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RADICAL DEMOCRACY AND POLITICAL THEOLOGY

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By Jeffrey W. Robbins

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The Montréal Review, July 2011

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 "Radical Democracy and Political Theology" by Jeffrey W. Robbins (Columbia University Press, 2011)

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"Jeffrey W. Robbins seeks to renew political theology by pulling it away from its conservative roots and giving it a democratic foundation. In the process, he shows democracy itself has to be rethought and radicalized. A fascinating and timely project."

- Michael Hardt, coauthor of Empire, Multitude: War and Democracay in the Age of Empire, and Commonwealth

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Unbeknownst to many, the world is undergoing a monumental change with regard to the understanding and practice of the proper relationship between religion and politics. The modern, liberal, secular norm that fancied a "wall of separation" has been breached, if not entirely broken down. Indeed, some might question whether that modern, liberal, secular norm was ever really as secular as it purported to be. Instead, perhaps modern liberalism, and the secularization of politics and culture it bequeathed, is best understood as a form of Protestantism writ large. In this way, this monumental change, which has oft been described in terms of the shift from the modern to the post-modern, or the liberal to the post-liberal, can now properly be seen and embraced also as a shift from the secular to the post-secular.

What this means is twofold: First, and this is something that sociologists of religion, cultural commentators, and political pundits have slowly but surely been coming to agreement about, we must put aside the secularist assumption that the more modern we become the less religious we will become. After all, we have seen how religion continues to be a mobilizing force in politics, and an enduring presence in public life, sometimes for the good and other times as a destructive, divisive, and even violent force. The signs for this in recent history abound. For instance, for Michel Foucault the first global shockwave that should have woken the West from its dogmatic secularist slumbers was the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Similarly, for those of us in the United States, the political mobilization of the Religious Right, wherein evangelicals borrowed from the playbook of the New Left and organized themselves as an aggrieved minority, was more than a generation in the making. To underestimate the enduring power and appeal of religion in American public life was and continues to be a great mistake made by many on the left. It was only by the time of the 2008 election cycle that would see the eventual victory of Barack Obama, that the Democratic Party was no longer willing to cede the religious terrain to the conservative base, but made the argument that religious values equally pertain to matters of social justice, poverty, and crime. Throughout the election, all the major Democratic presidential candidates were lining up to brandish their religious credentials, speaking in the language of moral values, and fully accepting of the notion that their public policy proscriptions ought to be infused with their own private religious convictions.

In short, with this post-secular reconfiguration of the proper role of religion within politics, the question is no longer whether religion and politics mix, but how.

This then leads to the second ramification of this shift: If we now know there is an inevitable, even a necessary, intermixing of religion and politics, then the next question that must be asked is what sort of religious beliefs and practices best align with our existing democratic values and best contribute to our shared commitment at creating a more perfect society? Consider the case of Iran again. With the recent protests in the streets of Tehran over the disputed results of the most recent presidential election, it is most telling that the protests did not pit secularists against theocrats as in the case of the 1979 Revolution, but instead was an uprising over Iranian politicians' professed religious ideals. When the Iranians took to the streets with the cries of "Allah akbar!" in June 2009, this time this revolutionary Islamic rallying cry was not to be heard as a rejection of a Western secular political norm and a propped-up authoritarian regime, but as a complaint against fraud-a complaint that was inspired at once by the ideals of both democracy and Islam. As such, it served as an apt illustration of both the post-secular and of the radical democracy made possible by new media and social networking.

It is only a short line to connect Iran's so-called Twitter Revolution with the democratic uprising throughout North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. In this way, by upsetting the diametric logic that equates modernization with Westernization and secularization, the post-secular has established the conditions of possibility for a genuinely democratic form of politics to take root. While the outcomes of these various uprisings are still very much in question, what should be clear is that whether in Iran, Tunisia, or Egypt the violent suppression of religion that once passed as the modern norm has given way to an alternative future.

We need to look no further than Turkey to get some sense of what this alternative future might look like. At its most basic, the post-secular designates a fundamental change with regard to the secularist self-understanding of the state. In Turkey, this can be seen by the success of the AK Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has altered the power not only between elected politicians and the military elite, but also between traditional political parties and religious organizations. Quietly but assuredly, Turkey has effectively undergone a nonviolent Islamic Revolution. Gone are the days of rabid Westernization and secularization envisioned and enforced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In its place stands the wager that its longstanding religious traditions can be peacefully and productively infused into its public and political life.

Extrapolating from these various examples, my argument, which I lay out in my recently published book, Radical Democracy and Political Theology (Columbia University Press, 2011), is that this burgeoning post-secular moment presents us with an historic opportunity to reinvigorate and renew our practice and understanding of democracy. While many on the left of the political spectrum have tended to be somewhat dismissive and suspicious of religion's influence on politics and public life-either because they see religion as an essentially conservative or reactionary force, or more basically, because they fear a breach in the separation of church and state-I chronicle how religion has been a progressive, and even revolutionary, force in society throughout history. By recognizing the positive contributions religion has made in the past, then we are in a better position to negotiate the potentially volatile mix of religion and politics into the future.

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Jeffrey W. Robbins is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, and director of the college colloquium and the American Studies program at Lebanon Valley College, where he has been named the Thomas Rhys Vickroy Teacher of the Year. He is the author or editor of five books, including most recently Radical Democracy and Political Theology (Columbia University Press, 2011). He is the associate editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, co-editor of the Columbia University Press book series, "Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture," and serves on the steering committee of the "Theology and the Political" consultation group of the American Academy of Religion.

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