Category Archives: Politics

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?

A Plea for “Politics As Unusual”

As we are rapidly nearing the opening phase of our next quadrennial verbal civil war (a.k.a., “the most important election of our lifetime – again”), I want to preempt the fighting with a few general considerations:

1) As image-bearers of a speaking God, we are speakers and our relations with others necessarily take the form of speaking. But a key difference between animal noises and human speech is that the latter is able to communicate complex ideas and needs that often require a much more sophisticated mode of judgment than animals are capable of.

This judgment is rendered by the mind – but not just any mind. To make sophisticated judgments about complex ideas and needs, a mind must be formed such that its thoughts are disciplined, ordered, and aimed at truth, not merely winning. It is unfortunate that “politics” in our modern context deeply confuses winning with truth, but Christians of all people ought to know that the two are not always conjoined.

Sum: Political speech deals with complex ideas and practices; uncareful speech based on
poorly-ordered thoughts is little better than animal noises.

2) As image-bearers of a God who is Himself a fellowship of equals, we are never just individuals, but are always part of a community. Thus, our thoughts and actions ought never to be based primarily on our individual concerns.

The purpose of speech between humans is to navigate the tossing sea of complex ideas and needs with a view to preserving the whole ship, not just our own personal lives or the limited number of other lives with whom we feel most comfortable dealing. In other words, though this seems quite counter-intuitive, politics is about more than party loyalty. It may turn out that preserving the ship requires going this way and not that way, but someone who does not understand, or who has no patience with, the art of navigation has no business contributing his “two cents” to a discussion about how to preserve the ship. Mere factional chattering on social media is not “political” talk at all, and is just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Sum: Political speech is about the common good, not just the good of our own circle of interests. Political speech ought to be based on the belief that one’s party has the best vision of the common good, not on the belief that The Other Party must be destroyed.

3) Passion is inherently immoderate and unstable. Animals are passionate about what they want, and it is this that makes us talk about “nature red in tooth and claw.” But human beings, being speakers of complex ideas and needs, should never be only passionate about what they want. Human speech about important matters must never be merely a mode of communicating human passions, for politics, the art of living together in a society, is never solely about passions. We are not undirected Darwinian animals involved in a “second place is the first loser” struggle for survival; we are, in Aristotle’s words, political animals aiming at much more than mere survival. Someone who does not understand this difference, or who thinks and acts as if political is a mere synonym for passionate ought not to speak at all in a public forum, for such speaking is little better than the inarticulate grunting of a beast.

4) Fourth, we all need to seriously and soberly consider the question: What precisely is social about “social media”? Any one of us may say anything we like with any degree of feeling in our own living rooms, but a social media platform is not a private living room – not even because it tells you that space you are writing on is “your wall.” Actually, it’s Facebook’s wall, and we all gave up our right to “free speech” (considered as an absolute lack of external restrictions) when we agreed to Facebook’s often restrictive terms of service. Facebook is Zuckerberg’s mega-sized, mega-crowded living room, not one’s own living room, so no, oneself doesn’t get to say absolutely anything anytime. It would be worth spending some time pondering what the real meaning of “social” is, including that seemingly outmoded ideal known as “social graces.” Remember that we are not made to be like grunting animals, and our passions shouldn’t be the arbiter of our words. If others are (acting like) grunting animals in a political discussion, what is gained by we ourselves joining them in that base activity?

5) Lastly, and most importantly, though it sounds like a cliché to say it, no matter who gets into office and what policies they implement, God is the one on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted by any man or woman. We Christians today have a rather large blind spot in terms of having only recently seen very radical cultural reversals that make us unthinkingly pine after “the good old days” when (as we inaccurately style it) the “Judaeo-Christian worldview” ran everything.

After 1600 years of mostly Christian cultural hegemony, it just doesn’t feel right to us that we should suddenly be on the radical defensive, and that “the Christian Nation” par excellence should be going the way of the dinosaur. We must vote to Save Christian America! We must fight tooth-and-nail to turn back the tide! We must fight for Truth, Justice, and the Biblical-American Way!”

Well, maybe. Political quietism shouldn’t be acceptable to us, because even the Jews in captivity prayed for the peace of the city and longed to return home, and the Apostle Paul often invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to not be treated in a certain way simply because he announced unpopular religious ideas. There is a legitimate place for political activism rooted in our religious convictions, and we dare not simply lay down our swords and die.

But the City of God only ever overlaps earthly cultural and political realities, never identifying itself with any. We may fight to the last metaphorical drop of our blood and still lose the political battle. Things may get very uncomfortable for us if that happens. But it has happened before, and the Gospel prevailed in the end. What impressed most thoughtful Romans in the time of the martyrs was less what the Christians said, but how they died. Nobody could die like a Christian could, and the more of them who died, the more the Gospel worked its way like leaven through the Empire.

We shouldn’t want our nation to wither and die in a whirlwind of secularist tyranny and idiocy. We can and should fight as we are able and as God moves us. But we mustn’t ever confuse the fortunes of America with the fortunes of the City of God. It sounds like a cliché, but as I watch the Christian political landscape take a predictably factional, tribal, largely passion-driven shape every four years, I don’t think it is. Like everyone else who has ever lived, we Christians are a forgetful people, prone ever to misreading the knowable past and present, and so to immoderately fearing the unknowable future.

