The Least of These: Race, Law, and Religion in American Culture

The Least of These: Race, Law, and Religion in American Culture

by Anthony E. Cook

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First published in 1997. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.  See more details below


First published in 1997. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

Editorial Reviews

Austin Sarat
What happened to liberalism to turn it from the predominant political philosophy of a generation ago into a distinctly minority voice today? What happened to race politics such that today affirmative action is under attack and color blindness is the reigning orthodoxy? How does the answer to the second of these questions help to answer the first? It is to these very important questions that Cook’s provocative and challenging THE LEAST OF THESE is addressed. Readers looking for a comfortable or familiar diagnosis of the problems of liberalism will not find it here. What they will find instead is an unembarrassed embrace of values, of religion, and of God. Thus Cook argues that the demise of what he calls "progressive liberalism" is attributable to its inability to provide a satisfactory answer to the vexing problems of race and racism in American society. That inability is, in turn, a function of its commitment to both a secular and an individualist vision of society and of politics. Cook calls on his readers to turn to a particular religious vision as a way of addressing race and racism and through them to the continuing failure of America to lift up the "least" among her citizens. In Cook’s view, liberalism lost the culture war because it had nothing to say to citizens craving for meaning, value, and connection in their lives. Cook provides an alternative to the 1990s new age politics of meaning fleetingly advocated in the early 1990s by Hilary Clinton. Only by addressing this quest for meaning, value and connection can progressive liberalism hope to compete with, and overtake, the reigning forces of conservatism and fundamentalism. THE LEAST OF THESE argues "for a revival of a progressive vision of American politics based on a different understanding of one of the fundamental tenets of progressive liberalism-that a justly ordered society must protect the interests of and promote opportunities for the least advantaged of its population. The different understanding explored in this work contends that the spiritual foundation of this progressive liberal tenet must be rediscovered and elaborated to fit our times." (p. 1) Cook does not believe that liberalism can recapture the political high ground by appealing to economic self-interest. It must, instead, transcend the politics of interest and appeal to a spiritual longing which, in his view, marks our age. His book seeks to ground an ameliorative, redistributive politics in love, a love inspired by Christian belief as elaborated by Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel and Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. We must learn to love the "least" among us as a way of both loving ourselves and loving the God who, in Cook’s view, wishes us to see Him in those who are the most socially and economically disadvantaged. THE LEAST OF THESE traces the growing distance between progressive liberalism and a spiritual basis for its political commitments back to John Dewey and the early twentieth century legal realists. Dewey is, in Cook’s view, exemplary of a brand of progressive thought that rejected religion because of its attempt to ground social life in immutable laws and timeless principles; religion revered tradition and looked beyond this world for its inspiration. In contrast, Dewey elevated human agency, human intelligence unleashed. Dewey represents the culmination of "the Enlightenment’s deification of the powers of man." (p. 27) While Cook admires Dewey’s commitment to human improvement, he suggests that the latter did not provide enough normative guidance about what kind of community we should desire. Cook sees a similar failure in legal realism. Like Dewey, the realists placed too much faith in the power of reason and human intelligence and paid too little attention to the need to provide a solid normative grounding to detail the uses to which that reason and intelligence should be put. While Cook’s discussions of Dewey and the realists are quite reasonable, there is something a bit ad hoc in his choice to explain the failures of contemporary liberalism by reference to them. Similarly Cook seeks to ground the spiritual recovery of liberalism in the spiritual commitments of two men--Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King--separated in time by approximately seventy five years. Yet Cook argues that both used Christian scripture to articulate a vision of religious belief that directs concern and commitment to "the least of these." Both see a God who is deeply moved by the suffering of the world and in whose presence we should respond to that suffering with compassion and love. Indeed, Cook claims that at the end of his life King was developing a genuinely transformative Christian vision, a vision that linked race and class politics and provided a powerful critique of power and privilege. Cook seeks to draw on Rauschenbusch and King to develop a liberal conception of community based less in fear and more in love. In such a community we will see some part of ourselves in the most socially disadvantaged; love of ourselves will thus inspire love for them. He seeks to use their work and a community of love to address race and racism in American politics. He provides a rigorous and persuasive analysis of different types of racism and calls on liberals to recognize that absent a spiritually grounded community they have no answer to the challenges posed by racialist politics. He uses the example of the recent debate about affirmative action to show how such a community can and should respond to those challenges, and he embraces class disadvantage, racial stigma, and cultural diversity as grounds for affirmative action and claims, somewhat unpersuasively, that the Social Gospel and the Beloved Community provide a basis for addressing those issues. There is, of course, little new in Cook’s effort to link problems of race in America with the demise of liberalism. Nonetheless, there is something quite powerful in the story he tells, a story of the appropriation of racial symbols to stir up fear and a perverse attachment to the status quo by many who are themselves disadvantaged by it. Moreover, it is easy to see why Cook would identify the problems of liberalism with its inability to satisfactorily answer the conservative crusade on the terrain of values. Yet the greatest challenges to progressive liberalism and to a politics that takes as its project the need to respond to "the least of these" is hardly likely to be found in an effort to recuperate religious values. Surely the Clinton Presidency is a testimony to the failure of that strategy. Here I think that Cook leads us astray. The energy for change, the basis for a continuing commitment to social transformation, may, in fact, only be found in the realization of the fragility of the self and of community in the late modern era. Building a new ethical and political standpoint that takes that fragility seriously and that builds alliances by fragmenting and multiplying points of connection is the ethical and political work that should be most compelling for progressive liberals. To the extent that Cook’s THE LEAST OF THESE reminds us of the pressing need for a new political theory it is a helpful step in that direction. To the extent that it calls on us to base that new theory in Christian love it may be an unhelpful distraction.

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