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  • Environmental Justice as Counterpublic Theology:Reflections for a Postpandemic Public
  • Andrew R. H. Thompson (bio)

On the eve of the 2016 election, which ushered in the Trump era, an article by Alan Jacobs in Harper's Magazine lamented the decline of the Christian public intellectual and noted the need for such figures today—what Jacobs describes as the "'Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?' Problem." Jacobs has in mind the Christian social and political thinkers of the early and mid-twentieth century, such as Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, "and their fellow travelers," who were willing to challenge the prevailing social order of the time. He characterizes Christian public intellectuals—what others might call public theologians—as follows: "They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler. Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now."1

Jacobs is far from alone in voicing the need for a robust public theology, and such calls have gotten more common and more urgent in the years since he wrote. There is a sense that the social, political, and economic issues of today demand a public response from representatives of Christianity similar to the responses of Niebuhr and his fellow public thinkers to World War II and the subsequent social and political turmoil.

Yet if those issues have illustrated the need for public theology, the novel coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent response have laid bare the overall feebleness of public life in the United States. The pandemic has made even more concrete the long-standing inequalities and injustices of our society by disproportionately affecting communities already disadvantaged in areas like income, health care, and housing. Some optimistic public thinkers have urged that this moment might be an opportunity to deliberate together about how to develop institutions of greater justice and the common good, while others [End Page 114] argue that the historical record belies such a rosy view.2 In either case, a public theology adequate to this moment will need to be inclusive enough to speak to and from these experiences of inequality and marginalization. The predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly mainline-Protestant public theology of that era was too limited in scope to speak adequately to today's concerns (and indeed it was arguably too limited to speak adequately to the concerns of its own day).3 Any public discourse that hopes to provide a means toward a more equal, more participatory postpandemic society must be actively inclusive and grounded in a broad swath of identities and communities.

In this essay I argue that environmental justice movements can represent the needed theology, a kind of counterpublic theology (to adapt Nancy Fraser's term): a pluralist theology that speaks from multiple particular communities to challenge dominant notions about the common good. My method is broadly pragmatic: I assess environmental justice's potential as a public theology based not on a priori conceptions of the relevant categories ("public" and "theology," as well as "environmental") but rather on how these notions are embodied in environmental justice movements. The primary interlocutors here are John Dewey and his contemporary exponents from feminist and nonwhite perspectives. In keeping with this pragmatic approach, I consider concrete examples of environmental justice activism within broader public movements: Highlander Folk School and the Poor People's Campaign.

Viewing environmental justice through this pragmatic lens as public theology highlights what I believe to be essential elements of public theology for today. Specifically, this approach can lead us to a more expansive view of the relevant terms: it can broaden what counts as environmental issues and what we mean by "public" and "theology." As I have indicated in this introduction and will argue further below, a public theology requires this breadth if it is to attend to the issues of injustice, inequality, and white supremacy that confront our society. Its public will need to be more...


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