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.

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An Open Letter from Richard Hooker to the Republican Party of the United States

The following is adapted, with small changes, glosses, and additions (for clarification and contemporary re-specification), from sections of the Preface to Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie. Any modifications or additions are in italics; omissions are marked with ellipses. Key passages are marked in more prominent typeface.

A Preface to them that Seek (as they term it) the Repealment of Laws, and Orders Regarding Obamacare in the United States of America

Notwithstanding, as though ye were able to say a great deal more than hitherto your interviews on Fox News and denunciations on talk radio have revealed to the world, earnest challengers ye are of trial by some public disputation regarding the merits or demerits of the Affordable Care Act. Wherein if the thing ye crave be no more than only leave to dispute openly about those matters that are in question, the schools in universities (for any thing I know) are open unto you, as are the airwaves, the press, the daily and hourly opinion columns of the internet news media and blogs. . . wherein the several parts of our own healthcare laws and regulations are oftentimes offered unto that kind of examination; the learnedest of you, and the not-so-learned, have been of late years noted seldom or never absent from thence . . .  and the favour of proposing there in convenient sort whatsoever ye can object . . . neither hath (as I think) nor ever will (I presume) be denied you. Read More

Notes Towards a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Liberty and Human Law

Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book V, ch. 71, sect. 3:

It is not they [the Puritans] saie in the power of the Church to commande rest because God hath left it to all men at libertie that if they thinke good to bestow six whole daies in labor they may, neither is it more lawfull for the Church to abridg anie man of that libertie which God hath graunted, then to take awaie the yoke which God hath laid upon them and to countermande what he doth expreslie injoigne.  But without some expresse commaundement from God there is no power they saie under heaven which may presume by any decree to restraine the libertie that God hath given.  Which opinion, albeit applied here no farther then to this present cause, shaketh universallie the fabrick of government, tendeth to anarchie and meere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdomes Churches and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authoritie and power upheld.  For whereas God hath foreprised thinges of the greatest waight, and hath therein precisely defined as well that which every man must perform, as that which no man maie attempt, leaving all sortes of men in the rest either to be guided by their owne good discretion if they be free from subjection to others, or els to be ordered by such commaundementes and lawes as proceed from those superiors under whome they live, the patrons of libertie have heere made sollemne proclamation that all such lawes and commandementes are voide, in as much as everie man is left to the freedom of his owne minde in such thinges as are not either exacted or prohibited by the law of God, and because onlie in these thinges the positive preceptes of men have place, which preceptes cannot possiblie be given without some abridgment of theire libertie to whome they are given, therefore if the father commaund the sonne, or the husband the wife, or the Lord the servant, or the Leader the souldier, or the Prince the subject to goe or stand, sleepe or wake at such times as God him selfe in particular commaundeth neither, they are to stande in defense of the freedom which God hath graunted and to doe as them selves list, knowing that men maie as lawfullie comaunde them thinges utterly forbidden by the law of God, as tye them to any thinge which the law of God leaveth free.  The plaine contradictorie whereunto is unfalliblie certaine.  Those thinges which the Law of God leaveth arbitrarie and at libertie are all subject unto positive lawes of men, which lawes for the common benefit abridg particular mens libertie in such thinges as farre as the rules of equitie will suffer.  This wee must either maineteine or els overturne the world and make everie man his own commander.



Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

A curious feature of American Christianity, rarely shared by Christians in other nations and cultures, is its propensity toward libertarianism, a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching.  Where libertarianism tends to put the individual, his preferences, and his interests first and foremost, Christianity has always insisted that man is social, man is meant for community, and ought to put the interests of others first.  Where libertarianism exalts the value of unrestricted free choice, on the basis of individual preferences and interests, Christianity is committed to a strong view of objective moral norms which condition our freedom, rendering many choices unacceptable on the basis that they are in fact harmful both to the community and the individual.  Clearly a Christian cannot coherently be libertarian in this extreme sense.

