Theology, Democracy, and the Project of Liberalism

Article excerpt

In the midst of preparations for this issue of CrossCurrents, I found myself in Indonesia, working in partnership with the Decade to Overcome Violence, a peace initiative sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Over the past year, this work has taken me to far-flung locales in Asia, Africa, Europe and all across North America. Everywhere in my travels, I am confronted by the sobering recognition that, at this particular juncture in world history, religion serves both as a source of life-giving transformation--and of terror.

We are indeed living in a world marked by increasing fundamentalism, sectarianism, nationalism, and violence. With so much of today's "God-talk" resulting in zealotry, bloody conflict, and murderous clashes between warring theologies in the public square, how do we as persons of peaceable faith name ourselves--and render God's name--in history?

Whether in Nairobi, Amsterdam, Bali, or New York, I consistently encounter religious leaders who passionately pose the same urgent questions: How can faith traditions and confessional communities move beyond tribalism and conflict? How might they instead contribute to a politics characterized by tolerance, safety, and hospitality towards individuals of diverse religions, philosophies, and lifestyles? To some, such probing inquiries regarding religion's place in the public square come uncomfortably close to breaching the free exercise clause and potentially capitulating to the kind of politico-religious tendencies that John Howard Yoder has memorably deemed "Constantinian." Yet these profoundly human and spiritual issues are central to the hopes of those cultures seeking peace in a blessed, broken world. In fact, they lie at the core of the most pressing contemporary concerns regarding religion, democracy, and liberalism. Good politics, like good religion, these religious leaders insist, cares not only for its own, but for the pilgrim, the stranger, the alien, the Other.

A future issue of CrossCurrents will bring some of the voices from Asia and Africa on religion, democracy, and liberalism to our readership. We begin this issue with one of America's most interesting public commentators in the realm of religion and democracy. Unlike those who fail to grasp the distinction between deep democracy and imperial democracy, Bill Moyers articulates an engaging spiritual view of public life, one in which a pluralistic and liberal ethos is not only good politics but good theology as well. Moyer's piece, first given as a convocation at Union Theological Seminary, is followed by an article on the history of liberal theology by Union's most recently appointed Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Gary Dorrien. Professor Dorrien is one of the finest interpreters and theologians of liberalism writing today.

Two young scholars trained at Duke, Peter Dula and Alex Sider, offer a literate corrective to the notion of mere liberal democracy by bringing "radical democracy" and ecclesiology into productive dialogue. …