Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Political limits and political possibilities

Writing for the Washington Post in an article I linked to last Friday, E.J. Dionne addresses the intersection of Christianity and politics.
[W]hat should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry. This not only ignores Christian giants of philosophy and science but also plays into some of the very worst stereotypes inflicted upon religious believers. 
[B]ecause Christians have a realistic and non-utopian view of human nature, they should be especially alive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of politics. The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain captured this well in reflecting on Augustine’s writings. “If Augustine is a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all,” she wrote, “he similarly torments critics who disdain any project of human community, or justice, or possibility.” 
Christians, she’s saying, thus have a duty to grasp both the possibilities and the limits of politics…
Possibilities and limits. This leads perfectly into this post, which I've been trying to write for a couple of weeks now with limited success. A lack of this duality is exactly what I see frequently in the evangelical conservative Christian circle (I am writing about that realm because it is the one I am most familiar with, but this does not necessarily mean the problem is unique to us).

Were I designing a curriculum to teach politics, two books would be central. The first, which addresses limits, would be Kenneth Minogue's Politics: A Very Short Introduction. In these 111 pages, Minogoue ably identifies what politics is and what it is not. "Politics," he writes in the forward, "is the activity by which the framework of human life is sustained; it is not life itself." And that limitation continues as he explores our conception of politics, stemming from the combined thought of the Greeks, the Romans, and the early Christians, into the modern state. Politics in the classical sense, however, is a method of governing ourselves, an ongoing rational discussion about competing methods. It is not, and does not claim to be, an end all answer. Those are ideologies, which Minogue explains "claim exclusive truth. They explain not only the world, but the false beliefs of opponents as well. Ideologists possess the long-sought knowledge of how to abolish politics and create the perfect society." They thus make everything political, identify a right and wrong answer to every issue, and demonize anyone who disagrees; which is why ideologies so often lead to persecution or prison camps.

But politics cannot save us or usher in the perfect society. Neither can the "right" political candidate. To quote a wise man, anyone who says otherwise is selling something. What is proper subject matter for politics, as well as what politics can accomplish, is limited.

For the Christian, then, politics is not about ushering in the Utopian society and making everyone think like us. Instead, it is a means for us to love and care for our neighbor, i.e. pursue the common good.

But what that means is less than clear. God has not answered all our political questions. Rather, as C.S. Lewis noted, "By the natural light he has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us."

This is where the second book becomes important. For Dionne wanted to talk not just about the limits, but also the possibilities, of politics. Steve Monsma attempts to lay a foundation for just such a discussion in Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy. The first chapter is available here, and if nothing else, please please read and consider it.

Monsma does not look to a specific ideology, and thus rises above partisan bickering. Instead he considers first principles: what it means to be created, what is justice, and what is community. He then takes these general principles and shows some of the ways they apply to hot political topics such as life, poverty, the environment, human rights, and terrorism. However, as he evaluates the issues through the lens of those principles, Monsma refrains from giving "God's answer" to the details of policy positions. He leaves plenty of room for Christians of all political stripes to disagree on policy specifics. He sets a framework, rather than establishing an ideology.

And that is how it should be. The goal of politics, for Christians, is not to win or take power. The goal is and ought to remain caring for our neighbors in this broken world. That is as far as the Christian is permitted to go politically.

But the key word is politically. For there is life beyond politics, and Christianity says much about that life also. We do live in a broken world. Even if it weren't for our theology, mere observation could tell us that. What our observation can't tell us, but our theology does, is that the world has also been redeemed.

That message is not political. It is much more important.

Related Posts:
The Evangelical Political Tradition, part I
The Evangelical Political Tradition, part II
The Evangelical Political Tradition, part III
The Dangers of Christian Reconstructionism
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