Christians and the Goal of the Common Good

[The following may by its end seem somewhat cynical.  This is not how I intend it.  My goal in the post is simply to try to clarify some things about the roiling, ranting, rapacious mess that is Christian political discourse online, especially on social media platforms.  Critique is welcome, but please be civil.]

It isn’t difficult to grasp that in a pluralistic culture like ours, it is possible to reach a degree of general, secular-oriented anxiety about the supposed sacrosanctity of every individual opinion that a self-stultifying moral and intellectual equipollence ensues.  Since we are citizens of both the heavenly kindgom and a particular earthly kingdom, it should not be too surprising, then, that Christians seem just as divided as unbelievers as to the nature of the common good and how best to pursue it.

We see it every time there is an important election, especially presidential.  It is then that Christian pundits come out of the woodworks making impassioned cases for voting for X…no, for Y…no, for Z – all of whom are, to listen to their respectively Bible-toting, church-going Christian adherents, the obvious and best choice in this, “the most important election of our lifetimes.”

(Can anyone fail to notice that every presidential election has been / is the most important one of our lifetimes – as if the fate of God’s Own Kingdom quite literally hinges on who is sitting in America’s Oval Office.)

Sometimes the intra-Christian division has been basically agnostic about the Fundamental Two Party SystemTM, as when some believers dare to suggest that Jesus wasn’t a Republican, so it isn’t biblically necessary to vote Republican if you think a candidate from another party (even – gasp! – the Democrat Party) better aligns with what is good for the country as a whole.  These sorts of disagreements can get quite sharp, but there remain others sharper still.

Eight years ago, Christians were seriously divided over whether it was permissible to vote for a Mormon, Mitt Romney, in order to stop a (merely Detestable) Liberal, Barack Obama.  Four years ago, the division cranked up several notches over whether it was permissible to vote for a morally-compromised, intellectually-deficient, shady businessman and reality-TV star, Donald Trump, in order to stop a (manifestly Demonic) Liberal, Hillary Clinton.

(None can fail to notice that the common denominator in both contests was simply Stop the Slavering, Evil Liberal – as if Christian political thought is fundamentally partisan.)

More recently, some believers, like David French, writing in National Review, maintain that our present classical liberal system is the best hope for the future of America, particularly for the liberty of Christians.  Others, such as Sohrab Ahmari, writing in First Things, hold that Christians ought to adopt the political tactics of our enemies – since they refuse to be civil and use ordinary, rational means of persuasion, so should we.

(Do not fail to note that the crux of the French and Ahmari dispute was abortion, which some believers consider the make-or-break issue of just about all political contests, but which others consider a horrific evil that can only be fought incrementally.)

As if all this is not already complicated enough, much of the controversy between Christians is driven by deeper theological systems, themselves often driven by the seemingly irresistible pressures of the multi-faceted, mixed-heritage history of Christendom and its relationship in particular to the American experiment.

Some Christians are quietists, committed to private spirituality and the calm acceptance of the state of the world as manifesting the will of God.  Others are activists, committed to lively public outworkings of the Faith once for all delivered.

Confusingly, the activists are further divided by sharply diverging eschatologies.  Some are pessimists, expecting the world to go down in flames and continually torn between doing nothing (because, you know, the Rapture) and boycotting secularists (because, you know, Judaeo-Christian CultureTM).  Other activists are agnostics about temporal matters, content to go-with-the-flow so long as the sui generis realm of The Church is allowed to do its Special Spiritual Things until Christ’s return.  Still other activists are triumphalists about temporal matters, demanding a policy of constant, total war to the end of rebuilding the Once and Future Lost Christian Cultural Dominion.

My purpose in reciting this litany of intra-Christian political divergences is modest in this way: I am sure I have not described all the existing positions, let alone done justice to each in the strictures of just a few sentences.  My purpose is not comprehensive, but illustrative in this way: though it seems Christians ought to all be basically on the same page about implementing our Faith in the world since we all agree that Christ is King, we are every bit as “all over the map” as the hosts of unbelievers we live among.

This is a critical fact that always stares us right in the face, yet of which I am not sure we always appreciate the ramifications for how we treat our neighbors, whether unbelievers or fellow believers.  America has always been a pluralistic society, so it ought not to be surprising that no amount of grand talk about our “Christian heritage” can paper over the simple fact that to be truly unified, a people must have a shared concept of a common good, but even Christians have multiple concepts of the common good persisting in seemingly irresolvable conflict.

