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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Vermigli on the Task of Politics

In his introduction to his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Peter Martyr Vermigli has some excellent, pithy remarks about the relationship of politics to ethics.  Vermigli’s schema offers us an attractive articulation of what Jordan Ballor has in a recent post designated “subsidiarity from below,” recognizing that the establishment of virtuous societies must proceed from the individual to the family to the commonwealth.  Yet just because good citizens are a prerequisite for a good commonwealth does not mean that the commonwealth has no role in moral formation; for Vermigli, the order is “circular”:

“I will . . . distinguish practical philosophy by providing the rules that refer to the life and upbringing of one person or man.  If an individual is concerned, it is ethics; if more than one is concerned it is important whether they are many or fewer.  If fewer, the subject is domestic economy; if more, it is politics.”

“Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics.  I see this order as circular.  Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good.  If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.  And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes for the spirit as well as the body, and will take care that citizens live according to virtue.” (In The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 4, Philosophical Works:  On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, 9, 12)