Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Puzzle of Political Faith


My latest article, The Distribution of Political Faith, is now available on SSRN.

This article is part of a symposium on my 2011 book Constitutional Redemption: Political Faith in an Unjust World (Harvard University Press), and that also celebrated the republication of Sanford Levinson's Constitutional Faith (Princeton University Press 1989).

Faith in the Constitution is a key aspect of both books. I argue that for the constitutional project as a whole to be legitimate, people must believe that it is sufficiently worthy of their respect to justify the State’s coercion of themselves and others. And because for many people the Constitution-in-practice is not currently worthy of respect, people must have faith that, despite its current imperfections, it can become so over time. Thus, at least for constitutional dissenters, the legitimacy of an admittedly imperfect constitution depends on faith that current injustices in how it is interpreted and applied will eventually be corrected.

Sandy, by contrast, has given up faith in the Constitution. He believes that we should hold a new constitutional convention.

The dispute between us would seem to be a simple one: whether we should continue to have faith in our Constitution. But the more one considers the notion of political faith, the more one discovers that it is not a simple concept at all, and this essay explains why. Here is the abstract:
This essay, written for a symposium on Constitutional Redemption: Political Faith in an Unjust World (Harvard University Press 2011), focuses on one of the book's central themes: the connection between political legitimacy and political faith. Political faith is an especially complicated concept, and the essay describes some of its complications.

First, people do not simply possess or lack faith; rather they have a distribution or economy of faith and lack of faith, trust and distrust, that is projected onto different features of their world. Changes in circumstances that shake their perceptions may alter this economy or distribution.

Second, the converse of political faith, political dread, may be as important as faith itself for some members of the political community, who accept the political system because they fear that the alternatives will be even worse. What we call "faith" may actually be a complex combination of hope and dread distributed onto different aspects of social and political life. And what we believe in or hope for may be uncannily connected to what we distrust or fear.

Finally, political faith always risks turning into political idolatry, and, whether we like it or not, the two phenomena are often deeply connected. Whatever we happen to believe in, and whatever distribution of political faith and dread, hope and fear we hold in our hearts, helps create our own distinctive risk of political idolatry. In politics, as in life itself, nothing is more fraught than faith, even as nothing is so necessary.

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