Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Two new (very different, very good) articles

  • Jared Hickman has a fascinating new article out in The New England Quarterly (LXXXI.2, pp.177-217). "The Theology of Democracy" traces American democratic theory back to its Puritan roots, particularly in John Milton and Roger Williams, and then forward to its Pragmatist refashioning, particularly in John Dewey and William James. Here is a quote from the article:

"This difference between the Puritan origin myth of democracy as a postlapsarian contract among fallen human beings in the absence of God and the pragmatist origin myth of democracy as a premortal council between divine human beings and God nicely encapsulates the paradoxical essence of our story of the theology of democracy: namely, that the theologically-based conception of democracy that emerged out of the seventeenth-century Puritanism was actually more secular in its conclusions than the sacred conceptions of democracy that subsequently emerged out of the supposedly secular philosophies of the American Enlightenment and American pragmatism. However, while the American Enlightenment sacralized its Christian republic in the patently antidemocratic terms of supernatural idealism and so made of the United States an imperial theocracy, American pragmatism managed to sacralize secular democracy uponthe premises of democratized theology. In so doing, pragmatism could finally lend ultimate credence and philosophical support to democracy as a 'way of life.'" (p.213)

  • Another impressive article by Christopher Malloy is out in the latest issue of The Thomist (72.1, pp. 1-44). "Subsistit in: Nonexclusive Identity or Full Identity?" takes on what is perhaps the most significant issue in Roman Catholic ecclesiology since Vatican II, the question of interpretiting the affirmation of Lumen Gentium 8 that "The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church." Malloy critiques Francis Sullivan's position on subsistit in and offers one of exclusive and full identity with the Catholic Church. For those who haven't read it, Sullivan's most recent in a long line of contributions to the subsistit in debate is found in Theological Studies 69.1, pp. 116-124, "The Meaning of Subsistit in as Explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", where he engages with the 2007 CDF Responsa ad quaestiones.


  1. "a premortal council between divine human beings and God"

    Whoa! What are the origins of that position? Could you elaborate/send me a pdf of the article? I can't open it.

    We also need to look beyond the English roots of American democracy - There's a great book called "The Island at the Center of the World" that talks about the Dutch colony at Manhatten, and Dutch political philosophy that was absorbed by the English after they captured the colony.

  2. I'll see what I can do to find an electronic copy... might not be available yet since it's the latest issue. I think the "premortal council" quote that you refer to shouldn't be taken literally, any more than the Puritan idea should be interpreted as saying that democracy arose from the actual fallen societies of the book of Genesis. Both of these should be read as origin myths to understand theoretically the political concept of democracy... in much the same way that the concept of a "social contract" doesn't necessitate an actually contract being drawn up and signed by all proto-societal people. The point is to differentiate the ideas behind a democracy that both Puritans and Pragmatists embraced, though from very distinct philosophical commitments.

  3. dude - that is SOOO abstract. what the hell do you do with that then?

    A more historically grounded interpretation that is also worth considering is recognizing that democracy may not have really existed in this country in the late 1700s. A lot of people cite Jackson's administration as the real origin of democracy in America. Granted, the concept of "representation" was enshrined well before Andrew Jackson. It was "representation" in the republican form of government that we adopted that allowed the people to take over the government and broaden what the electorate meant. I think it's important that we see democracy as an unfolding story rather than something that was established. This is especially important when we think about the expansion of suffrage to women and African Americans only in the twentieth century.

  4. We are NOT a "democracy." Our Founders hated and feared "democracy." We were founded as a Constitutional, representative REPUBLIC.

    John Lofton, Editor

  5. john -
    We are a democracy and a republic. the founders did establish a representative republic, as I had alluded to. They also established a process for amending the republic, and since that time we have followed THEIR process and broadened the suffrage. Now "democracy" is a pretty vague term - rule by the people - but the constitutional amendments that we have passed (which are consistent with the vision of the founders) I think justify the re-christening of our republic as a "democracy" as well. We are really a democratic republic, if you want to split hairs/be a jackass about it.

