Recognizing Political Idolatry

If the human heart is a veritable factory of idols, as Calvin said, then it might be fair to say that theologians see themselves as the factory inspectors, called upon to discern and denounce idolatries wherever they may be found.  Sometimes, however, we are too content merely to take a superficial look at the packaging well after the product has entered widespread circulation, instead of venturing into the factory to see what’s really going on.  Or, to drop the belabored metaphor, sometimes we are overly tempted to identify an idol merely by certain external characteristics rather than by whether it actually rules our hearts as such.  This is a particular temptation in political theology, where critics on both left and right are eager to identify Christian idolatries of the state.  

The right will tell us that we can recognise idolatry by asking whether the state claims to provide goods which only God can provide.  The modern state, we are told, is an overgrown Leviathan, one that presents itself as the saviour from all evils, the solution to all ills, as our modern Messiah.  Whenever someone suggests then that the solution for an economic crisis lies in state intervention, or that state action might remedy economic injustice, or perhaps that the state should be involved in ensuring universal access to healthcare, up goes the cry, “Idolatry!”  God has fixed particular, extremely narrow boundaries to the legitimate intrusion of political authority, we are told, and to ask anything else from the government is to substitute it for God himself.   

Critics on the radical left have their own version of this rhetorical move, one on display frequently in the writings of William Cavanaugh.  For instance, in Migrations of the Holy, Cavanaugh says, 

“The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. . . . In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war.  The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division.”  

This particular statement of Cavanaugh’s concern is in fact fairly rhetorically restrained , but the suggestion here, voiced more vigorously elsewhere, is that we may readily discern the idolatry of the state in its call for people to lay down their lives for it, or, even more so, in its call for people to kill others for its sake.  In The Myth of Religious Violence, he thinks it quite significant to point out that very few modern Christians would be willing to kill for the sake of their church, but most would be quite willing to kill for the sake of their country.  Since human life is a good of infinite value, any entity which claims the right to take human life or require its sacrifice is demanding what only God can demand, and is thus idolatrous.


The most striking problem with both of these arguments (in their more simplistic forms, at any rate) is that, if they are true, then not merely we moderns, but the majority of the Christian tradition, can be indicted of idolatry.  Most Christian ethicists through the ages have felt quite able to justify, on clear theological and ethical grounds, both the taking of life by the state and the sacrifice of life in its defence.  They have also felt quite able, on clear theological and ethical grounds, to call for the Christian magistrate’s involvement in any number of areas of concern—not only military and judicial, but economic, social, and religious—as part of his protection of the common good and vindication of justice.  

No doubt, there are a great many ways in which modern politics might be indicted for idolatry, and to be sure, both of the arguments I have just summarized can be and have been offered in more sophisticated and compelling forms.  But if we wish to aptly identify the pathologies of modernity, we must go beyond facile claims that certain political actions in and of themselves necessarily constitute forms of idolatry, and must rather ask whether the fundamentally provisional character of these political actions is being maintained, or whether we have passed over into investing them with a significance and finality which no human action can bear (though certainly, part of this will involve attending to the kinds of actions that are being taken and called for).  On this point, O’Donovan’s remarks in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order are worth reflecting carefully upon:

“The opposition in Western theology between the City of God and the earthly city has enabled political thought to avoid theocratic conceptions of government, which, by claiming to express the rule of heaven on earth, must unify the earthly and the heavenly into a single totalitarian political claim.  Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them so at the end.  If we ask why not, the answer must surely be that their judgments cannot reconcile the world; thus they can neither be perfectly true nor perfectly merciful.  Their sovereignty can be only a relative sovereignty; and the believer, who knows himself subject to the absolute sovereignty of God’s reconciling judgment, keeps his spiritual ‘space’ in relation to them, just as they keep a certain ‘space’ of their own in relation to the judgments of God.  This does not mean (as it has sometimes come to mean in degenerate forms of the tradition) that the secular state can be independent of God and his claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private existence without regard for the claims of his society.  It means simply that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with the provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice.  And it means that the individual, because he is not absorbed by the claims of his earthly community, can contribute to its good order that knowledge of man’s good which he learns from his heavenly calling.”

Killing for the Telephone Company

In a highly thought-provoking section of his new book, Migrations of the Holy, essentially reprinted from his essay “Killing for the Telephone Company,” Cavanaugh summarizes the arguments of Alasdair Macintyre:

Alasdair Maclntyre refers to this dual aspect of the nation-state in the following memorable quote: ‘The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one  to lay down one’s life on its behalf…. [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.’

MacIntyre thinks that the nation-state can and does promote certain goods of order, but he also contends that it is incapable of promoting the common good. Integral to the political common good is a distribution of goods that reflects a common mind arrived at by rational deliberation. Rationality, in turn, is contingent on our recognizing our fundamental dependence on one another. According to MacIntyre, the nation-state is an arena of bargaining among different group interests. In the absence of any generally agreed-upon rational standard to adjudicate among such interests, decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital. The sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried on by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.

