Saul Alinsky, Localist

Well no, not exactly. But as anyone who has ACTUALLY READ ALINSKY KNOWS–in contrast to those who simply parrot his name as part of rather stretched smear of anyone they which to paint as dangerous un-American radical–Alinsky was primarily about trying to create democratic, Jeffersonian responses to the pathologies of the big-business, big-government, highly undemocratic postwar liberal American consensus. Michael Kazin lays out the facts:

On the night of his triumph in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich boldly announced: “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”….[T]his was classic demagoguery: connect a name that, at least to a crowd of Southern Republicans, sounds rather alien—and certainly not Christian—with a president whom many conservatives already suspect of being an un-American, anti-religious socialist….

[In fact, while] Saul Alinsky often called himself a radical….his career as a community organizer had thoroughly traditional foundations in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. Indeed, it was built with the active support and resources of key figures in the Roman Catholic Church….

In the late 1930s, Alinsky launched his first project in the Back of the Yards, a multi-ethnic, working-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bernard J. Sheil, the city’s auxiliary bishop, championed the new Back of the Yards Council and encouraged local priests and leading parishioners to take part. Sheil, founder of the Catholic Youth Organization, helped set up Alinsky’s network of local organizers—the non-profit Industrial Areas Foundation—and convinced financier Marshall Field III to bankroll it.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Alinsky worked closely with another influential priest, Monsignor John O’Grady, director of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. O’Grady liked Alinsky’s focus on mobilizing local people to help themselves and introduced the “radical” to a parish priest who was working with young Puerto Ricans in a poor neighborhood near the University of Chicago.

The Monsignor and the Jewish troublemaker got along so well that Alinsky began to work with O’Grady on the older man’s biography. The book was not completed, but the outline made clear that the two shared a strong critique of modern liberalism that would be congenial to many conservatives today: “…the New Deal was important, it was good…yet it carried an opposite side to the shield, in terms of a gravitation of power and the establishment of enormous bureaucracies which were evil.” Americans should turn, instead, wrote Alinsky, “to grass roots organization and decentralization.”

As Alinsky knew well, O’Grady’s thinking drew from the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” which the Church began to develop in the late 19th century as an alternative to social change directed by powerful nation-states. Subsidiarity holds that social problems should first be handled by the smallest, most local authority in existence. As Pope Pius XI wrote in a 1931 encyclical: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”….

Contrary to Gingrich’s ignorant slur, [Alinsky] frequently quoted Jefferson and Madison and had contempt for young leftists in the 1960s who disdained the American flag. “The responsible organizer would have known,” he wrote in 1971, “that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations.”….

In 1969, Saul Alinsky received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, given annually by a coalition of Catholic groups in the Midwest to commemorate an encyclical about human rights and alternatives to war written by Pope John XXIII. Most honorees have been ardent reformers of one faith or another: Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Daniel Berrigan, and Jim Wallis are on the list—as is Lech Walesa.

Newt Gingrich would, no doubt, point to some of those names as proof of how the Left can seduce innocent devotees of his new-found faith. But he might find it difficult to criticize the woman who received the award seven years after Saul Alinsky: a community organizer from Calcutta named Mother Teresa.

30 comments on this post.
  1. HappyAcres:

    Let the parodies of Front Porch begin.

  2. phil:

    For those interested, there is an interesting chapter on Augustine and Alinsky in Luke Bretherton’s (now of King’s College, soon to be of Duke) *Christianity and Contemporary Politics*.

  3. Bill Kauffman:

    The excellent Jesse Walker on Alinsky: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/tools-for-radicals/

  4. Russell Arben Fox:

    Bill, thanks for the link–I’d forgotten about that excellent essay by Walker. It makes a good case for a proper understanding the local, communitarian, and in some important ways anti-liberal roots of Alinsky’s democratic “radicalism,” but also highlights the tragic dilemmas faced by the left in those days, when preserving local control often meant tolerating massive injustices which demanded federal, progressive solutions:

    Von Hoffman reports that Alinsky was privately skeptical about some of the era’s civil rights bills, which is what you’d expect from a man who would rather bend a local institution from within than remove or remold it from above. In the early ’60s…Barry Goldwater contacted Alinsky and the two men had a meeting. “The conversation,” von Hoffman reports, “was about Goldwater’s opposition to pending civil rights legislation. Saul shared the conservative misgivings about the mischief such laws could cause if abused, but he told Goldwater that he should not morally and could not politically oppose the legislation unless he had a better idea himself.”

