09/20/2010 11:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Social Criticism: A Political and Religious Act

Social criticism is as common as a conversation in the church vestibule after service concludes. After a pastor questions a particular public policy, many parishioners linger around to discuss what Michael Walzer calls the "conditions of common life." Publicly reflecting on social issues, then, is not the exclusive province of professional academics; rather, it is the work of every citizen who reflects on the connections -- or the gap -- between a society's standards and its status quo.

Since our country's inception Christians have often stood in that gap, holding forth with constructive and deconstructive jeremiads of social criticism. This precious tradition has been defended and extended by everyone from Maria Stewart and Walter Rauschenbusch to the brilliant Nanny Helen Burroughs and the rapper Jkwest. The rhetorical rhythm, at its best, contains trenchant religious critique and deft deployments of America's democratic ideals. But, as Jesus said to the rich young ruler in a different context, there is one thing that it lacks. If Christian traditions of progressive social criticism are to gain an audience beyond religious academicians and committed activists, they must intervene in policy debates with explicitly political arguments. Religious calls for love and justice are not self-evident, and therefore are inherently and inescapably political claims. If we desire to persuade policy wonks, politicians, and various publics within America, we would do well to leave our isolated islands of moral suasion, setting sail on the tempestuous seas of public debate about public issues.

Dr. Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political science professor at Princeton University, can function as an exemplar in this regard. Dr. Lacewell's public interventions into policy debates are, more often than not, an incisive mixture of political historiography, civic metaphors, and theological imagination. During the healthcare debate she composed a cautionary analogy between the public option and public education, which she called "our other public option." Her healthcare intervention contained the standard "we" tropes of moral suasion -- we ought, we should, we must, etc. But it did not stop there. She also recounted the history of public education as a mobilizing metaphor in arguing for a public option. Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that public education improved "literacy, worker productivity ... and social mobility," she then claimed that a public option would bend the healthcare cost curve, improve economic mobility, and increase the quality of life of those with "the fewest advantages and opportunities." A strong argument, but alas, it did not carry the day. That outcome notwithstanding, hearing a Lacewellian combination of moral summons and political framing in congregational pulpits, Bible study sessions, and seminary classrooms would have sharpened the quality of the public option debate.

One more example should round out our picture. Last February, at a time when Pat Robertson claimed a curse was upon Haiti and Virginia state delegate Bob Marshall suggested that disabilities are divine punishment for women who receive abortions, Lacewell insightfully called for a "progressive bible study." Her basic points were compelling: political progressives ought to use the motivational power of biblical symbols; understand religion's potential to generate durable coalitions; and, occasionally, question -- as opposed to only quoting -- the Bible itself. Lacewell's handling of religion in this article is a bit utilitarian (religion is useful for politics) but no less instructive for our purposes. Her approach to social criticism orients us to the moral dimensions of policy debates and the political import of religious ideals and vocabularies.

Our democracy requires that an elected few represent the interests of many. It expects citizens to participate in civic activities that improve the common good. And, to those with ears to hear, it asks for deliberation about public affairs in politically sophisticated and morally impassioned ways. We have loved the Lord with all our minds. Let us also love our neighbors -- and argue about how best to improve our neighborhoods.