I would not ever propose anything so grand as a possible solution to such intra-Christian disagreements.  Indeed, despite our common adherence to the inspiration of Scripture, I am not sure that there is a solution to these disagreements.  Why?

Simply put, politics is a “human thing,” and human things, because they deal with situations that continually change, are inevitably full of uncertainty.  The weird thing about politics is that, unlike most arts, it is simultaneously natural and artificial.

On the natural end, politics arises fundamentally from the fact that we humans are social beings, wired from the start to talk to each other and try to form stable, mutually-beneficial relationships.  We cannot help but do politics, which explains why for so many of us politics can so very, very easily begin to function like a surrogate for religion – even becoming fused with it so that we can’t tell the difference.

On the artificial end, politics once it begins is immediately and constantly informed by an incalculable array of mostly local factors that shape the questions a people ask about itself and its purpose, the modes of solving the questions that that people considers “reasonable,” and all of that people’s relations both within the body politic and between the body politic and outsiders.  Moreover, empirical and historical examination of political orders quickly reveals that from beginning to middle to end, there is no settled claim to a universal, abstract system of Correct Politics.  Monarchies have come and gone.  Aristocracies have come and gone.  Democracies have come and gone.  Mixed republics have come and gone.  Sometimes, even, all these types of government have been tried in the same place by the same people – and all have come and gone, largely in response to changing environmental, technological, and sociological circumstances.

Thus, human history thus shows us – or at least, ought to show us – that politics inherently consists of a basic, stable human nature of desiring social bonds but as an art itself cannot provide anywhere only a single mode of arrangement that is indisputably the best.  This in turn entails that any postulated common good is and only can be relative to a particular group of people who have come together in a political union designed to secure that good.

I have long suspected that considered just from a secular standpoint, and in egregious defiance of the tradition of civic virtue that made our Fouders who they were, our America’s real common good is merely the continual fulfillment of the commercial impulses – many of them quite base – that our overarching system of classical liberal capitalism has drilled so deep into all of us that we rarely ever think about it.  (Sporadic uber-pious outbreaks of boycotting offending businesses don’t count.)  Thoughtless commercial activity for its own sake is the great pretend-unifier of the host of disparate sects (intellectual, religious, moral, and otherwise) that America actually is.  For money is a fickle, heartless master and always ultimately betrays any concerns larger than preserving its own smooth flow from hand to hand.

If we are honest with ourselves, we Christians aren’t much, if any, better than our secular neighbors on this score.  We pack up and move as easily as anyone else “for the job,” and in our business dealings we just as easily treat each other as producers and consumers, as interchangeable parts filling temporary niches in “at will” contracts.  Along with everyone else, we are objectively wage slaves and subjectively self-constructed denizens of the Great Marketplace – which exists only to facilitate and magnify and fulfill everybody’s individual-very-own-personal desires.   And like most corrupted people, we are generally too lazy to really think hard about the intellectual and ethical status of our desires.  Our desires just are legit, the appearances just are reality, and the Truth just is obvious to all “rational” people.

The only thing that we, considered from the angle of this world, have in common with each other and our unbelieving neighbors is making sure the money keeps flowing so that the goods and services keep rolling off the assembly line and get purchased, used, discarded, and replaced.  And thus when it comes to our spiritual common good, we have generated just as many “reasonable” options as there are styles and colors of ball-point pens on a retail shelf.  Like everyone else in a nation committed to unrestricted pluralism, our shared natural political impulse has responded to environmental pressures by wildly fragmenting.

But at least we all have our Proof-Texts – the rejection of which by the churches-that-aren’t-our-own only serves to prove that they don’t really care about Political Truth and Goodness and Beauty.

The significance for intra-Christian political disagreements seems obvious, though it is (at least to me) uncomfortable: to the extent that any collection of Christians fundamentally disagrees with any other collection of Christians about what is the common good of a nation they both inhabit, is political harmony that is not merely superficial ever going to be possible?  Stated another way, for all the grand talk I grew up with about America as God’s special “Christian nation,” for all the pious fervor of the Pledge of Allegiance about “One nation, under God,” is either of these really true?  How long can we all sort of coast along on the fumes of a dying pluralist order, invoking the tolerance-dreams of classical liberalism as we indulge ourselves in endless, almost-totally fruitless factional debates on social media, before it becomes clear that although Jesus is King, He hasn’t arranged the world – or our little national slice of it – in such a way that genuine political health can be found on the gigantic scale that we are constantly faced with every time the news cycle resets itself?

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