  6. Also, john -

    1. The founders had varying positions on democracy - some feared it, some didn't.

    2. What they really feared was "mobocracy" - the tyranny of the majority over the minority. To avoid this they established republican safeguards and limits to government power. These safeguards have served as well as suffrage has expanded, and we probably WOULDN'T have done as well as a nation if we expanded suffrage without these safeguards.

    But my point is that it is disinegnious to equate fear of mobocracy with fear of democracy in the way that you do. The founders didn't fear democracy in the abstract - what they feared was a specific type of democracy. You can't hold all democracy suspect just because they used the general term "democracy" to express their fears at the time - you need to delve deeper into what EXACTLY it was that they feared.

  7. Welcome, John! It's always good to have a new voice around here.

    Let me try to address some points from you and daniel-

    -As to whether we're a "democracy", I'd have to side with Daniel on this... which means walking a good way with John as well on the idea of republicanism. Democracy as a concept of political philosophy is a broad and unruly beast... many different structures can fall under the category. I'd recommend listening to Philip Pettit's 2005 Pufendorf lectures, "Democracy in Three Dimensions" (http://www.pufendorf.se/section.asp?id=404). He discusses a lot of the difficulties and permutations available when conceiving a democracy. As far as this article goes, take it for what it is... the article is published in a journal of "life and letters". We're talking about Puritan and Pragmatist political philosophies here, not the nuts and bolts of representatives and branches of government. Which brings me to my second point...

    -Daniel, you say of the "myths" for understanding democracy that they are "SOOO abstract. what the hell do you do with that then?" Perhaps it's abstract, but I think it's pretty straightforward what you "do" with it, and I don't think it's just visionary fancies that sidestep real-world political issues. Why did the founders (begin to) create a democratic republic? Abuses of the monarchy, questions of religious and economic freedom, and so on, right? But why not a monarchy? Why not one church, or mercantilist colonialism? There needs to be some theoretical justification for why these structures need to be avoided. Put it this way- why does Plato advocate philosopher-kings in The Republic, but then move to a much more practical view of political structure in The Laws? Well, being thrown in prison by a tyrant king will do that to you, don't you think? Along with this go particular understandings of human nature, of power and sociality as primal or developed aspects of the human condition, and how all of this relates to God. The idea of "origin myths" is only abstract because of how we tend to think of mythology... but as an explanatory framework, it is simply necessary. It basically narrates one's justifications for acting in the world. Are people naturally untrustworthy, sinful, tending to abuse power? Then perhaps a democracy should be set in place, and particular checks and balances as well. Or do people naturally construct mutually edifying social situations and dialogue which creates room for difference, understanding, and reception of truth or prosperity? In this situation as well, a form of democracy is the sensible approach to societal structures. This only looks abstract when such practical considerations are set in terms of a mythology that is less familiar to our sentiments... but really the two options I've just expressed aren't very far off from the Puritan and Pragmatist theological bases for democracy.

    -On the question of a more realistic, historical development of democracy via the Jackson administration... I don't think that this article would preclude such an understanding. Again, the point isn't that democracy came out full-formed from the Puritans- he discusses its reformulation by the Pragmatists, after all- well after the Jacksonian era (in addition, we should question what exactly democracy "full-formed" would be.. as you and I seem to agree, there are many manifestations of government that might be considered "democratic", John's "republic" being one of them, and even radical socialism being another!) The article talks about John Adams' retrieval of the Puritan legacy in opposition to their cultured despisers, who more readily went to the French Enlightenment for democratic ideals. So the point is that we're talking about intellectual legacies here that contribute to a massive historical development, of which the Puritans, Jackson, and the Pragmatists are all a part.

  8. Haha! I was messing with you on that comment, dude. Excellent response, though.

  9. Sorry, I figured you economists weren't cultured enough to appreciate abstraction that doesn't use numbers, so I thought you were in earnest...

  10. well sure - I probably don't find it as useful an exercise as you do... but I still get it