 For the same reason, the unitive community that the idea of the nation offers is an illusion. The nation-state is not a genuine community, a functioning rational collectivity whose bonds make possible the ‘virtues of acknowledged dependence’ necessary for the common good. MacIntyre says: ‘The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.'”

The Third Dimension–Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theology

An excerpt from a crucial section of my paper, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms,” to be presented next weekend at the American Academy of Religion:

We must recognize that there were at least two sharply divergent conceptions of the “two kingdoms” that emerged from the sixteenth century, and, of course, a number of more or less consistent half-way houses between them.  Unsurprisingly, these different conceptions, and the way they used natural law, will undermine neat modern preconceptions about what natural law might be, and will suggest several different ways of applying it to a Christian society.  

Martin Luther offers a succinct statement of the first conception in 1521: “The kingdoms of the world are ruled by human laws which evidently have to do with things temporal; the kingdom of Christ is ruled by the pure and simple word of the Gospel.”  For the second, we have the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1578): 

“The Kirke . . . hath a certaine power granted by God, according to the which it uses a proper jurisdiction and governement, exercised to the comfort of the whole Kirke.  The Policie of the Kirk flowing from this power, is an order or forme of spirituall government . . . different and distinct in its own nature from that power and policie, which is called civill power, and appertaineth to the civill government of the commonwealth: albeit they be both of God.”

Whereas Luther predicates two realms, one of law and jurisdiction, and another of pure grace and liberty, in Scotland we seem back to something akin to Gelasius and the medieval “two swords” doctrine: “two there are by whom this world is governed”–the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities.  Both have power, law, and jurisdiction under Christ, but they govern different functions.  For Luther, on the contrary, we find all power, law, and jurisdiction classed as part of the civil kingdom; Mosaic law, evangelical law, and natural law all fall on this side of the equation.  In short, the “spiritual kingdom” is the Church, but what we would call the “invisible Church,” though perhaps a better term would be the “evangelical Church” taking visible form only in the dynamic preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.  The visible, institutional Church, the gathered congregation that must be organized, ritualized, and governed, is part of the realm of “polity,” part of the sphere of human authority which it occupies in common with the more mundane concerns of the civil magistrate.  Indeed, the visible Church is simply the communion of the faithful, and as such, includes the civil magistrate if he be Christian, and his government, if the society be Christian.  The continuing “Christendom” idea, the corpus Christianorum, and the civil jurisdiction over the Church that usually went with it, is thus not some inconsistent holdover that Luther’s two-kingdoms theory has failed to exorcise, as VanDrunen suggests, but is part and parcel of it.  Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two-kingdoms are drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction, but rather, a two-dimensional map with which the civil kingdom is coterminous, and of which the spiritual kingdom might be said to form the third dimension–the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest.


What does this mean for natural law?  Well, for Luther, the contrast is not so much between natural law and divine law (Scripture) as between law and grace.  Scripture contains law too, and this is taken to be harmonious with the natural law, helping to govern the civil kingdom as illumination and application of natural law principles.  As much that we would call “religious” falls within the realm of the earthly kingdom, so it falls within the orbit of natural law, which cannot thus serve as the means for a thoroughgoing separation of church and state.  Not that Luther offers us a complete fusion of church and state–mindful of the intimate relationship between the outward ministry of the visible Church, and the inward power of the Gospel which breaks through it, Luther was wary of making the institutions of the Church simply a department of State (although not very successful in preventing it), and argued for the importance of maintaining three distinct “hierarchies” within the earthly kingdom–state, church, and family.


Appealing to Caesar

In accounts of Christian’s political responsibilities, it is not uncommon to hear appeals to the way Paul used his Roman citizenship and the Roman political system.  These range from the fairly modest–“Paul’s appeal showed that the Roman Empire, for all its evils, could still serve a useful purpose and Christians need not completely separate themselves from an unjust political system”–to rather more robust claims that Paul’s actions somehow constitute a ratification of the goodness of the Roman order and proof that Christians should be enthusiastic citizens of earthly polities.

In A Secular Faith, Darryl Hart offers something like the latter approach, using Paul’s example in favour of his thesis that Christians must have “hyphenated identities” as inhabitants of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms.  (The real problem with this claim is that in fact he is calling not for hyphenated, but bifurcated identities, not for ‘Christian-American’ but for ‘Christian//American’; but more on that another time).

But what was Paul actually up to?  And what lesson does his appeal to Caesar actually offer?


Hart claims that

“Paul’s Christian identity did take precedence over his Roman citizenship.  But the nature of his Christian commitment did not keep him from appealing to Roman law to prolong his life.  Short of having to forsake his duty to preach, Paul was willing to play by nonreligious rules.  In other words, he thought of himself as more than a Christian; his identity was hyphenated–Roman citizen and Christian apostle.” 

