themes in each chapter—the Sojourners community dramatizes illegibility, the NCR accents identity, and the Berrigans stress ritual protest—he suggests that the themes taken together are a good framework for analyzing and comparing religious antiliberals, both inside and outside the United States.
Bivins defines antiliberalism in opposition to "liberal political order." Exactly what he means by this term can be vague; at times it seems reified and ungrounded. Nevertheless its major contours are clear. First, Bivins centers his analysis of U.S. society on "corporate liberalism," as conceptualized by historians like James Weinstein; he sees such liberalism anchoring a more or less bipartisan regime committed to a Keynesian welfare state. Second, although Bivins distances himself from communitarian theory because he finds it too abstract and inattentive to concrete social conflicts, he builds on well-worn communitarian complaints about conceptions of citizenship that are privatized and excessively thin. Third, he is interested in radical or participatory democracy. Here he works in the tradition of theorists like Jeffrey Isaacs and Sheldon Wolin. Overall, "liberal political order" emerges as a bureaucratized technocratic apparatus that seeks legitimation through procedures of representative democracy—procedures more likely to create apathy and cynicism than grassroots empowerment. People are supposed to interact with this regime as secularists—leaving their religious commitments outside the gates of public discourse—and as individuals abstracted from thick communal identities. "Antiliberalism" is the flip side of this coin: rootedness in communities, rejection of ground rules that confine religion to a private realm, and grassroots activism against technocrats. Such activism may build on populist and anarchist traditions but is mainly defined by being more radical and communally grounded than electoral politics or bureaucratized social reform.
Bivins's argument is straightforward if one keeps these definitions in focus. He highlights aspects of his groups' practices that match his ideal of participatory democracy and exhibit his three marks of antiliberal religion: illegibility, sacred...