    Invariably, we’re stuck with a constant tug-of-war between principles and means and ends. Alinsky’s responses were hardly the solution to all our problems, but neither were they anything like a blueprint for America’s destruction. He was a committed democratic activist, trying to make it possible for intact communities to be both economically sovereign and politically just. We need FPRers need to keep in mind his balancing act, as we try to negotiate our own tug-of-wars today.

  5. Gabe Ruth:

    Thanks for this. The amount of completely novel (to me) information in this post could be taken as a pretty firm rebuttal of the claim that modernity is justified by the existence of the internet. I read pretty promiscuously, but this was a shock to a crumbling picture of how the world is.

    On the other hand, I think it could be said pretty fairly that Obama has not adhered to Alinsky’s beliefs, as described here (not that anyone who uses the name as a slur would do better).

  6. Elias Crim:

    To this well-intentioned revisionism, may I offer another revision– from a different angle:

    While I’m not expert on Alinsky, I think Kazin is offering a partial view here of the “Catholic” Alinsky. Perhaps the problem has more to do with the mindset of Alinsky’s followers (whom he found troublesome even at the time) than his own writings. While he may have believed in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, I think it’s also correct to say Alinsky’s tactics of demonizing the opposition along with narrowly focussing on political/economic themes (where’s mine? instead of the family wage, for ex) were not those of Catholic personalism. Had Monsignor John Ryan, a key Alinsky ally, tried to bring Alinsky over to the principles of Catholic Action, perhaps community organizing today would have a different connotation.
    Instead, it was Alinsky who converted Ryan (and other notable Catholics) over to his confrontational and purely materialistic principles, with results plain to see. It seems Alinsky’s better motives were not well enough grounded to ensure that his legacy was a wholly good one–his guiding principle (where’s mine?) is not far from “the Chicago way”, unfortunately. Trying to organize the community (in today’s sense of more statism) does not make one a communitarian, methinks.
    And while Alinsky would doubtless have regretted it, our level of political vituperation today (on both sides of the spectrum) is probably only a louder echo of what his megaphone started back on Chicago’s South Side. Or am I being uncharitable here?

  7. John Médaille:

    this may be of some relevance: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_n10_v121/ai_15254347/

  8. JA:

    Regardless of the merits of this account of Alinksy or of Elias Crim’s critique (I neither know much about him nor do I have enough of an interest to warrant an investigation), one would do well to point out the roots of subversive revolutionary politics from below in the activity of the Hebraic prophets and the apostles of Christ and its relevance to modern life. To reference William Cavanaugh, a prominent political theologian:

    “The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order—mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish.

    The theological rationale for such a move is founded in the biblical account of how salvation history interrupts and transforms human space and time. The word the earliest Church used to describe itself was ekklesia. In the Septuagint, ekklesia was used for the assembly of Israel for various public acts, such as covenant-making (Deut. 4:10), dedication of the temple (I Kgs. 8:14), and dedication of the city (Neh. 5:7).122 In calling itself ekklesia, the Church was identifying itself as Israel, the assembly that bears the public presence of God in history. In Greek usage, ekklesia named the assembly of those with citizen rights in a given polis. In calling itself ekklesia, the Church was identifying itself as fully public, refusing the available language for private associations (koinon or collegium). The Church was not gathered like a koinon around particular interests, but was concerned with the interests of the whole city, because it was the witness of God’s activity in history. At the same time, the Church was not simply another polis; it was rather an anticipation of the heavenly city on earth, in a way that complexified the bipolar calculus of public and private.

    The medieval synthesis, though fused with static social hierarchies, at least preserved the biblical sense that the Church was not a private association that mediated between the putatively universal state and the sovereign individual. When modern Catholic social teaching has insisted on the need for complex space, therefore, it should not be dismissed solely as nostalgia for medieval hierarchy. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum noted that the “ancient workmen’s Guilds were destroyed in the last century, and no other organization took their place”. As a result, working people have been left “isolated and defenseless”. The solution, according to Leo, is the proliferation of associations along the lines of the medieval Guilds, in complete independence from the state, and under the auspices of the Church. Critics have noted the vagueness and nostalgia of Leo’s cure, but his diagnosis is insightful: the source of injustice is the modern creation of simple space, the individual cut loose from community and left isolated. Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno also put forward an elaborate scheme calling for a proliferation of labor, religious, and professional vocational groups and “corporations” not under the direct supervision of the state. The principle of subsidiarity was meant as well to keep the state from distorting from above the organic life of community from below.

    Unfortunately, the contemporary Church often ignores the possibility that the Church itself could encourage the formation of alternative social bodies, and treats the state as the potential solution to any given social ill. . . .”

