The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics

Volume 21, 2001

Charles T. Mathewes
Pages 125-150

Faith, Hope, and Agony
Christian Political Participation Beyond Liberalism

The recent emergence and maturation of "agonistic" political thought, in explicit opposition to liberal political theory, offers opportunities for Christian thinkers in two ways. First, it releases Christians from the unnecessarily narrow political etiquette of received liberal political theory, and makes possible a more comprehensive public debate in which thick Christian commitments can plausibly play a role. Second, it sets Christian thinkers the task of determining how they can legitimately participate in this movement for a more "agonistic" democratic theory (and, by extension, a more agonistic democracy.) Some agonists argue that Christianity is the sort of worldview which is blind to the ineliminable pervasiveness of violence, and so is potentially a dangerous participant in the development of agonistic theory. Others challenge the idea that Christians can comfortably participate in a pluralistic conversation at all, given that their aim inevitably is (or should be) the conversion of other participants. The former group claims others ought not allow Christians to participate; the latter claims Christians ought not want to participate. This paper explores and responds to these challenges in order to uncover a new and properly Christian approach to understanding political life, by contesting both sorts of challenges about Christian participation in agonistic democracy. It argues that, in contrast to agonists who see conflict as necessarily violent because essentially governed by a zero-sum logic of winners and losers, Christians can imagine and approach moments of conflict in the conviction that no one need lose or win, but that the struggle can be a struggle for conversion of one's loves and the loves of one's interlocutor. By so interpreting conflict, Christians can re-imagine politics as a conflict about loves, and the movement for "agonistic democracy" can be seen as clarifying the possibility of re-interpreting politics as a struggle over peoples' loves.