Ruth Braunstein, University of Connecticut professor of sociology, has written a compelling comparative ethnography of two political social movements at opposite ends of the political spectrum—one progressive and one conservative. It is an elegant text at the intersection of sociology, religion, and politics. The two groups she comparatively analyzes are categorically explored as the Prophets and the Patriots. One of these groups is Interfaith, a faith-based and progressive community-organizing coalition affiliated with the PICO National Network. The other is the Patriots, a conservative chapter of the Tea Party movement. The story she tells of these differing groups draws from extensive data collected from ethnographic fieldwork with Interfaith and the Patriots between 2010 and 2012 (191). She ultimately challenges the reader by disrupting simple readings of these two groups from within a context of contemporary political polarization (179). Her effort is not only to broaden our perspectives of these particular groups, which, to be sure, have dramatically different ideas, but to broaden our historical and political perspectives with which we interpret them as well. And she harbors more comprehensive hopes of deepening our appreciation of not only widely shared democratic values, but also of democracy in practice, which as an ideal carries at heart radical difference, deliberation and debate. She intentionally challenges popular ideas of what divides groups pitted as polar opposites in America’s very partisan political spectrum. In addition to this central aim, she also challenges our understandings of “the role of religion in public life, of the cultural underpinnings of democratic practice, and of the contested nature of American democracy and citizenship” (10).
In an attempt to accomplish these aims she advances two key arguments. “First, the stories recounted in this book destabilize prevailing understandings of how conservative and progressive groups engage in political life” (11). Despite divergent political approaches there are core concerns that they share. For instance, each are committed to the strategic value of grassroots organizing and protest, and are equally enthused by populist concerns. And in differing ways both enact “active citizenship” by means of religious sources of meaning. Focusing on important similarities such as this she works to destabilize popular assumptions of these groups and “forces us to develop a fuller and more nuanced picture of the contemporary political landscape” (180). Second, she also traces how these two groups diverge in crucial ways, since there are meaningful differences she doesn’t want to overlook. She does so in order to “deepen our understanding of the cultural underpinnings of democratic life” (11).
As a method of analysis, comparison creates a textured examination for Braunstein that exposes particular nuances that may only be seen by way of a sustained collision with difference. She remarks herself of “subtle differences” and “surprising parallels” that her method of multisite comparative ethnography has brought into stark relief (13). Her intervention is much needed especially because her original and systematic comparison highlights aspects of these groups which typically are obscured and abandoned. The project is not only a sustained collision with difference, but it is a meeting of differing political approaches that elegantly permits a sustained intellectual dialogue for the reader with two politically opposed groups that may never convene as such. In politically polarizing times such as these, Braunstein offers a more sensitive reading of the place of populist and grassroots movements in our democratic processes. She offers us a space to imagine American democracy anew and our active roles as citizens within it. Considering the stories that she tells is meant to propel the reader to consider his or her own role in imagining the nation and what taking up the responsibility of active participation in it actually looks like. Today in these politically tumultuous times a reasoned and thoughtful deliberation of how we move forward as a nation is as relevant as ever. With her first book she has made a powerful and convincing contribution.
The essays that follow grapple with multiple dimensions of Braunstein’s timely and thoroughgoing work. Though Braunstein answers her respondents in a different order, it’s noteworthy to consider the rich cross-disciplinary engagement that her text has provoked among her respondents. Three essays come from ethicists, and three from sociologists. Marcia Riggs ends up inviting us to consider more deeply intersectional and relational ways of doing activism in the twenty-first century, such as we find in the Black Lives Matter movement, which considers anew the practice of beloved community. Melissa Snarr also takes us a step further by offering Charles Mills’s Racial Contract as a useful approach to deepen Braunstein’s considerations of race alongside (or rather, entangled with) her considerations of religious resistance, particularly with the Patriots. Teresa Smallwood pushes perhaps more forcefully for deeper reflections on race that extend beyond particular considerations of the Patriots, but ultimately to the logics of whiteness that undergird Robert Bellah’s conceptualization of “American civil religion.” This of course is a pointed critique considering Braunstein’s use of Bellah’s article “Civil Religion in America.” Rhys Williams meditates further on aspects of diffused or implicit religion, wondering if Braunstein adequately reflects upon the ways in which religion will be increasingly manifest in current politics. Penny Edgell ultimately hears the book as an invitation working to convince us of democracy’s dependence on involved citizens and of our own capacity to make the political system better. Lastly, Daniel Winchester takes a different route by deliberating over the pedagogical usefulness of Braunstein’s text in the/his classroom, and his commentary suggests great success. Altogether, these essays show how generative Braunstein’s book is and how timely her text is for not only our current political moment, but similar moments for generations to come.