Hart is suggesting here that, while of course political citizenship should never lead us to go against the duties of our Christian identity, it need not be justified in terms of Christian identity.  We can and ought to participate in civic life out of the ordinary concerns of citizens, not out of specifically Christian concerns.  We are free to take advantage of political structures to save our lives, for instance.  While of course I think both the narrow point (it’s fine to protect yourself using political structures) and the larger point (Christians do not have to have a distinctively Christian justification for every participation in civic activities) are basically valid (though not necessarily in the way Hart wants to use them), Paul’s example, interestingly enough, supports neither point. 

This is particularly interesting because Hart himself provides the refuting evidence just a few lines earlier: 

“Paul’s appeal to Rome was unusual on several levels.  As it turned out, had he not issued it, he would have been freed in Jerusalem….But instead of being emancipated, Paul had to endure a long and precarious trip to Rome which resulted in further imprisonment and ultimately death.” 

Now this is curious.  In other words, if Paul was really using his Roman citizenship to protect his life, he did a pretty poor job of it.  It’s possible, of course, that he just miscalculated seriously.  But the narrative of Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Romans, suggest quite otherwise–that Paul in fact was extremely eager to come to Rome, and indeed to preach before Caesar, and that his appeal was a calculated attempt to bring that about.  Most likely, he was well aware that he could have been released in Judaea, had he so desired.

This suggests then that what we have is in fact an example of precisely the opposite stance to that Hart wants to encourage–a determination to subordinate political identity to religious identity in such a way that action in the civic sphere becomes a tool in favour of a religious agenda.  Paul, it seems, is consciously exploiting the structures of the Roman justice system for evangelistic ends, rather than coolly petitioning for legal protection on his own account.  Needless to say, this suggests a rather different political-theological model than anything Hart would want us to consider.

Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 1

Last week, I presented a paper at a conference in Winchester entitled “Sola Scriptura in the Public Square: Insights of Richard Hooker” which was a sort of miniature, highly-condensed form of my thesis as currently envisioned, or at any rate of several key chapters of it.  I thought I would post it here for the benefit of anyone who’s been interested in my posts on Hooker, Reformed two kingdoms theory, natural law, and the role of Scripture in politics, although be warned that this relatively short essay can do little more than scratch the surface of the key issues, many of which have been developed at more length in previous posts here.

**Edit: As this paper will be published in an extended form by T&T Clark in a volume entitled The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society, they would obviously prefer if I did not have the full-text available here.  I have thus removed most of this post, and the next one, leaving only some tantalizing excerpts.**

The key problem with fundamentalism, then, is not that it claims that Scripture has something to say to politics, or even that it claims that Scripture has a great deal to say about politics.  The problem is that Scripture becomes a blunt instrument, a self-interpreting standard that demands a particular political result, and that will be repeatedly used to club the relevant authorities until they come into line.  In many cases, this is simply a result of ignorance–ignorance of the interpretive complexities of Scripture itself, and of the complex riddles of particular political circumstances.  But often, I suggest, and more seriously, it stems from a more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, man, and revelation, and unfortunately, the Reformed two kingdoms theorists offer no real answer because they share this basic flaw.  

The flaw in question is what I will label the “Puritan impulse,” recognizing that this may do injustice to many fine Puritans over the centuries, but defensible because it appears most starkly in many assumptions of the Elizabethan Puritans and their theological heirs.  To paint with an extremely broad brush, so that I do not spend the whole of my twenty minutes dwelling on the problem, the Puritans felt that for God to be exalted, man had to be abased.  The extreme form of this appeared in the hyper-Calvinist doctrine that in order for God to reap the full glory of his sole sovereignty, sinners could not claim “credit” for their own damnation, which was to be ascribed exclusively to the divine will.  Divine action and human action were completely incommensurable, and the former must be emphasized at the expense of the latter.  This meant that any account of authority tended to be rather one-dimensional.  In rejecting the authority of the Pope and reasserting the authority of God exercised through Scripture, the Puritans liked to think that they were doing away with, as much as possible, any kind of human authority.  Human authority, to the extent it must exist, must be merely a passive channel for divine action.  A church minister could not teach or publicly do anything without the express warrant of Scripture.

Revelation must be conceived as extrinsic and arbitrary, depending as little as possible on prior human understandings.  Any subject about which Scripture might speak, it must speak, and it must speak exclusively and with such detail as to leave little or no latitude for prudential application.  To say anything else is to raise up human authority in competition with God, to raise up reason in competition with Scripture.  The Reformed two kingdoms theorists tend to share this legalistic conception of Scriptural authority; they merely tend to artificially limit this authority to the institutional Church, cutting Scripture off from the concerns of daily life and social ethics with which it is clearly so deeply concerned.