Religious commitments can be a powerful engine for progressive social change. Indeed, many religious people want to make their societies more just and inclusive. However, most of what is known about religious organizing and activism relates to what religious people do for social change. Very rarely do we see sustained attention given to how religious people come to the conclusion that their faith demands political commitment for social change. The Introduction presents the reader with the problem to which the book attempts to respond and provides the initial framework for the argument to be developed in the next four chapters. Liberation theology is introduced as a response to the conundrum produced by a progressivism that dismisses the importance of religion in social change and a conservatism that considers progressive religion as a threat to traditional faith.
The first chapter offers an introduction to the key features of liberation theology and its articulation of faith and politics, followed by an examination of the historical context that allowed the emergence of liberation theology. After these contextual remarks, this chapter turns to the work of Jacques Maritain as an example of a powerful but problematic articulation of faith and politics. The rest of the chapter is devoted to a close examination of Gustavo Gutiérrez's critique of Maritain and the development of his new theological articulation of faith and politics. Building on the notion of integral liberation developed in some key Vatican II documents, Gutiérrez puts forth his own notion of "one history," which advances a new understanding of how sacred and secular histories relate. In turn, this gives Gutiérrez the theological tools to construe the intervention in the political sphere as a legitimate Christian intervention.
The second chapter takes a step back to sketch a theory of religious innovation fitting to the developments advanced by Gutiérrez but not explicit in his work. This is needed to further explain why liberation theology's new articulation of faith and politics works as a genuine Christian response to the problem of the political engagement of the believer. Thus, this chapter sketches a theory of interpretation of religious experience and religious innovation—in dialogue with Paul Ricœur and David Tracy—that explains the necessary conditions to produce change within a tradition, and also remain recognizable as genuinely belonging to the tradition. To this end, this chapter puts forth a sociological and theological account of how traditions work. This account emphasizes that change—and not only continuity—is an inherent element of all traditions, which in turn allows a better understanding of the accomplishments of liberation theology.
The third chapter returns to liberation theology but from a different viewpoint. This chapter examines the experience of the basic ecclesial communities in Perú. The chapter investigates how the members of these communities embraced Gutiérrez's contributions and creatively articulated the tension between political and religious values in their own experiences. To this end, this chapter builds on data and reflections on the Peruvian experience of political violence of the 1980s and 1990s. This moment of political violence makes explicit the nature of the political intervention of the supporters of liberation theology. Motivated by their faith, they decided to fight for social change to defend the sacredness of life and to oppose violence. In addition, this chapter draws from in-depth interviews with the leaders of the liberation theology movement in Perú, including Gustavo Gutiérrez, to analyze the present situation of liberation theology and the challenges and possibilities ahead.
The fourth chapter studies the relationship between faith-based political activism and democracy. Starting with an examination of the notion of public religions in the work of José Casanova, this chapter considers the question of whether certain forms of religious political activism may be essential to the sustenance of democracy. But what kind of political reasoning should these religions embrace? To respond to these questions, this chapter turns to John Rawls's understanding of public reason and the conception of social justice behind it. This chapter shows not only that Rawls's understanding of religion in the public sphere is quite compatible with that of Gutiérrez, but that their own understandings of social justice can expand and illuminate each other. The chapter closes by sketching an inclusive theory of social justice modeled after the overlap between Rawls's and Gutiérrez's work.