THE FRACTURE OF GOOD ORDER: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics, by Jason C. Bivins. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 181 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Softcover; $18.95. ISBN 0-8078-5468-9.

This interesting book looks at a growing phenomenon in the USA, the rise of protest against the political order and civil authority of government by organized groups claiming Christian grounds for their actions. This is not a "right" vs. "left" set of issues, but one which transcends both. The term "antiliberalism" denotes a rebellion against the modern state, against the political tradition usually associated with John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and others. Christian antiliberals are often greatly disparate from one another. Nevertheless, all share three convictions, (1) an aversion to the centralization of power, (2) a belief that politics is hostage to the elite and (3) a conviction that the government is hostile to Christian morality.

Bivins, assistant professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, closely examines three very different antiliberal groups, the Sojourners, whose cause is the poor, the New Christian Right, whose cause is individual ethics, and the Berrigans, whose cause is the making of war machines. Each of these, operating out of a sense of what they see as a particular Christian position, believe that the society's trends in the past 50 years have made it very difficult to practice religion faithfully. Each group questions governmental legitimacy, arguing that the present political order lacks legitimacy on two counts: (1) a lack of moral authority and (2) a lack of sufficient opportunity for citizen input.

What do these three groups have in common? In chapter 1, Bivins suggests that all three confront governmental power by the practices of disobedience, disruption and conflict as public witness against what each sees as injustice. For them, (page 34) "the terrain of the political is inseparable from the terrain of religion." They are (page 10) "... particularly agonistic, directly confrontational, and willfully out of step with expectations about what it means to be religious." Bivins posits four defining antiliberal features, (1) "political illegibility," which simply means that the reigning paradigm of "right vs. left" is of no value in understanding them, (2) "the sacred register of politics," which observes that each group politicizes their own understanding of Christianity, generally claiming for themselves (page 162) "a kind of religious righteousness," (3) "ritual protest," which draws on each group's power to perform religious rituals (group prayers, etc.) in the public places they feel are hostile to their understandings of Christian moral codes, and (4) "koinonia," their efforts to create communal places of refuge from what they see as an alien socio-political structure. Bivins examines each of these features in each of the groups in chapters 2, 3 and 4. Chapter 5 summarizes his findings..

What should our reaction be to an antiliberal group? Should we marginalize it by ignoring its message and refusing it a place at the political dialog table? Bivins argues that this is what is generally done (witness the courts' refusal to let the Berrigans state their grounds for their actions), and that such a course of action is precisely wrong. In modern culture, there are (page 167) "...tacit assumptions about what constitute socially acceptable religion, assumptions that function to exclude certain forms of religion from the conversation." Bivins contends that the resulting animosity can be addressed, and at least partially overcome, by a fuller public engagement with antiliberal group spokespeople. At the very least, such actions would address a key antiliberal criticism against the political culture. Bivins draws on the writings of Stephen Carter for support. Both argue that religions ought not be dismissed as illegitimate participants in political discourse. He writes (page 174) that "Liberalism's goals are worth protecting, but the effort ... has too often employed antidemocratic mechanisms that constrain participation ... Liberalism can better survive ... by welcoming multiple forms of action .. Such an approach may actually better serve to protect individual liberty and public civility ... ."

This book is not an easy read; it requires one to enter into the author's word definitions and think about society and politics from an unfamiliar stance. By selecting three very different groups to analyze, Bivins has successfully been able to go deep into the gut issues of Christian identity movements, focusing on their commonality. I recommend it highly.

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson,
Submitted to PERSPECTIVES Nov 12, 2003

JWB's Home page