For many American Christians, then, their libertarianism is of a pragmatic sort.  The argument, they will say, is not that the individual should in fact be ultimate, or that any exercise of free choice is good and lawful—on the contrary, individualism is harmful, and many free choices are very bad ones, and deserve censure.  Rather, the argument is merely that the restriction of choice by the tool of government coercion will do more harm than good.  Government simply should not be trusted with the enforcement of these moral norms, because law is a blunt instrument that will suppress legitimate freedoms along with illegitimate ones, and power corrupts, so it is not safe to entrust this duty to fallen men.  Better to allow individuals to make free decisions that might sometimes be harmful than give police power to the state to repress such actions.  Such a pragmatic libertarian logic, as I mentioned recently, seems to have traditionally undergirded the right of free speech—people will say lots of harmful, offensive, and unwise things, but giving the government power to suppress such statements will be much worse than living with the collateral damage of this liberty.  Likewise, some Christians may argue that yes, stockpiling excessive wealth is a bad thing, and ought to be used for charity, but we can’t trust the government with deciding what constitutes “excessive wealth.”


Fair enough.  Of course, we might object that many American Christians apply this logic selectively, declaring themselves all in favor of government suppression of vice on abortion, marriage, or anything that falls under the heading “family values.”  Or we might point out that if the argument is going to be pragmatic, then we must be committed to a serious empirical investigation of whether the suppression of a given liberty (e.g., stockpiling excessive wealth) really does do more harm than judicious legal restriction would do.  (This, incidentally, would yield something like more classical conservatism, which is genuinely committed to limited government, but also to a firm rule of law in those areas where liberty proves harmful.)  But let’s leave those objections aside for now, and allow the basic logic.  Now, according to this logic, if certain exercises of freedom are in fact harmful or morally objectionable, but civil authority should not be brought to bear in restraining them, then it would seem to follow that all other, non-coercive means should be brought to bear as fully as possible in restraining them.  I alluded to this in my discussion of Limbaugh and free speech.  If we are agreed that seditious or slanderous speech is a bad thing, but that we shouldn’t give government the power to suppress it, then it should fall to us, as responsible citizens, moral people committed to truth, and good Christians, to oppose such speech to the fullest of our ability.  We should use our own freedom of speech to denounce it, we should withdraw our support from those engaged in such wicked speech, should seek to leave them socially and economically isolated.  The fact that nowadays the right to “freedom of speech” is invoked to give any kind of speech immunity from criticism, to imply that those denouncing it are virtually fascists, is clear evidence that in this realm, the pragmatic justification has given way to an ideological one, that the idea that strong moral norms still individual freedom is being jettisoned.  The seductive logic of full-blown libertarianism has subverted the attempted pragmatic compromise.   

The same thing, I suggest, has happened to American Christians, particularly on issues such as economic ethics.  A serious Christian, attentive to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian ethical tradition, would recognize that much of what we as individuals like to do with our money is morally vicious and socially harmful—we greedily stockpile far more than we need, and withhold excess resources from those who urgently need them, we covet material pleasures of every description, we deceive and rip people off in order to come out on top in our exchanges, we pay people the lowest wage we can get by with, pocketing all the extra profit, etc.  Logically, then, a Christian “pragmatic libertarian,” while convinced that employing government power to restrain such things would do more harm than good, ought to be committed to opposing them by every other means.  Ministers should denounce such sins from the pulpit, and individual Christians should oppose them whenever they saw them.  Christian ethicists should write and speak about the dangers of wealth and greed, and seek to establish, in the absence of legal guidelines, moral guidelines for discerning a just wage and a just price, for when too much is too much.  Christians should be committed to bring non-coercive social pressures to bear, for instance boycotts, protests, etc., to seek to restrain such vices.  Right?  And yet, in my experience, we find the opposite.  In fact, whenever such moral pressures and objections are brought to bear, the reaction is no less indignant than if legal force were being used.  Not only must Wal-Mart be legally permitted to pay its workers a minuscule wage, but Christians should not be so “Pharisaical” as to critique it on moral grounds.  Rather than welcoming moral guidance on issues of economic ethics, most Christians balk at it as an intolerable restriction on freedom, and woe betide the pastor who dares to address such questions.  Instead of reasoning, “sure, there’s a such thing as excessive wealth, but the government shouldn’t be trusted to draw the line,” we are told that any attempt to draw the line is oppressive.  “How dare you judge me?” instinctively says the Christian with five cars and three houses.  But of course, this confusion—of moral judgment with genuine tyranny—is the same that modern libertine secularism routinely makes, when it decries the moral claims of Christianity as fascistic, treating any statement of disapproval as tantamount to a restriction of freedom, and hence demanding an immunity from any statement of criticism.  The homosexual rights lobby has gone from asking for civil liberty to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to sexuality, and the Christian Right has gone from demanding immunity from redistributive taxation to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to wealth.  


