Political science and political citizens
Monday, Jan. 1, 2024 - Intro p/d 1 of 10
Happy 2024! “Political science and political citizens” is the first of 261 political devotions paid subscribers receive this year, one on each of the new year’s weekday mornings. This and the next nine devotions make up the book series’s introduction, and these ten devotions (plus 56 others) are free to all subscribers. A link at the bottom of each devotion takes you to the next one.
Then the king of Israel replied, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.’”—1 Kings 20:11 NNAS
I teach school. I have a degree in neither theology nor political science. At our high school and community college, I don’t even teach government or civics. I write these twelve months of devotions in the spirit of Pennsylvania’s putative farmer who, a few years before the Revolutionary War, wrote twelve letters in response to Parliament’s Townshend Acts.
The farmer advanced only three qualifications for writing his letters: he had some spare time, a ready library, and a couple of helpful and learned friends. Unlike most of today’s specialists, he even dared to mix politics and religion (or at least a biblical allusion) to explain his motivation for writing:
As a charitable, but poor person, does not withhold his mite, because he cannot relieve all the distress of the miserable, so should not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be.1
No quote, perhaps, could summarize two of this series’ premises better. First, all of us are called to public life, and no one should be silent or silenced—not farmers, not teachers. Second, influence and results are overrated: the effects of our words spoken and actions taken in faith are not as important as the public space those words and actions create.
The farmer’s letters, though, were both influential and consequential. They got picked up by newspapers in several colonies, and the pamphlet version went though twelve editions in four countries, according to historian Gordon Wood. The letters also introduced a coherent strategy for challenging the acts: thanks to the letters, the colonists focused on whether Parliament intended to regulate trade, which it had the right to do, or to levy taxes, which it did not.2
Of course, John Dickinson, the letters’ true author, wasn’t a farmer but a lawyer. In an era when 90 percent of Americans were farmers,3 perhaps Dickinson knew that his audience would associate “farmer” with “citizen.” Significantly, Dickinson’s rhetorical tactic of presenting himself as a farmer, and thus a citizen, was heartfelt: Dickinson’s biographer, William Murchison, points out that Dickinson’s “mode of address prepared readers to understand the writer as one like themselves—as, equally clearly, he felt himself to be.”4 Dickinson’s status as a citizen was more important to him than his status as a lawyer, a profession that would have at once impressed his audience and disassociated him from it.
I also was a lawyer—and later a pastor. But unlike Dickinson, I don’t have to pretend to be a member of a humble and pervasive profession whose members receive no grounding in political theory. I really do teach school.
Political science, like all academic disciplines (and bar associations), is a discourse community with its own standards and lexicon.5 Consequently, political scientists talk more among themselves than they do with the citizens their writings might serve. In so doing, political scientists have ignored the warning of one of their most celebrated colleagues, Sheldon S. Wolin, who describes political theory as “primarily a civic and secondarily an academic activity.”6 Political theorists, Wolin warns, have dedicated themselves to “the care and feeding of the brainy classes,” but they have neglected “the masses, who represent the stuff of democracy, [who] live lives of quiet desperation . . .”7
Wolin’s warning echos Jesus’s warning. Political scientists run the risk of becoming like the lawyers who Jesus says “have taken away the key of knowledge.”8 Lawyer and theologian Vine Deloria Jr.’s critique of academic specialization reads almost like a gloss on Jesus’s words about specialization and knowledge:
. . . the task of moving human knowledge forward has generally fallen to the amateur, to those who simply wish to know, and to the humble souls who refuse to surrender an idea to the guardians of human knowledge, the academics; those souls who understand knowledge as the possession of the whole human species and not the plaything of the specialist.9
When political scientists do address the citizenry, they usually write not as fellow citizens, as Dickinson did, but as experts—as Deloria’s “guardians of human knowledge.” Guardians of knowledge address the public above the political fray,10 and many political scientists believe that, by doing so, they can maintain objectivity despite the subjective rough-and-tumble of politics.11 But objectivity doesn’t come merely from expertise or from the standards of a discourse community, which can be co-opted (see, for instance, Jessica Blatt’s excellent book Race and the Making of American Political Science). Instead, objectivity is the good fruit of covenant (see the “Creation and Objectivity” devotions).
One of the rare recent communications by political scientists to the citizens of the United States made me start writing this series. Just before the 2016 presidential election, over three hundred political scientists signed a widely published letter warning our citizenry about one of the major party candidates. Unlike Dickinson, they didn’t write as fellow citizens but as “individual scholars of political science.” They also didn’t reason with their fellow citizens; instead, they used their authority as experts to “call on voters to consider this threat.”12 The candidate they warned against won anyway, suggesting that this unprecedented attempt by something like an entire profession to speak to an entire citizenry—a citizenry it should have been speaking with all along—made little or no impression on it.
As a citizen—as one of Deloria’s amateurs who simply wished to know—I had been reading a lot of political theory for around twenty-five years before that election. When I read this belated and impotent letter from a profession that I had come to admire, I wondered if citizens could find out for themselves what political scientists know about citizenship and share it with one another. I decided to account for my experiences as a citizen exploring political thought, especially thought that seemed both promising and neglected. Each rediscovery (discoveries for me, but rediscoveries, perhaps, for our longstanding polity) had come with what literary critic Walter Benjamin called “the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded.’”13 Over that quarter century, these “revolutionary energies” took on in me a devotional cast. In fact, my intellectual journey into political theory became part of my larger spiritual journey, and my political readings became part of my devotional practice. My religious imagination seemed to open up to what the Bible had been trying to tell me all along about public life.