    And, of course, as Dieter Georgi writes:

    “Paul chose [ekklesia] to indicate that the assembly of those who followed Jesus, the assembly called together in a particular city in the name of the biblical God, was in competition with the local political assembly of the citizenry, the official ekklesia. The world is meant to hear the claim that the congregation of Jesus, gathered in the name of the God of the Bible, is where the interests of the city in question truly find expression.”

    The Church is supposed to be a subversive political, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual community to the powers that be., undermining the legitimacy of a state that denied Christ’s Lordship, whether explicitly or implicitly. The apostles took seriously the exhortation to be clever, but as innocent as doves, working subversively rather than outrightly, slowly chipping away at the absolutism of the Roman state. They understood the Church as an alternative political community with Christ as its head, prefiguring the return of Christ and acting as a prophetic witness. Even when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, the Church strove to maintain this prophetic character with many retreating into the desert to bear witness there.

    Today, the Church is domesticated and accepts the dominion of the absolute state, which denies the Lordship of Christ. The Church must reclaim itself and move from an organization of individuals in free association to a radical and subversive alternate community that, while it never embraces a persuasion of violence, should challenge and delegitimize the state – a sort of monastic response to modern life.

    Some excellent books on politics in the New Testament and contemporary political theology:

    Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation by Richard A. Horsley

    Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology by Dieter Georgi

    World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by Christopher Kavin Rowe

    Anything by William T. Cavanaugh

    The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O’Donovan

  9. JA:

    On further reflection, that may have been a bit off topic. Mea Culpa.

    On other hand, it illustrates the Christian roots of his radicalism?

  10. Gabe Ruth:

    I didn’t think it was off topic at all. Thanks for the lesson and reading list.

  11. Elias Crim:

    Agree with Gabe–thanks for the excellent posting, JA.

  12. Paul Grenier:

    JA. Interesting post (and not the first, I might add). Where did that quote from Cavanaugh come from? Is it in Theopolitical Imagination? Important stuff.

    This will sound very wishy-washy, I’m afraid, but I think Alinsky neither deserves the censure of the Gingrich crowd (but then, no one does, come to think of it), nor the high praise of Russel Arben Fox. But I can very well understand the temptation to exaggerate the virtues of any innocent bystander pulled into the violently swirling sewer of American presidential ‘debates.’

  13. Rob:

    Is it just me or is this a bit of an appeal to authority? “Saul Alinsky was A-OK because he was endorsed by [certain members of] the Catholic Church!”

    Anyway, I second the critiques offered here. Alinsky’s tactics are facially problematic from a posture of Christian charity, and his focus was far too narrowly socio-economic in a reductionist way.

  14. JA:

    Paul Grenier,
    Thank you for your praise. The reference was from an article that Cavanaugh wrote:

    Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nationstate Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good
    Modern Theology 20:2 April 2004

    Much of this is reproduced in more detail in his recently published book, “Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church.”

  15. Siarlys Jenkins:

    Alinsky had previously worked with John L. Lewis on the CIO, and wrote an excellent unauthorized biography of Lewis. He began “community organizing” as an alternative to what he perceived as the weaknesses and deficiencies of trade union organizing. One might say that he created as many deficiencies in the process.

    In the absence of a fully functioning distributist enterprise, community organizing is just as divorced from the way people earn their daily bread as “pure and simple” trade unionism is divorced from the community in which working families live. (The whole point of the eight hour day movement is that there is more to life than working and sleeping).

    A great deal of the response here is presented from a religious perspective. Unless religion is to become, as it was in the middle ages, a form of tyranny, religion cannot be the motive force of the body politic.

    “At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order—mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence.”

    All true, which makes it quite mistifying to then read “undermining the legitimacy of a state that denied Christ’s Lordship.” What right, what authority, has the state to either affirm or deny Christ’s Lordship? That is quite outside of the state’s competence.

    As far as relations with the church go, Alinsky formed alliances with the church as alternative social space, but did not commit himself, or any community he organized, to mandatory adherence to any religious doctrine.

  16. JA:

    Siarlys Jenkins,

    I appears that we are destined to do battle in the comments of every post, I see.

    You seem to find Cavanaugh arguing that the Church must cultivate an alternative social space and respect the state’s jurisdiction while doing so. If you read the rest of the essay or some of his other books, you would find that he is entirely hostile to the modern state, which subverts Church and community by relegating it to an intermediary position between the individual and the state. Unlike with the liberal position (which you seem to hold), he does not think that public and private life can be purely separated into neatly demarcated little domains. Rather, he thinks that Christ, through the Church, is to break out and transform all aspects of human life.

