Nine Priorities for a Christian Politics

In my lecture in Richmond, VA a couple weeks ago on “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Citizen,” I pushed back against the idea that Christian politics was primarily a matter of particular Christian policies (see the previous two excerpts here and here), and I also emphasized that as our political duties are rooted in creation, many of the principles of justice that Christians seek can and will often be shared by unbelievers.

However, I did distill what I thought were nine priorities for a Christian politics, principles that while perhaps recognizable by the light of nature, were particularly clear by virtue of revelation, and which must guide any Christian citizen or representative. All of these will remain quite general, reflecting the limitations of time in my lecture, and my conviction that politics is more often a realm for careful discernment and prudential improvisation than for detailed dogmatic blueprints.

They are as follows:

1) Limited aims and aspirations

A Christian politics recognizes the limits of politics. We have already seen that the Christian’s dual citizenship serves as a warning against investing too much hope and meaning in political identity, expecting too much what good politics may achieve or fearing too much what evil it may bring about. A Christian politics recognizes that the true fruition of our human life together lies outside the bounds of history as we know it and beyond any human power to bring about; it also recognizes that God will bring about this fruition no matter how much we might seem to screw things up along the way. It might seem like an obvious and banal point to say that politics can only achieve so much, but in fact, it is something of a uniquely Christian contribution, since the natural human tendency is to look to earthly powers for our redemption and fulfillment, investing nations and rulers with a religious significance rather than recognizing that their authority is derivative and limited.

2) Mindfulness of human sin and frailty

Following from the previous point, a Christian politics is mindful of the depth of human sin and frailty. As Richard Hooker says, “Laws politic, ordained for external order and regiment amongst men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be in regard of his depraved mind little better than a wild beast, they do accordingly provide notwithstanding so to frame his outward actions, that they be no hindrance unto the common good for which societies are instituted: unless they do this, they are not perfect.” This also means that Christians have tended to be hesitant about investing too much authority in any particular ruler, insisting that rulers too must be limited by laws and that authority should be well-dispersed in a society. These principles were famously operative in the American Constitution, reflecting the Christian intellectual heritage of the Founders.

3) Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is the principle that “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.” This follows from the previous point about the sinfulness and weakness of human authority, but it also follows from the way that God has built human society from the bottom up, rather than the top down. We find our identity first in families, then in clans, tribes, cities, and finally larger communities. One of the consistent political teachings of Scripture is the value of respecting this bottom-up structure when organizing any kind of authority. Those closest to a problem, with personal and natural ties to the people involved, should be the first ones charged with fixing it; only if they fail, or the problem is too large, should a higher authority intervene. Now this principle does not necessarily mean government should always be small or decentralized, for there are many problems that do require the attention of a higher authority. But this has to be justified, rather than assumed.

4) Ordered liberty

If you think about it for long, you realize that the principle of subsidarity entails also a strong commitment to individual liberty. After all, the lowest level of all is that of the individual. If a problem can be competently handled or a decision competently made by an individual, and it concerns only the individual, there is no need to bring the family in, much less the federal government. God created each and every one of us with his image and the vocation to be rulers of the world under him; accordingly, political authority should respect this dignity and not infringe liberties without cause. However, this Christian commitment to liberty is not quite the same as that of modern liberalism, for it recognizes that it is an absurd fiction to pretend that individuals can ever be just individuals. In fact, before anyone is a rational decision-making individual, she is first part of a family, a child who is subject to the authority of others. And likewise, every family is embedded in a society from the beginning. For this reason, our actions really do have profound effects on one another, and our laws need to recognize that, ordering our liberties to encourage us to exercise them in ways that serve the flourishing of all.

5) Charity and forbearance

One of the most important freedoms of all is freedom of conscience, and although Christians cannot accept the modern secular rationale for such freedom—that is, that ultimate truth cannot be known and so every private creed is as good as any other—they can and should still defend this freedom. Why? Because of the first point about the limited aims and aspirations of human political life. It is beyond the ability of politics to make everyone believe rightly, and the attempt to do so usually brings more harm than good to the cause of truth. A Christian politics, then, while reserving the right to openly name and oppose error, and indeed to restrain certain forms of error from being carried out in action, seeks to exercise as much charity and forbearance as possible to those of other creeds, putting its trust in patient witness and persuasion rather than legal force.

6)Respect for human life

While a recognition of the value of human life tends to be natural to us regardless of creed, Christians are particularly mindful of it given our knowledge that God hase created each of us in his image and endowed human beings with a unique dignity above other creatures. Christians thus rightly prize human life as a priority of public policy, with a particular emphasis on the lives of the innocent and the vulnerable. This means an urgent concern for the lives of the unborn, an issue on which Christians have been particularly vocal in recent politics, but we must remember that it should translate into a concern for life across the board. Christians should be the first to confess that black lives matter (and that white lives matter), and to insist that not just American lives matter, but the lives of those abroad as well, who are often the victims of our callous pursuit of national interest.

7) Respect and concern for the poor

A Christian politics, recognizing that, again, God created each and every one of us in his image, recognizes that this also means that we each have equal rights to the fruits of the earth, and will seek to ensure that the greed and acquisitiveness introduced by the Fall does not succeed in depriving the poor of access to the means of survival and indeed flourishing. Mindful as they are of the limitations of politics and of human sin and frailty, Christian citizens should not operate under a utopian delusion that they can bring about anything close to perfect material equality, but they do not have to let grotesque inequalities run unchecked either. Moreover, they must be committed not merely to alleviating the poor’s material needs, but to restoring their dignity, which poverty robs from them. Our goal, then, should be to give the poor the economic means, education, and legal protections they need to provide for themselves as equals in society.

8) Respect and concern for the non-human creation order

A Christian politics, thankful as it is to God for the beauty and bounty of the world, and recognizing that every single creature is a unique masterpiece of God, remembers that we were put on this earth to care for it rather than conquer it. Obviously human life is most valuable of all, far more so than any other creature, and so the Christian cannot accept those forms of environmentalism that seek to put humans on the same level as the non-human creation. But that is no excuse for callously ignoring the needs of the non-human creation. Indeed, to do so is the height of foolishness, since God created the world as a profoundly interdependent network of creatures that depend on one another for their flourishing. A politics that ignores the environment in which we live for the sake of protecting human interests will soon find that it has failed to truly protect such interests.

9) Respect and concern for the human creation order

Of course, if we are to respect and rejoice in the intricate order, beauty, and interdependent design that God has built into the non-human creation order, we should hardly be inattentive to the order, beauty, and interdependence that characterize human nature. We have referenced this a few times already in relation to the social and community structures that define human life, but the most fundamental of these is the family, and at the heart of the family is God’s call for us to embrace our two-fold vocation as male and female, a sexual difference that we share with the animals but that for us also images the marriage of Christ and the Church. It is a pity that those in modern America most committed to protecting the non-human creation order seem often intent on destroying the human creation order in matters of sexuality especially, while those intent on preserving this human creation order are frequently oblivious to the needs of the non-human creation.

 

Indeed, it should be evident that this list of nine principles will situate the Christian citizen pretty uncomfortably in relation to the current political options on offer in America, and particularly those of the two-party system. Principles 2, 3, 4, and 9 might title one toward “conservative” positions, while principles 5, 7, and 8 tilt more toward “liberal” concerns, principle 6 challenges policies on both sides, and principle 1—limited aims and aspirations—serves as a critique of both mentalities as they often manifest themselves in contemporary political discourse.

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