In our current American context—fraught with social and cultural division, competing visions of the common good, and vitriol towards those with whom we disagree—it is incumbent on God’s people to carve out a faithful path for Christian political involvement. If we are able to do so, we will be “salt and light” for our society; we will be able to serve as a preservative for our society as well as winsome witnesses for our God. Thus, in this installment, we will address Christian political thought and Christian character in the public square.
Christian Political Thought
The modern age has seen the rise and development of a variety of political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, socialism, progressivism, and libertarianism. Accordingly, politics in the modern period has been increasingly ideological. One of the ways the contemporary church can witness to Christ’s Lordship in our own era, therefore, is to engage in an Augustinian idol-critique of those ideologies. As Augustine noted, every commonwealth unites around shared objects of love—either a love of God or of idols—and thus every commonwealth should be critiqued in light of their chosen objects of love. Similarly, Christian political thinkers such as Bob Goudzwaard and David Koyzis make the connection between objects of love and political ideologies, arguing that everybody is transformed into the image of their chosen object of love, that people structure society in their image, and that they use political ideologies to do so.
Modern political ideologies tend to deify some aspect of the created order, thereby making an idol out of it, and subsequently trying to “save” society by eradicating the “evils” threatening their chosen idol. Consider political liberalism, taken in the classical sense of making personal liberties an axiomatic principle for governance. In its prototypical forms, it was not ideological, but rather denoted merely its commitment to constitutional and representative government and to seeking to secure individual liberties. Yet soon it took on ideological dimensions by absolutizing individual autonomy. It viewed government as a necessary evil and society as little more than a collection of independent individuals. Eventually, however, these autonomous individuals came to expect the government to accommodate their personal desires, and to do so without moral or religious judgment.
When an individual’s unwise or immoral choices cause negative consequences, autonomous individuals expect the government to ameliorate the consequences (e.g. “Have you fathered seven children out of wedlock? We are happy to tax other citizens to mitigate the consequences of your actions, and in the future, we will be even more happy to pay for the babies to be eliminated in the womb beforehand. Thus, an ideology that began by emphasizing individual independence and small government soon brought about a situation in which individuals are very dependent on an overweening government.
This contemporary variety of liberalism—we can call it “late liberalism” or “progressive liberalism”—functions as a false system of salvation. It worships individual autonomy, identifies traditional social and moral norms as society’s root evils, and places its trust in ideologically-liberal political parties that promise to guard and even expand a person’s free choice. In its mature forms, it banishes traditional social and moral norms so that individuals can freely “create” themselves (e.g. creative moral norms, gender identities). Ironically, citizens in a late liberal regime lose their individual freedoms as the government swells to gigantic proportions; and they experience a degraded civic life because of disintegrated moral norms and a diminishing sense and community.
The other modern ideologies similarly tend to function as false systems of salvation. Each system elevates some aspect of God’s good creation to a level of ultimacy. Social conservatism tends to absolutize cultural heritage. Socialism tends to idolize material equality. Nationalism tends to idolize the nation-state, or alternately, a privileged ethnic group within the nation. Progressivism tends to absolutize social progress. Libertarianism ascribes ultimacy to the individual. When an ideology thus ascribes ultimacy to something or somebody other than God, the chosen idol will become a cudgel that beats down other aspects of God’s good creation. It should be noted, however, that the universality of idolatrous tendencies does not mean that some instantiations of these ideologies are not far worse than others; Communist Russia and Nazi Germany stand out as two of the most idolatrous and thus oppressive regimes in modern history.
How should we respond in the face of modern political ideologies? We should affirm the good intentions and insights of each, but at the same time reject the idolatrous elevation of a single aspect of God’s world. We should help citizens see the connection between idolatry and social ills. And we should work together to construct a non-ideological alternative in which God is recognized as the giver of rights and liberties, and in which Christians work together for the common good of the nation by respecting the dignity of citizens who have differing visions of the common good.
Christian Character in the Public Square
As with every sphere of culture, the political sphere is an opportunity to be a witness to Christ, not only through our political ideas—such as excavating the idols in political ideologies—but through our political speech and demeanor. The New Testament exhorts Christians to honor everyone (1 Pet 2:17) and to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18). These exhortations are not contingent upon the disposition and demeanor of our society and its political leaders. In fact, Peter and Paul gave those exhortations to a church who was being actively persecuted by the Roman government and many of its citizens.
Christian political engagement must combine truth and grace. Concerning truth, we must allow God’s revelation to shape our political views. Concerning grace, we must carry ourselves as persons who have been transformed by the gospel, who love our fellow citizens even if they disagree with us or even hate us, and who truly want to contribute to the common good. Incivility is a sign of spiritual weakness. It signals to society that Christians are merely ideologues whose primary goal is to gain power for ourselves at any cost. Truth without grace makes for vexatious political bullies, just as grace without truth makes for political weaklings. Yet, truth and grace together make for a powerful public witness.
If God’s people in America are able to combine a Christian way of political thinking with Christian forms of Christian action, we will be salt and light for our society. We will be salt—a preservative—in that we will remain different from our secular society and will thus help to preserve our society and make it more enjoyable. And we will be light in that we will illumine the political path forward while also illumining the character of God. Let us pray that God’s people in America will be able to do just that.