    Cavanaugh does not encourage the creation of alternative social and political space through the Church in respect of these liberal boundaries between the private domain of “religion;” rather, he encourages this to subvert the state and challenge its monopolization of public space. Following Alasdair MacIntyre, he finds the modern state to be an aberration and a violent and oppressive entity, colonizing every aspect of human life and subjugating the Church.

  17. Paul Grenier:

    But … surely we can at least agree that Alinsky does not deserve to be demonized in the way Gingrich is attempting? I mean, isn’t that getting really tiresome already? (Hack invents new demon: hack tries to tar and feather opponent by association with new demon; public learns to avoid mention of new demon so as not to get tarred and feathered; up-shot — public discourse in the United States further narrowed and dumbed down.)

  18. JA:

    I think that Paul Grenier nails it. One does not have to think a saint of Alinksky to recognize that he isn’t the demon he is made out to be, which is the point that Mr. Fox is trying to make.

    What we have Mr. Gingrich doing is myth-making — and Mr. Kazin’s article is a deliciously salacious expose of this process. Both parties render history, culture, and ideology all secondary to winning elections. Nothing is sacred. The focus is always on the present exigencies of the election cycle. In other words, the political market, like the one dominated by corporations, demands of its participants that profits are to come at any expense.

    This ahistoricism exposes the ideology of the party and of the entire process of electioneering as hollow and offensive.

  19. Siarlys Jenkins:

    I also agree with Grenier. So, we don’t have to do battle about everything under the sun.

    I have no particular interest in Cavanaugh — why should I? He is entitled to his opinion. Anyone who wants to take up his particular cross and follow him is welcome to do so. I was speaking for myself, not interpreting or denouncing Cavanaugh. I do indeed feel a call to arms, at least figuratively, when anyone insinuates (inspired by this Cavanaugh or not) that the sovereign people who have adopted a republican form of government must formally, as a matter of law and function of the state as state, acknowledge the Lordship of Christ.

    Trying to fit that into a neat little category and calling it “liberal” is not elucidating, although it may make you feel good as you do exactly what we have all agreed to criticize Gingrich for. JA poses “liberal” as demon. JA tries to tar and feather opponent by association with old demon. Actually, I have long since learned to find other terms of self-definition than “liberal,” partly for the reasons Grenier points out, partly because I am not satisfied with the results or the criteria of those who identify themselves as “liberal.”

    I saw a video of one of the advocates of a renewed caliphate, world-wide and in the USA, offer in very similar language that when the government is Muslim in character, there will no longer be a separation between religious life and political life and economic life, but all will be harmonious. That sounds SOOOOOOOO beautiful, whether from a Muslim or a Christian, until I remember that attempts to use state power to achieve such “harmony” lead to mass persecution of heretics and infidels, thirty years wars, the Spanish Inquisition, etc.

    I don’t advocate that the church hold an INTERMEDIATE position between the individual and the state. I advocate that any church an individual freely CHOOSES holds a direct relationship to that individual, independent of the state, but ideally, respected in the constitution of the state. There will of course be clashes between individual conscience and the state, between fellowships of individuals constituted as a church, and the state. The church should, at times, act as conscience to the collective community, possibly even inspiring civil disobedience, but it should never, ever, ever hold the power OF the state. If it does, it is besmirched by the exercise of that power, and can no longer act as conscience.

    I make no argument that Christ is not Lord. Christ may well be Lord. If so, he requires no imprimatur from The State. The state can only do damage to the peace of the community by taking upon itself to pronounce that Christ is Lord, or that Muhammed is The God’s last and final prophet, or that the communion wine is truly magically transformed into Type A Negative blood (or whatever blood type Jesus had), etc.

  20. JA:

    Siarlys Jenkins,

    I would prefer that you not describe my affinity for Cavanaugh’s scholarly works as “tak[ing] up his particular cross.” This implies idolatry on my part.

    As for your response to his ideas, I have to reiterate here what I have argued in the past: this is a prejudice. You express distaste for politically acknowledging the Lordship of Christ, but you never tell us why — not after philosophical and theological criticism, not after the scriptural counter, not after historical narration undercuts the origins of your position, and not after the brunt of human experience and research over the last century totally discredit your assumptions.

    Really, it’s as if you aim to convince by force of repetition.

    On the other matter, whether to call your beliefs “liberal” or not, your protests are baffling. I study political philosophy in a doctoral program at a well regarded university and I’m quite familiar with the genesis and development of libertarianism and liberalism. I can assure you that it is transparently obvious that libertarianism is a branch in the phylogenic tree of liberalism. Certainly, the tree is luxuriant, broad, and sprawling — but its a branch from the same tree nonetheless. Your protest that this is not “elucidating” is, like your last argument, an attempt to convince by force of repetition.

