Saturday, January 22, 2005

BFF? Liberation Theology and Born Again Political Engagement

(note: the intro is long; I've bolded the first words where the post turns to the meat of the issue)

When I was in college, I was seriously considering applying to some graduate programs that heavily utilized certain marxist and marxian modes of analysis. A handful of people said that I just wouldn't 'get it', however, since these modes of analysis are only fully available to leftists; and despite being a liberal, I'm certainly not a leftist (I love me some capitalism, for example). This bothered me considerably; it just struck me as impossibly daft to believe that some substantive political ideology is entailed by purely formal categories of reasoning.* Since then, I've become more and more interested in the problematic of the division of and relationship between formal reasoning and particular normative, ethical, or political beliefs.

This problematic is particularly stark in the curious isomorphism (structural identity) between certain species of postmodern marxist logic and Evangelical Christian logic. For example, when it comes to pedagogical indoctrination, both hold strikingly similar positions; as I wrote elsewhere:
The view of many evangelical Christians tracks certain post-structuralist and marxist views: there's no such thing as a neutral study, and the claim to neutrality is itself a deeply ideological and evangelizing act.

There's a weird, arational tension here for me; as much as I love marxian analysis, when evangelicals deploy it, I want to cry foul.......but why? I actually agree with their reasoning to an extent, but like my less-than-encouraging college pals, I claim that reasoning for my team.

All of this extended introduction brings me to this (very smart) post at Harbinger about liberation theology. This passage caught my eye:
In general, I accept Hauerwas’ ‘church as polis’ ecclesiology. Such a notion of the church guards against the compartmentalization of political and theological attitudes, a partitioning that inappropriately renders theology irrelevant to the political, one of the most important features of human existence.
Purely formally, this boundary-elimination seems wonderful to me. The compartmentalization is a reification of a staid Victorian ideology that starkly splits the private from the public; this split, in turn, enables the social power structure to operate within the private sphere, leaving the subject without a political venue in which to seek recourse. The antidote: The personal is the political! So far, so good.

For me, however, this acceptance of the formal reasoning embodied in the above is belied by my negative reaction to the deployment of said reasoning by the Religious Right. In fact, one could characterize the recent emergence of the Religious Right as a mass acceptance of this formal reasoning; they determined that their religious lives aren't, or shouldn't be, divorced from their lives in the body politic, and acted on that reasoning. To sharpen that point, it's precisely that conflation that liberals have been absolutely railing against since the Kerry/Bush race. Their argument is based on the concept of Public Reason: for a democracy to be legitimate, its decision must be based on ideas that are accessible to everyone.

There's clearly a tension between these two ideas, however. My question is: how do we reconcile them? Do we argue, as my leftist college pals did, that the formal reasoning of 'the personal is the political' entails certain substantive political values? Do we abandon the normative notion that 'the personal is political' is always good? To do the latter ends in an adjudication between substantive values that seems arbitrary to me. Or do we bite the bullet and admit that 'the personal is political' isn't good or bad, and that its value rests solely on the substanive beliefs that are being justified by recourse to 'the personal is political'? Finally, should we abandon the idea altogether that the personal is the political?

* A bit more technically, marxism may entail substantive political beliefs if one holds all of Marx's ontological theses, one of which is a belief about the essence of man (for Marx, man is homo economicus; our sense of worth is derived from our labor and its fruits). Jettison that one belief, though, and the substantive political beliefs about state redistribution are no longer necessary. Since marxists jettisoned those beliefs long ago under the sway of post-modernist denials of essentialism, it was clear to me that one can be a contemporary marxist and an unabashed fan of capitalism. That's me in a nutshell.