I want to present some of my findings in a way that engages the religious imagination, a faculty that I feel is unappreciated in many political and even religious circles.14 I seek a sisterhood of religious imagination—the devotional imagination, which renews our covenants each morning, and the prophetic imagination, which theologian Walter Brueggemann says brings “to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.”15 This sisterhood of imagination can, like Paul’s message, appeal to “both to small and great,”16 to those Wolin calls “the brawny”—the citizens, who live without political hope—as well as to “the brainy classes,” including political scientists.17
“Deep calls to deep,”18 the Psalmist says; perhaps the deep suppression of these forgotten hopes can be relieved by deep and forgotten sources. We owe one another our sources: in a democracy, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “it’s important that we each be open with and open to our fellow citizens concerning the deep sources of how we think about political issues.”19 So in these devotions, I overhear and report on dialogues among many of my own deep sources: the Bible, works of political theory, theology, history, and even semiotics and literary criticism.
And I stick with those sources. Unlike the political scientists in 2016, and even unlike Dickinson, I don’t want to write about any narrow issue or current candidate. My entries don’t opine on current events, a practice that, in today’s social climate, tends to flatten into ideological discourse. In fact, I hope my entries disappoint those who hold to either end of any present or future ideological spectrum. I hope also that such disappointment serves as the first stage toward a more three-dimensional public life. I can’t blueprint that life, but this series provides examples of what a search for such a life might involve.
Learning what political scientists know is a good start. As we learn, we need also to try that knowledge out together in the context of public space. This series suggests ways of creating that context. This series’ devotional approach suggests ways of knowing that lead from our heads to our hearts, but that lead also from our armchairs to new political communities.
My writing, though, leans heavily on these same political scientists whose representatives misfired so spectacularly just before the 2016 election. I’ve supported all but the most original points I make with footnoted references to these and other experts. I’ve tried to take the farmer’s civic approach: I learn from those more learned than I am, and then I express my sentiments, “however small their influence is likely to be.”
In creating this genre, I lean heavily not only on political theorists but also on my years of devotional reading. Sometimes my weight is obvious; for instance, readers will find traces of a devotion by Oswald Chambers in my “The Viewpoint” devotional series, which adopts the name of Oswald’s entry. But overall, my reliance has more to do with a devotional book’s approach. An apt devotional entry, I think, makes no theological claims on the reader but finds its way into the reader’s interstices. It finds, one might say, spaces between what a window frames and what it reflects. I often wonder how my favorite devotional writers walk through my walls and help me see something new about something I knew. And how do these entries move me to compunction or action? How could I experience that inspiration more in public life, a vital part of life now largely unknown to us citizens? In this regard, I’ve considered the traditional devotional art of lectio divina, which moves among four interior moments: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.20 Is there such a movement in political devotion? Would it perhaps involve moments of reading and prayer, discussion and action?
What would a political devotional be like?
This is the first of ten devotions that make up the series’s introduction. Click here for the next one. These introductory devotions are accessible to both free and paid subscribers.
Dickinson, “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” 409.
Wood, The American Revolution, 405-6.
Allosso, American Environmental History, 177.
Murchison, Cost of Liberty, 54,
One gets a sense of this community’s communication strictures by perusing the current, 582-page fifth edition of Writing in Political Science: A Practical Guide.
Wolin, The Presence of the Past, 1. Robert N. Bellah, a professor who has written extensively on what he terms “civil religion,” has issued similar warnings concerning related academic fields: “Increasing academic specialization has led philosophers and social scientists (and often theologians as well) to turn away from public discourse to the discussion of technical issues with fellow experts.” Bellah, “Public Philosophy and Public Theology,” 90.
Wolin, “From Vocation to Invocation,” 48. In her foreword to the expanded edition of Wolin’s Politics and Vision, Political theorist Wendy Brown points out that political theory is “not only about but for the polity, informing citizenship and itself a certain practice of citizenship.” Brown, foreword to Politics and Vision, xv (italics in the original).
Luke 11:52 NNAS.
Deloria, “Civilization and Isolation,” 133-34.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt points out that, “In order to enter the ‘academic’ space, [Plato’s students] had to leave the space of real politics . . .” Thanks to Plato’s Academy, turning away from the politcal realm “still defines our idea of academic freedom today.” Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” 131-33.
True political theory, Wendy Brown points out, “makes no pretense to objectivity.” Brown, xv.
Tokar, “Political Scientists Nationwide.”
Quoted in Marcus, preface to One-Way Street, xv.
I glean the phrase “religious imagination” from Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt’s “Jewish imagination” and “Christian imagination.” Brueggemann and Linafelt, Introduction to the Old Testament, 43. Brueggemann has popularized the term “prophetic imagination.” Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination. Theologian William T. Cavanaugh may have an even more apt term for what I hope this series locates and engages—“theopolitical imagination”—though the term sounds a little clunky. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination.
Acts 26:22 NNAS.
Wolin, “From Vocation to Invocation,” 48.
Psalm 42:7 NNAS.
Wolterstorff, Mighty and the Almighty, 8.
Casey, Sacred Reading, 57-59.