    Your likening my arguments to Mr. Gingrich’s criticism of Alinsky is similarly baffling. Mr. Gingrich’s rhetoric was an ahistorical and opportunistic act of mythmaking. In previous posts where we have discussed liberalism in the comments, I offered not rhetorical slander, but reasoned argument, investigating the historical background of liberalism, its inconsistency with Christian thought and the witness of the Christian tradition, and by problematizing many of the premises from which it operates. In fact, I would characterize my conduct as the very opposite of Mr. Gingrich’s conduct — and your remarks of comparison as near slanderous.

    And such slanderous comparisons extend into other aspects of your argument. Despite my careful and repeated attempts to argue that acknowledging the Lordship of Christ is the work of communities, that the modern state is inherently evil and must be deterritorialized, and that Christians must not seize the power of the state and instead pursue a rhetoric of peace, you dare to attribute to me the very opposite position.

    This is a hit job, not an argument. It is a mangling of my position by rhetorical violence. This is “demonization” of the first order — an attempt to silence me by vulgar mischaracterization.

    Further, it’s ahistorical, a liberal myth to justify the modern state and the monopolization of public life by it, which required the marginalization of Christianity. Not to sound overly Foucauldian, but this is a regime of knowledge. “Religion” is a constructed identity fashioned to marginalize Christianity and relegate to “private” life, where it is trivialized, powerless, marginalized, and increasingly irrelevant. The assertion that “religion” is inherently violent is myth. One cannot separate the sacred the political. With Christianity boxed away, the state and its role as a mediator of rights becomes sacralized and imbued with transcendent authority. One only has to observe, for instance, how justifications for the Iraq War relied upon appeals to spreading freedom (read: bring transcendence) were suasive. That these appeals were made post hoc with the discovery that no weapons of mass destruction existed, only serves to illustrate how powerful these arguments can be. Funny, no one would be taken serious if they advocated that the power of the state be used to spread Christianity (read: bring transcendence), but using the state in this manner is justified.

    And this is where you go wrong. It is not the Christianity that is inherently violent, but the state itself. Many of the things you mentioned: the Thirty Years War, the Inquisition, etc., were driven by the emerging state. I can claim with a great measure of confidence that the vast majority of professional historians who study these events would call your description of these mythical. I would go farther and claim that this constitutes the founding myth of liberalism.

    And the last century should disabuse us of it. The modern secular state is the most violent and barbarous creation in history. Its violence dwarfs that of prior periods.

    Thus the problem is not “religion” — a fiction in its own right — seizing state power, but the existence of the state to begin with. The response that I favor is the one testified to in Christian history and the scriptures: subversion by the formation of a counter community that lives the Gospel. Call it a performativity of monasticism, prophetic ministry, or whatever you like — it is not seizing state power.

    The following books would be salutary:

    The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T Cavanaugh

    Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam by Talal Asad

    Athiest Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart

    Moving onward, your position regarding the role of the Church in society is untenable. You claim to disavow a model of the Church as an intermediary between the Church and the state, but then go on to explicate a model that requires this very formulation when you describe the Church as a free association of like-minded individuals. By prioritizing an account of society as an aggregation of individuals necessarily “emancipated” from tradition and community, you also privilege the modern state and statism, which is the only entity to make such an arrangement possible. So whether you are conscious or not of relegating the Church to an intermediary role, this is the implication of your advocacy.

    Further, this articulation prevents the Church from occupying the political and social center of community, as its relegated to a role secondary the absolute rights of the individual. This is not the Church, the body of Christ, with the authority to bind things on earth and heaven. This makes it little more significant than a book club.

    To conclude, I would strongly suggest that if you want to continue in this dispute, you really should educate yourself on these matters. You seem totally ignorant of the historical, philosophical, theological, biblical, and anthropological concerns that I raise. This is quite clear from this last post, in which you repeat your prejudices unaware of how problematized they are or, worse, misrepresent the views of others.

  21. JA:

    I should really edit my comments. I just reread that . . .

