Can there be Christian politics? Thoughts on Providence and Progress

The relationship between Christianity and politics has been much in the news again. The stories have included:

  • the difficulties over the Occupy protest outside St. Paul’s Cathedral;
  • the role of Bishops in the House of Lords in resisting welfare changes
  • the prominence of Romney’s Mormonism and Santorum’s Catholicism in the Republican primaries;
  • proposed changes to marriage laws in England to enhance the status of same sex partnerships.

These stories offer at least three distinct models for a Christian politics:

  • Giles Fraser has become the most prominent spokesman for an identification with the anti-authority, anti-capitalist mood represented by Occupy, for a throwing in of Christianity’s lot with rebellion and radicalism;
  • Santorum in particular exemplifies a strand which makes Christianity the spokesman for the cultural and especially sexual values of a (possibly imaginary) past in which families were stable and people were good;
  • the Bishops spoke for an essentially establishment compassion for the poor and excluded, a determinedly non-radical determination to protect the weak.

Each of these continues strands that have been present in the Christian attitude to social life for a long time. I should probably state straight away that the only one I have any personal sympathy with is the third. What I want to do here is to try to explore and defend my rejection the first. (Covering cultural conservatism of the Santorum kind would make this post too long – some relevant thoughts are here for anyone interested).

Christians have been reflecting on the way to relate their faith to the civil power for at least as long as we they’ve been writing. The New Testament has a variety of texts grappling with this issue. The Old Testament, assuming as it does that the people of God (Israel) is properly a political as well as religious entity is also full of reflections on power and justice.

What I want to suggest here is that we need to be very careful about how we read and “apply” these texts because there’s a very important break between the modern and pre-modern conception of political order. I don’t mean the transition to liberal individualism and popular sovereignty, important as these are.

My focus here is on the distinction between a dynamic and progressive orientation to history and one that assumes continuity and stasis in the basic ordering of creation and the social order. The idea of progress seems to me both inescapable after the scientific revolution of the early modern period and of the greatest importance in understanding how we view political life.

So basic is it that we often forget how foreign it is to pre-modern world views and either read it into them or, in reading them try to orient ourselves to modernity in ways that ignore the centrality of progress to it and thus make enormous mistakes

I’ve posted here on the necessity of thinking about the way in which evolution is now seen to have worked when speaking about God’s creative activity. I think something similar is also required in terms of the development of human society. A doctrine of providence is necessary if we’re to have anything distinctive to say (again this has been the subject of an earlier post here)

While the idea of progress is deeply problematic (both in respect to the succession of forms of life and of the development of society) it cannot be avoided. This inescapability derives from there being demonstrable progress in some particular areas:

  • whether successive scientific theories approximate more closely to reality or not they do enable us to observe new things (think of the Large Hadron Collider or the Hubble space telescope);
  • material conditions of life have improved, “we” (I know this doesn’t apply to all human beings) are better fed, better clothed, better sheltered from the weather, we live longer and enjoy better health;
  • these improvements in material conditions are underpinned by increased productivity in economic activity enabled by a combination of innovation in technology and the organisation of work processes.

It seems to me that these phenomena demand some idea of progress. We can point to aspects of them that are contradictory, we can even suggest that progress in these areas causes degradation in others but we can’t plausibly maintain that things stay the same or that the problem of economic justice is simply reducible to that of the fair distribution of a fixed amount of wealth.

This modern progressivism has deeply influenced our idea of politics. The pre-modern Christian tradition deriving from Augustine saw the legitimate role of the civil power essentially as limiting the amount of harm done by human sinfulness. Property and violence were both seen as deriving from the fall and needed to be restrained.

Since the rise of the modern nation state a much more ambitious conception of the possibilities of political action has arisen. Government has come to be seen as one of the areas in which progress is possible. A technique of government is seen as (potentially) enabling massive improvement in the conditions of life.

This view is not confined or particular to Christian thinking but has become part of it. But a residual view that the riches of some are expropriated from the fixed store available and thus deprived others remains. This combination of modern and pre-modern forms is toxic and forms the core of of my problem with “Occupy”.

What we need is a sense of God’s providential guidance of our lives and of our responsibility in and to it. This can only be developed by telling the story of God’s involvement with us as recounted in the Bible and through the history of the Church since Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Christianity is more the story of a relationship than a set of metaphysical or ethical doctrines. We human beings can’t grasp enough of God’s mind to be confident we have some truths to “apply to a situation”. We have to try to live into a sense of how God is trying to form us and act out of that.

