- The Public Life of Love
For many, living in a democracy that insists on cultural and structural secularism represents and inflicts a political and moral condition of lament.1 "Lament over what?" secular critics might ask. There is an obvious and well-worn set of answers revolving around the losses and gains, as well as restraints and constraints, that secularism and secular culture render on religious expression, life, and practices. The arguments about the public life of religion in the late modern democracy called "the United States of America" have become as familiar and expected as the sight of a Starbucks around nearly every "next corner."2 No doubt, it would be sensible to rehearse arguments that caution about the excesses of "the religious" and "the secular";3 which is to say, revisit a set of pre-occupations that seem to drive a great deal of the discourse around the secular as it involves—or devolves, depending on one's perspective—to resorting to one version or another of the debates about the virtues and vices of political liberalism. For the critics of religion, the failure to establish a thoroughgoing secular culture means that religion persists as the bogey for the worst that ails the world, such as terrorism, homophobia, and so on.4 And for those who want to safeguard some semblance of public recognition and integrity for religion, the cultural dominance of secularism leaves "the religious" overly self-conscious and often defensive in public and political life.5 Notwithstanding the importance of recalibrating and correcting the terms of these engagements, where and when necessary, I want to pivot away from the presiding anxieties about control and public rationality that animate these discussions about democracy, secularism, and pluralism, and look instead to a somewhat outré topic—the revitalization of the public life of love.
Undoubtedly, this is a topic that will unleash instinctive aspersions from some quarters about sentimentality, even solemnity or sanctimony. "Love? Really, love?" I am quite mindful that I am making this call for a revitalization and revivification of the public life of love in a time of war and American imperial decline, as well as in the echo chamber of a political Zeitgeist animated by widely felt discontent and dissatisfaction with government, in general, and Obama and the professional governing classes, in particular. A seemingly bottomless well of commentaries from the right and left have characterized the animus of the Tea Party "movement," for example, as fed by anger and bitterness, as well as resentment and dissatisfaction. So perhaps it is not so surprising that the subject of the public life of love has taken on a renewed significance and sense of urgency.
Why love? In part, my concern is with the paradoxical status of the public life of love in American politics. While there is plenty of talk of love in political life—patriotism, the love of nation representing among the most prominent discourses—there appears scant indication that the current state of the public life of love is deep or, more pointedly, generative or humanizing.6 My concern is with what one might call the absence of love in public life but also with the trivialization of the language and dispatch of love in American political culture. My sense is that it is possible to draw a set of corollaries between the anemic quality of the language of love currently in use and display in American politics and public life—the condition that finds the American political left reeling back on its heels—and the expansion of the audience for hardcore secularists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. This is not to say that the languishing of the public life of love is solely the fault of those of us on the left. The conservative and political right—Christian evangelicals and otherwise—have hardly been chary in their invocation of love as the force that is driving the politics of contemporary conservatism—a politics whose litany argues as vigorously against government's intrusion "in our lives" as it does against conferring recognition and rights to queer citizens. The call for love here is surely working in the...