  22. JA:

    I should add a qualification: I am not supporting anarchy and the dissolution of all civil authority — far from it. Rather, my argument reflects the difficulties of political terms in some respects. When I attack the state, I am specifically attacking its modern incarnation, its absolutist form. Cavanaugh does an excellent job of describing what is new about it. From the same article as cited in my first:

    “What takes place in the modern era—not complete in some places until the late nineteenth century—is a reconfiguration of space that is much more profound than the creation of an expanded common space through the gathering up and coordination of formerly scattered elements into one. What happens is a shift from “complex space”—varied communal contexts with overlapping jurisdictions and levels of authority—to a “simple space” characterized by a duality of individual and state. There is an enfeebling of local common spaces by the power of the center, and a simultaneous parochialization of the imagination of Christendom into that of the sovereign state. To say that the state “creates” society is not to deny that families, guilds, clans and other social groups existed before the state. Rather, the state “creates” society by replacing the complex overlapping loyalties of medieval societates with one society, bounded by borders and ruled by one sovereign to whom allegiance is owed in a way that trumps all other allegiances.”

  23. Siarlys Jenkins:

    JA, are you familiar with the old time hymn that has a chorus line “You can go to your college, you can go to your school, if you ain’t got Jesus you’se an educated fool”? I take that a little farther than the original author probably intended. Among other things, I consider the Nicene Council to have been 300 educated fools, even if they were pontificating in the name of Jesus. Oh, they may have done some valuable thinking, but they were not qualified or authorized to establish any binding orthodoxy on anyone.

    I value education, but as a reasonably well educated citizen of a republic, I am not impressed when someone tells me “I’m in an advanced post-graduate degree program, and I know what I’m talking about.” People with masters degrees in social work have that attitude, and have done untold damage to liberty, and to family life, by axiomatically assuming that whatever was in vogue when they were working on their degrees is The Way People Ought To Live. One reason we are having some difficult communicating is that your words suggested the notion that if I only understood Cavanaugh properly, or accepted his authority on the subject, then all would be well. Cavanaugh is a utopian offering an opinion, which he has every right to do. There is nothing about his view of the Lordship of Christ that is subject to any objective test. It is a matter of faith. My faith differs from his, and yours.

    I appreciate your clarification that “Christians must not seize the power of the state and instead pursue a rhetoric of peace.” That was not at all obvious from your previous statements. Nor, I think is it consistent with any practical implementation of your philosophy.

    Then you say, “I am not supporting anarchy and the dissolution of all civil authority — far from it. Rather, my argument reflects the difficulties of political terms in some respects. When I attack the state, I am specifically attacking its modern incarnation, its absolutist form.”

    OK, so clarify whether proper civil authority, in your view, would be distinguishable from the Lordship of Christ as THE organizing principle of the overlapping local communal contexts. I can appreciate a vision of overlapping local communal contexts and a dispersion of centralized power… although I am mindful that centralized federal power played a necessary and beneficial role in ending de jure racial discrimination sustained by local terrorism and intimidation. But I expect ANY civil authority to be INDEPENDENT of organized Christian worship and fellowship.

    Your objection to the term “religion” betrays an impulse that Christianity be THE form of worship, and perhaps of community. It relegates Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and any other faiths to either non-status, or second-class status. It suggests you would exclude from full status of citizen any human being who was so obstinate as to refuse your invitation to confess Christ as Lord. No doubt you will also find it necessary to exclude from citizenship many professing Christians who fail to measure up to your own vision? Such a regime, and it would be a regime once it got off the paper of your favorite books and took on form as a functional community, will result in bloodshed.

    Perhaps, once again, you will be shocked by my words, and accuse me of prejudice, because, e.g., I do not accept your unproven axiom that “One cannot separate the sacred [from] the political.” Sure you can. I do at all times. Our nation was founded on separating the sacred from the political. This was done, in part, as James Madison wrote, to protect the sacred from “the profane hand of the civil magistrate.” I deeply appreciate that separation. I would take up the ultimate recourse offered by the Second Amendment if anyone tried to pollute the sacred with the political, or impose their vision of the sacred by political means upon me.

    Humanity does not, as a whole, conform to your vision. Therefore, like Lenin, like Savanarola, like a number of Popes, you will find yourself committing violence in the course of implementing your vision. Diversity is an issue because people are diverse in their religion, their thoughts, their customs, their preferences, their likes and dislikes. The purpose of civil government is to maintain a space in which we can all coexist.

  24. JA:

    Siarlys Jenkins,

    I see that rank distortion, mischaracterization, and conveniently ignoring huge swathes of my argument are tactics that were not limited to your last post.

    1) My claim was never that you should be impressed by my credentials and that an argument from authority be taken as sufficient. Rather, after (elsewhere) writing lengthy comments that describe the historical and theoretical roots of libertarianism as part of the wider family of liberalism, the offense that you take by this characterization baffled me. To contextualize that bafflement and in hope that you would take a second look at those arguments, I mentioned that I study philosophy and political theory in a doctoral program and that my position is generally taken as a given and transparently obvious. So spare me your indignation toward my remarks and your shoddy comparisons, as if my work is comparable to your precise example, a person with an MA in social work. Would you make this comparison with a medical doctor? How do you know which is the better comparison to make? This is dubious question-begging where your assumptions are built into the comparison without first demonstrating them.

