Duke Professor of Theology Details New Christian Approach to Political Thinking

Luke Bretherton, the Robert E. Cushman Distinguished Research Professor of Moral & Political Theology at Duke University, delivered a lecture on the relationship between Christianity and politics on Friday, October 27. The latest installment of the Center for Social Concerns’ MVP Fridays speaker series, Bretherton’s lecture addressed a wide range of theological and philosophical questions framed in the context of current political discourse. MVP Fridays are signature events on gameday weekends, featuring lectures from nationally renowned scholars and thinkers on a variety of subjects.

Bretherton’s research spans a wide variety of topics, ranging from refugee rights and secularism to fair trade and racism. Before joining the faculty at Duke University, he taught theology and politics at King’s College in London. Bretherton has also been involved with political advocacy both in the United States and his native United Kingdom, working with the Citizens UK campaign to push for higher wages and road improvements. He has written several books, most notably Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy.

David Lantingua, the co-director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, introduced Bretherton at the lecture. In his opening remarks, Latingua provided context for the event, emphasizing the importance of Christianity in shaping modern political thought.

Bretherton began his talk by relaying two anecdotes about his early life to illustrate one of his central messages: the concept of “neighbor love” and its role in a more Christian practice of politics. He recounted a story from his youth about how his church offered financial support to homeless immigrants in his neighborhood. Bretherton then recalled the time a fire destroyed a local school run by the Church of England and his ideologically conservative father worked with an openly gay, very liberal Anglican priest in order to rebuild the school. These two stories, Bretherton said, highlight how faith can serve as an impetus for cooperation beyond ideological lines. He posited that Christianity is uniquely suited to motivate this cross-cutting. 

A self-described Protestant, Bretherton claimed that “neighbor love” is the only authentically Christian way to think about politics. He suggested redefining politics as “the process of forming a shared life together.” According to Bretherton, this definition presents a more “ancient and more moral understanding” of politics than the conventional understanding. He highlighted that this new approach to politics is especially necessary in order to move past the levels of polarization and vitriol present in the current political discourse.

There are two separate modes of political activity, Bretherton argued. The institutions of government exemplify the primary mode of politics: statecraft. The second mode, social practice, exists independent of governmental bodies and is instead achieved by people organizing to mitigate their problems. He then expounded upon the role of politics as a social binder.

The conversation then shifted to the command to “love thy neighbor” and its relation to Bretherton’s new definition of politics. He cautioned against binding oneself with what he called “ideological checklists,” explaining his conviction that labeling one’s beliefs as pro-anything breeds a social attitude of “vanguardism” and self-righteousness. Instead, Bretherton suggests that one should adopt what he calls “salt and light” thinking, preserving positive elements of society in the manner that salt preserves food and exposing evil and injustice with metaphorical light.

During the question and answer portion of the event, an audience member asked Bretherton about the conflicting nature of his new definition of politics and the prevailing, but apparently insufficient, old definition. He responded with optimism, saying that such conversations about the nature of politics can be productive when had in good faith. He added that there are jurisdictional impacts of contradictory definitions of politics. “We need to reimagine politics at the local and reframe our impression of the national,” he said.

When asked by the Rover about how a uniquely Catholic approach to his new definition of politics based on “neighbor love” would impact his model of future political discourse, Bretherton responded by highlighting the rich value in Catholic Social Teaching. He said, “A crucial way a Catholic university like Notre Dame is to maintain a commitment to a genuine institutional plurality” is to avoid being “forced into an ideological, institutional, and political monoculture.”

Bretherton continued, “It’s incumbent upon Catholic universities, particularly a world-leading university like Notre Dame to hold on to and double down on its Catholic-ness and what that means for its formation of students.”

Bretherton’s talk was this year’s final installment of the Center for Social Concerns’ MVP Fridays lecture series, which covered a wide range of topics from personal happiness to Christian interpretations of modern economics. Bretherton is the second Duke theologian to participate in the series following Norman Wizba, who spoke in September of 2022.

Sam Marchand is a freshman studying political science and finance from Beaumont, TX. He sorely misses Dr. Pepper, which is unavailable in the dining halls, and squanders much of his spare time by aimlessly reading the Current Events section of Wikipedia. He can be reached at smarcha3@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Center for Social Concerns

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