Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity

In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffery Stout tries to play peacemaker between contemporary proponents of liberalism and what Stout dubs the “new traditionalists.” I became interested in this book because I’m rather of fond of the new traditionalists. The three thinkers Stout chooses to dialogue with (Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre) are three of the most interesting writers I’ve read. Furthermore, Stout’s tone is constructive. From what I’ve read so far, you could disagree with Stout on every point and take something away from the book.

The goal of Stout’s project is to forge a basis for civic unity in a democratic society. Stout is sympathetic to the new traditionalists’ claim that contemporary American civic religion is “incoherent and alienating”, but doesn’t think it’s wise to base civic unity on religion (1). However, instead of viewing democracy as an empty and corrupting force, Stout views it as a broken in American society today. Stout wants to argue for a non-Rawlsian conception of democracy. He identifies two premises of modern liberal thinkers that the new traditionalists have criticized: 1) that a nation-state can be ideally neutral with respect to conceptions of the good 2) that political discourse can occur on the basis of “free public reason” (2). What Stout wants to do is argue that a true democratic philosophy need not adopt these two premises: “Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece” (3).

Stout wants to argue that, instead of being the antithesis of tradition, “democracy…is a tradition” (3). The character of this democratic tradition is not forged from a Rawlsian agreement on the conception of justice, but rather is “more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions, and patterns” (3). To Stout, democracy is more than a system of government. Rather, it is an attitude and cultural phenomenon. The public deliberation required by political democracy makes it more than mere politics. The goal of political philosophy, therefore, is to cultivate this democratic project: “It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, ti articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny” (5).  Stout invites his readers to take the position of citizen while reading the book.

Stout envisions true democracy as able to break through the polarization of American politics today. The opposing positions adopted by new traditionalists and liberal secularists result in the “Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare”  and since “there are many important issues that cannot be resolved solely on the basis of commonly held principles,” we need some sort of mechanism to mediate these disputes (10). The democracy method Stout proposes is “conversation.” Conversation for Stout means a willingness to try to understand another person’s perspective and premises and freely subjecting your own views to criticism.

To try to generate this democratic conversation, Stout selects Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre as his interlocutors. He does so because “they represent the tradition to which most American citizens are committed” (11). Hauerwas has often said that Stout overestimates the influence of his work and I can see why with a quote like this. If Stout’s project is truly a pragmatic political endeavor, the selection of these three thinkers is puzzling to me because I don’t think any of them (especially Milbank, who is British) are particularly influential on the practice of American Christianity. Actually, these thinkers are critical of American Christianity. All this to say – I don’t think Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre represent the “tradition to which most American citizens are committed.” While I welcome Stout’s ecumenical efforts, I don’t think by dialoguing with Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre he’ll have any particular effect on the practice of American Christianity. Stout’s insistence on a pragmatic project is problematic here.

I also think Stout underestimates the problem that secularization poses for people with religious convictions.  Stout thinks the fears of the new traditionalists are unfounded because “modern democratic reasoning is secularized, but not in a sense that rules out the expression of religious premises or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions” (11). However, Stout thinks Neuhaus’ “naked public square” is either “unacceptable or unrealistic” (11). Such a proposal requires the church to rely on coercion (unacceptable) or persuasion (unrealistic). The only place for Christian convictions in the public square is in the form of individual expression. I find such a view theologically problematic for many of the same reasons that the new traditionalists do, I suspect.

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3 Responses to “Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity”

  1. I interpreted Stout’s choice of traditionalists as a way of engaging with what seminary students are reading. So, no, most American Christians aren’t reading MacIntyre — but at least some part of those who will be their pastors are.

    I imagine you’ll be disappointed with the section on Milbank.

    Looking forward to your further reflections.

  2. William – Do you think these traditionalists are influential on most seminaries? Or is it a meaningful minority that Stout is after?

  3. Hard to say, and I bet your seminary connections are better than mine. I’d say it’s a meaningful minority in the sense that there are intellectually inclined Christians who, perhaps following Neuhaus, have a significant problem with our society’s overarching liberalism and will go searching for a theoretical alternative. It seems to me that MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Milbank are the most exciting anti-liberals around.

    Others who are theologically inclined might find an interpretation of liberalism more to their liking, perhaps in Niebuhr or John Courtney Murray or someone.

    Maybe, as you say, Stout overstates the number of thinkers who (a) take the Rawlsian account to be to some degree descriptive of American society and (b) seek out some other non-liberal account. But it seems to me that this is something that Christians should be thinking about pretty hard, now that the mainlines have exited center stage.

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