    2) You mischaracterize my comments, further. It is not “that if [you] only understood Cavanaugh properly, or accepted his authority on the subject, then all would be well,” but that if only you took the time to actually acquaint yourself with a rival position, which included sourcing that is much broader than Cavanaugh’s work, then you would be capable of actually discussing these matters. So far you have demonstrated only incuriosity on your part. This becomes even more apparent when you describe Cavanaugh as a utopian. At no point does he subscribe to the idea of a perfect political, social, and legal system that is fixed. Rather, he approaches the matter like premoderns: what are the appropriate ends to human life and how do we organize a society around them? If he is a “utopian,” I suppose that makes Aristotle, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas, etc., all utopians, too.

    3) If my position was “not at all obvious,” you must not have been reading comments that you have responded to within the last week or so in their entirety . This was made perfectly clear in our last exchange.

    4) My objection to the term “religion” only “betrays” a thorough investigation of the origins and use of the term and how liberalism and the modern absolute state has made use of this category to subjugate the Church. It has absolutely nothing to do with “relegating” Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism to “second-class status.” Those are not “religions,” either, which would have been clear had you even glanced at the books I recommended, as the second one was about both Christianity and Islam. My argument is that “religion” does not exist. It is a social construction that forces varying “cosmographic formations” or visions of the “sacred” or “mythologies” or “transcendent” practices into a single category that is relegated into the private realm. This is justified by recourse to a myth of “religious” violence. In reality, one cannot separate the sacred from the political and liberalism, in all of its manifestations, communism, and other “secular” ideologies are not unlike what we call “religion” in many respects in that they provide a means for interpreting reality, an anthropology, and avenues of transcendence. So rather than talk about “religion,” which privileges the mythology of the liberal state – one to which you clearly subscribe – we should instead understand liberalism as a competing (or possibly complementary, though I would disagree with this) “cosmographic formation” or “worldview” to Christianity (or Islam, etc.). And if these are all broadly the same thing, then liberalism (and you) have been relegating what we call “religion” to “non-status.”

    Again, you are doing precisely what you have been accusing me of. And this is not an argument limited to Cavanaugh’s work, who is merely contributing to this position. Asad’s work is better known and much more impactful.

    5) You are quite welcome to continue believing that you can separate the political from the sacred. The whole of human history testifies otherwise, including centuries of the “American Civil Religion,” to use a now worn phrase, which has its own means of transcendence, its own sacred objects and rituals, its own employment of sacred violence, its own taboos, and its own anthropological vision. You argue that my claim in this regard was unfounded; however, I referred you to academic literature that supports my claim (which you conveniently ignored). If you are willing to read these books (and, of course, any ones that offer an alternative view), we could have a discussion on this, but sticking your finger in your ears and proclaiming that I offer no reason for this position is rather dishonest.

    Further, your characterization of the liberal state as a neutral arbiter is naïve. Liberalism does not allow for “diversity;” it allows one to personally believe whatever they like as long as they subject such beliefs to liberal belief and practice in public life. It demands that liberalism be first and that Christianity (or whatever have you) be second. A privatized Christianity is neutered and powerless; it has little bearing on public life where the state monopolizes all discourse unless it translates its concerns into a secular idiom, which decontextualizing and co-opting it in the process. This cannot even be rightly called Christianity, which demands that Christians pick up their cross and enter into the alternative community of the Christian Church with Christ as its head. This was understood implicitly and explicitly for centuries. The very phrase “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” was for the majority of Christian history understood as a political phrase.

    To use the word “religion” loosely and incorrectly in order to drive home the point, in a sense, you do have a “religion,” the “American Civil Religion,” and you assert this over and above other “religions.” Your claim that we can “coexist” is predicated on the necessity for all Christians, Muslims, etc. to reformulate their “religion” in a way that the liberal “religion” finds acceptable. In order to truly foster the diversity of “religion,” they must be allowed to live on their own terms as traditions of communities, which is the context of their practices. As the liberal “religion” denies community with its methodological individualism, enforced through political, social, legal, and economic practices, “religions” alternate to the liberal “religion” cannot be fully realized. Your pretense toward neutrality disguises and legitimizes oppression and violence.