My suspicion, of course, is that this is no coincidence, and that in fact the “pragmatic libertarian” position, as I have called it, is inherently unstable, logically incapable, by its starting point in individual rights, of sustaining genuine social norms.  But for those who don’t want to accept that conclusion, let’s at least see an attempt at consistency—if you don’t want the government dealing with vice and injustice, then at least step up to the plate and be willing to deal with it yourself.

Two Cheers for Coercion

This week, the world of competitive swimming was engulfed by controversy as South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted to using illegal “dolphin kicks” in his gold medal-winning and world record-breaking 100m breaststroke swim last week.  Of course, revelations of cheating at the Olympics are a dime-a-dozen these days, and van der Burgh’s infraction was trivial according to most.  What made it fascinating from an ethical standpoint was the purpose of the admission.  Van der Burgh was not, it appears, laboring under a guilty conscience and desperate to unburden himself of his dark secret.  He was quite casual about his admission, and made no great show of penitence nor showed any intention of relinquishing his medal.  Nor was he being hounded and threatened with investigation, of being stripped of his medal unwillingly, and so confessed to cut his losses.  On the contrary, he runs no risk of losing his medal, because only the on-the-spot umpires can enforce such violations, and although a few questions had been raised in the media, there was no great controversy or public scrutiny until after he made his remarks.  

Rather, van der Burgh voluntarily fessed up because he wanted to invite further scrutiny and controversy, he wanted the rules to be enforced more strictly.  The problem, he complained, was that FINA had made rules about what constituted illegal swimming techniques, but then had not taken the necessary steps to enforce such rules (making use of underwater footage), thus leaving athletes with the duty to be self-policing.  Van der Burgh suggested that this was an unfair burden to lay on the consciences of athletes.  He even went so far as to admit that what he had done was probably immoral, but what else could he do, since almost every other swimmer was cheating as well?  Cynics will have little difficulty in pooh-poohing this as mere spineless excuse-making, but remarkably, van der Burgh’s rivals Brenton Rickard and Brendan Hansen made no attempt to lash back (particularly remarkable in the case of Hansen, who insists that he is not among the large majority that break the rules in this way).  Hansen said,“I give him credit for actually having the guts to come out and say something and be honest because maybe that’s what it’s going to take for the organizations running swimming to use the technology at their disposal to enforce the rules.”

And while we can hardly admire him, perhaps van der Burgh does have a point.  Perhaps it really is too much to ask of athletes to be self-policing, and it’s not just the rotten ones who cheat.  If you’ve dedicated your life to a competitive sport, and what separates success and immortality from lasting mediocrity is a few tenths of a second that can be gained by one illegal maneuver, that’s a lot of temptation to bear.  And once there are a few who have already succumbed to the temptation, it becomes that much harder.  Van der Burgh clearly thinks of himself as a basically clean, right-minded athlete (and he has an impeccable record), but one who is not going to stand aside and let all his training go to waste because only those with the fewest scruples will have a chance to win.  He would much prefer not to be a cheat, and to have all temptation taken away from him by proper enforcement:  ‘‘I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that’s when everybody will stop doing it because that’s when you’ll have peace of mind to say, ‘All right I don’t need to do it because everybody else is doing it and it’s a fair playing field.’ . . . [At one competition where such footage was used] it was really awesome, because nobody attempted it [the dolphin kick].  Everybody came up clean and we all had peace of mind that nobody was going to try. . . . I’m really for it. If they can bring it, it will better the sport. But I’m not willing to lose to someone that is doing it.’’