“Lead Quiet and Peaceable Lives”

I’ve found myself wondering of late how 1 Thess. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:2 pertain to our popular conservative Christian activity of “culture warring,” especially when election fever gets hold of us and we start pining after that old Puritan “shining city on a hill.” Both of these passages enjoin Christians to live in a way that seems opposed to the frenetic, gun-slinging ways of “culture warring.” To wit:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

Pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim. 2:2)

As I’ve tried to think these passages through to determine what application they might have to our present cultural circumstances, it’s occurred to me that there may be a parallel between ourselves and the early Christians to whom these epistles were directly written.  That parallel subsists in the fact that in both societies Christians were a minority voice in an overwhelmingly ungodly cultural stream.  For the first 300 years of the Faith, Christians were not only a cultural minority, but were frequently subjected to terrific persecutions.  “Christian culture” (to use today’s terminology) advanced by (to use that day’s terminology) the seed of “the blood of the martyrs,” not by the exercise of freedom in the voting booth.  It was in the context of a governmental system in which most people had no voice that the early Christians were exhorted to seek to live “quiet and peaceable lives” so that they might win the respect of outsiders to the Faith.

At first glance this doesn’t seem all that parallel to our situation.  For, as we all know, it’s quite popular for politically-active Christian leaders today to up-play America’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and to claim that we are a “Christian nation” in order to rev up the voting bloc to pull that lever for The Favored Candidate Who Will Best Move Us Toward Godliness.  This seems to me to be mostly just the self-insulating rhetoric of a sub-culture rather than a reflection of the actual mainstream culture.  We are a nation with many millions of self-professing Christians in it, but to take this fact, combine it with the historical situation of our having been founded largely by Christians, and deduce from these facts that we are a “Christian nation” in the sense of a culture permeated with Christian assumptions seems unwarranted.

As I look at the historical record, it seems clear to me that a real “Christian nation” will certainly have many sins, but it will, despite those sins, look far different than a non-Christian (or at least post-Christian) nation that just happens to have many Christians in it.  And I believe we are the latter, not the former.  The Roman Empire for the first 300 years of Christianity had many sins in it, but no one thought it was a “Christian nation” just because it had many Christians in it.  After the conversion of the Empire with Constantine, Christians started treating the Empire like a “Christian nation,” and though it still had many sins in it, its fundamental course as a “Christian nation” was demonstrably different from when it had been just a pagan nation with many Christians in it.  Christians gained real cultural power, and put it to good effect for the next millennium.

Contrary to the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, America started out as a real “Christian nation” and continued that way for a while.  But history seems clear enough that step-by-step American Christians gave the store away to unbelievers, until at last we live in a so-called “Christian nation” that aborts millions of babies every year, demands that Christians keep their religion out of education, and the voting booth, pursues unjust wars all over the globe in the name of the god Demos, continually courts naked avarice in its domestic and foreign economic policies, and teeters on the brink of redefining marriage as including “LGBTs” (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people).  I don’t see how it’s intelligible to claim that this sort of country is a genuine “Christian nation.”  At best it’s a nation with many Christians in it, but that doesn’t make it a “Christian nation.”

But regardless of how that debate (for it will surely be one!) might turn out, the question about seeking to live a quiet and peaceable life remains on the table.  Christians who are gung-ho for “culture warring” seem often to pursue their war on the basis that this is, in fact, a “Christian nation” and that, therefore, we Christians ought to fight for it.  We ought to use every weapon at our disposal, especially political ones, to war against the forces of darkness trying to corrupt our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and replace it with “secular humanism.”  They don’t believe the replacement has fully happened yet, and they think that culture-warring is the way to keep it from fully happening.  The problem is that if one is spending one’s days conducting the cultural equivalent of World War I trench warfare, one is not aspiring to live a quiet and peaceable life that wins the respect of outsiders, as the Scriptures cited above say.

Is there a way to reconcile this seeming contradiction?  I should make clear that I am not a political quietist.  I do not believe we Christians should accept the demands of Modernity that we keep our faith private, locked up inside our hearts and the walls of our churches, never daring to bring it into engagement with the larger culture.  Since I am Reformed and some of my readers are as well, I should also say that I am no fan of the so-called “R2K” theology of Westminster West.  This inquiry I am making has nothing to do with the notion that we should be happy with what one professor at that seminary calls “A Secular Faith.”  I am a firm believer in Christians being active in our culture and seeking to transform it for Christ.  Many readers know well that I spend a great deal of time trying to apply classical Christian ideas about politics to our present political circumstances, so the last thing in the world I can be justly accused of is writing a post like this because I am some sort of quasi-gnostic who thinks only “spiritual” things matter.  What I am asking in this post concerns the manner in which we work for cultural transformation.  I am asking a how question, not a whether question.

So, this said, how do the above-cited verses pertain to our political activity as culture-transforming Christians?  The early Christians, to whom those epistles were directly addressed, changed the culture over several centuries by living quiet and peaceable lives that more often than not culminated in martyrdom.  There might be something to an argument that there is a parallel between us and them, and that the way forward for us, in this seemingly post-Christian culture, is also martyrdom – if not physical martyrdom, perhaps another form.  But again, they lived under a governmental system on the operations of which they had little to no say.  Although Scripture’s truths themselves never change, most thinking Christians realize that the applications of those truths might from time to time change.  We don’t live in the same governmental situation as those who first read Paul’s epistles.  Does (or should) that fact change how we apply Paul’s words to our own lives?

Is culture-warring an acceptable activity since our system of government allows us to mobilize and try to change the laws we live under?  Or do those simple words from so long ago mean precisely the same thing for us as they did for Paul’s original readers?  Or, perhaps a third way: is there a way actually to combine culture-warring with seeking a quiet and peaceable life?  I have some ideas on the third possibility, but I’d like first to hear from others.