    6) Interestingly, you completely ignored my criticism of the modern “secular” state as inherently more violent than any other polity in human history and the sacralization of such violence, despite its “secular” pretensions. Instead, you merely reiterate the very myths that I criticized. Again, force by repetition is not an argument.

    7) You seem unaware of the extent that the division of society into a “secular” and “public space,” on the one hand, and a “sacred” and a “private,” on the other, is actually a secularized, redefined, and inverted Western Christian theological distinction. It is not something that exists naturally, but was socially constructed. It was not discovered with the Enlightenment, but borrowed from Christian thinking. This distinction doesn’t even have relevance in Eastern Christianity, where the whole of society, including the state, was considered part of the Church. To the extent that we attempt to force this distinction on others, including peoples in the Middle East and North Africa, we are forcing a secularized Christian theological distinction on them.

    The crusades have nothing on modern liberalism.

    8) Finally, I have to comment on how you borrow from the same set of stock liberal arguments as Mr. Carter. You dismiss positions unlike yours as “utopian,” which is a deeply unserious exercise of prejudicial hand-waving. Further, you ascribe to this myth of the liberal state as neutral and Christianity (or “religion”) as violent. Your reiteration of the myth that, for instance, The Thirty Years War was about religion exposes your total ignorance on the scholarship on this subject. So, yes, I am accusing you of prejudicial notions and mythological characterizations that betray a complete ignorance of these matters, an unwillingness to actually investigate them, and the complacency of a lazy liberal orthodoxy.

  25. JA:

    At this point, it has become apparent that the discussion is rather off-topic. My apologies for this. That will be my final post on the subject.

  26. Siarlys Jenkins:

    My dear sir, you have demonstrated at great length that you fervently believe what you fervently believe, and further, that you take great offense at any fellow citizen holding a different viewpoint without first reading up on all your favorite authors. The issues we STARTED with are legitimate issues for any citizen of the United States to discuss. You are welcome to your opinion. Reading up on some obscure philosopher whom you hold in great esteem is not a prerequisite to participation in the public square of our republic.

  27. JA:

    First, an apology. I stated in my last comment that I would not comment again. However, Mr. Jenkins has once again wildly mischaraterized my arguments and intentions.

    Mr. Jenkins characterizes my position as one of “fervent belief” that brooks no “different viewpoint” and that I am trying to force “my favorite authors,” particularly one “obscure philosopher” on him, or prevent him from discussing “legitimate issues” as a “citizen of the United States.”

    This is silly. My position stems from historical and philosophical investigation that ranges over many academic disciplines. When confronted by my arguments, he summarily dismissed them by recourse to sweeping and unsupported assertions (e.g. “religion” is inherently more violent than the secular state). My response in each comment has been to protest that his responses ranged from highly contentious to even relying on myth. I then tried to refer him to some of the literature on the subject so as to inform him of the contours of these debates. At no point did I try to force these views on him; rather, as a specialist-in-training, my attempt was to correct his rather uninformed views, much like, say, a medievalist would have to correct a layman who believes that the manorial economy (i.e. feudalism) was widespread during the middle ages (at best, it only appeared for short periods and was localized) or that the medieval church was aggressively opposed to scientific investigation (when in fact it funded many scientists, including Galileo). Mr. Jenkins response to these admonitions to familiarize himself with these complex issues is an accusation that I’m trying to marginalize him and prevent his view from being heard. This appeal to his sovereign rights is nonsense. I have no qualms with engaging him, only that he actually be informed on the subject, just as any good citizen should be, before he betrays his ignorance.

  28. Patrick:

    JA, I for one find your take on the subject convincing. Also, as a bystander, it looks as if Siarlys Jenkins is engaged in a game of “ignore your arguments” and taking offense mostly as an attempt at leveraging rhetorical power. You’re not wrong in wondering if he hasn’t actually engaged you here. Wish it were otherwise. People have weird hobbies.

  29. Siarlys Jenkins:

    “My response in each comment has been to protest that his responses ranged from highly contentious to even relying on myth.”

    I suspect that a visitor from Mars, unfamiliar with our respective persuasions, would find this a case of the pot calling the kettle black. What is evident is that our premises are sufficiently diverse, that we cannot even agree on a fundamental foundation for discussion. Patrick apparently shares your axiomatic assumptions. I wish you well with your wide-ranging studies.

  30. R. Salyer:

    Religion is the motive force of the body politic, by definition. If a state takes the material goods of individuals, and individuals as ends unto themselves, as its motive force, then this is the state religion, its Confession.

    Religio: To bind together.

    By avowing the Lordship of Christ, a state is merely distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens. Thus, the Middle Ages did not represent a tyranny, but rather Christendom.

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