If we can resist the urge to be cynical, and to ask whether competitive sport ought to be the object of such wholesale devotion, we can glean from this episode a valuable insight about the roles that law and law enforcement play in human life.  (Indeed, Victor Austin argued in an excellent paper last fall at the conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics—now published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics—that we can use sports as a paradigm for understanding the function of legal structures and various sorts of authorities in society.)   For we (and I speak here autobiographically) are often tempted to view law enforcement with a skeptical or scornful eye, as something oppressive and almost intrinsically violent, as “coercion”—which of course, it is, but what a negative connotation that word carries!  Law enforcement is perhaps a necessary evil, for the bad people out there who would otherwise murder and steal, but for most of the rest of us decent people, it’s an unwanted and unneeded imposition on our liberty.  

Increasingly, indeed, the whole concept of law is an unwelcome one, intrinsically at war with the highest value—liberty.  All the evil in the world, we are told, comes from people trying to force other people to conform, and everything would run so much more smoothly if everyone was allowed to pursue their own idea of the good.  This is like saying that the ideal sport is one without rules, and without umpires, in which each competitor follows his or her own sense of what the competition demands.  In economics, this libertarianism concludes either that all individual competitors will somehow conclude that it is not in their best self-interest to cheat, because then that would provoke others to cheat still further, or else that by everyone cheating out of their own pursuit of self-interest, a better sport for all would result (a 100m breaststroke in which the competitors now do nothing but dolphin-kick!).  Of  course, this libertarian mindset has a theological parallel in Anabaptism, which likes to think that laws and coercion should be needless, because everyone should just follow the law of love, and if we suffer from the evil people who don’t, we should count ourselves privileged.  

Or perhaps we grant that yes, laws are a good thing, because they define the good for us publicly, establishing a standard so that we all know how we ought to act and what we ought to aim at.  But the chief purpose of law is instructive, not coercive.  To be sure, coercion will be necessary because there are wicked people who will refuse to pursue the good to which the laws point, heedlessly harming others, and they must be restrained.  For the Christian, though, who recognizes all laws as specifications of the law of love, this coercion is needless.  The Christian is subject to the law, but not to the sting of the law, to the guidance, but not to the enforcement, because he doesn’t need it.  The ideal, from this standpoint, is to no longer need the heteronomy of law enforcement, because one has achieved the autonomy of a conscience wholly in conformity to the end of the law.  This is more or less the standpoint proposed in Johannes Heckel’s interpretation of Luther, Lex Charitatis.  And I have argued similarly at many points.  From this perspective, we should try to encourage people to become self-policing, as FINA was doing with competitive swimming; enforcing laws by penalties simply encourages people to do the right thing out of fear and compulsion, rather than genuine love of the good.

This is true, of course, as far as it goes.  But the flaw of Heckel’s interpretation of Luther is its forgetfulness of simul justus et peccator, and so we must beware of thinking that coercion is only for the wicked, for we are all wicked.  The self-directed conscience obedient to law out of love and in no need of outward policing is indeed a good ideal, but we mustn’t forget that it is for all of us in this life only an ideal.  For this reason, the invitation to self-policing is for many of us at many times not a free grant of liberty but an intolerable burden, as we are called to struggle against self-deceptive desires that constantly distort our concept of the good and sap our will to pursue it.  Particularly when we see others around us abusing their liberty, the pressure to abandon the struggle and join them becomes unbearable, and we long to be freed from the burden of such liberty.    When we as a society make laws and grant to others the authority to hold us to them, then, we are not merely trying to protect ourselves from evildoers without but from the evildoer within each of us, and asking the common authority to carry some of the weight of the burdensome task that otherwise falls entirely on our consciences.  From this perspective, law enforcement can actually be liberating, reducing the array of temptations that would otherwise paralyze us to a manageable number, empowering us rather than encumbering us in our pursuit of the good.