Is a Christian politics possible? Yes and no; I doubt whether all Christians can be brought to agreement on a political programme or even on particular policies. However perhaps we can develop a language of discipleship which would enable us to converse and to help one another discern what it is that we are meant, by God, to do or say, in the political as in other realms.

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4 comments
  1. Owain Jones said:

    [This is a long response to Nick’s posting of a link to this page from the OneKirk Facebook page.Since the context there is slightly skewed because it’s an ongoing debate, I’m not sure how completely this makes sense in abstraction from it – but I thought what Nick says here is very thought-provoking and it’s maybe worth developing this discussion here rather than there – if you see what I mean!]

    Nick – just some first thoughts on a subtle and interesting post on your blog, that I hope will feed into the debate here.

    Firstly, I read you as understanding modernity as in essential continuity with itself, as progress – and I do note what you say about “progress” being a deeply problematical idea. That the late, (or even post-, or even post-post-)modern (!) contemporary moment might be multiple continuities overlaying, or overlaid by, deep discontinuities and fractures, seems to me not to be something you entertain.

    Then, there’s your typology Chistian politics modelled as:
    (1) an identification with the anti-authority, anti-capitalist mood represented by Occupy, for a throwing in of Christianity’s lot with rebellion and radicalism;

    (2) a strand which makes Christianity the spokesman for the cultural and especially sexual values of a (possibly imaginary) past in which families were stable and people were good

    (3) an essentially establishment compassion for the poor and excluded, a determinedly non-radical determination to protect the weak.

    It’s a bit hard not to see the characterizations of (1) and (2) as a tad polemically drawn! Which is fair enough, but typologies, and the types they delineate, are all heuristic simplifications, and I think we need to be clear about how the simplification pans out.

    You say “But a residual view that the riches of some are expropriated from the fixed store available and thus deprived others remains. This combination of modern and pre-modern forms is toxic and forms the core of my problem with “Occupy”.

    I’m not sure I buy this at all.

    I have my own problems with many strands in the whole nexus of protests about the financial crisis; “We are the 99%!” in particular seems to me to sum up a sort of ressentiment mob self-justification of a very dangerous kind – and yes, there was an extent to which the St Paul’s and other “Occupy!” protests were caught up into, and became for a while iconic of, this kind of indignation, and were perhaps compromised – perhaps deeply – by this sort of assertion of “innocence” (I’m sure you’ll know where I’m coming from on this, Nick! And you’ll know much more about it than me.)

    But ISTM that at least some of the voices I heard emanating from the St Paul’s protest (and some of these voices were from among the spectators!) were articulating a fairly well-founded critique of the effects of globalizing capitalism on contemporary real human lives. I didn’t hear much – though there is certainly much that I didn’t hear – that suggested that all the people doing the thinking believed that the “Robin Hood” language bandied about actually meant that “they’ve stolen our money” in the pre-modern one-pot-to-be-shared manner you suggest.

    And there is an alternative construal of the global economic setting to hand, which involves the logic and contradictions of late capitalism, which means that as I see it we’re not just faced with the opposition of “a residual view that the riches of some are expropriated from the fixed store available and thus deprived others” or “a much more ambitious conception of the possibilities of political action…since the rise of the modern nation state…[with] government … seen as one of the areas in which progress is possible…and … as (potentially) enabling massive improvement in the conditions of life.”

    I think your construal brackets out of consideration the radical repositioning of the state in late modernity, not least in relation to the free flow of global capital. ISTM that a dominant component of the contemporary mindset is not only cynicism about politicians, but cynicism about the efficacy of politis – of what politicians CAN ACTUALLY DO. I have to say that, on the level of the nation state defined as simply as Tom Nairn did (“something about the size of France”) I can see no real grounds for sharing your confidence – and that’s without factoring in depletion of fossil fuels, climate change and demographic trends worldwide.

    Also regarding the nation-state, I agree with Nelu on the end of the Constantinian era for the Church; the least, I think, that can be said about the nation-state is that it’s being repositioned radically in the contemporary political world, and that that means the end of the kind of Constantinianism that, at first glance, looks to me like a precondition for your type (3) of Christian politics.

    I’d certainly cite Robert Cooper’s work on this, but in the Scottish context, McCrone, in the nineties (“Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation”) was arguing that the recontextualization of Scottish political identity was now becoming a playing-off of Scottish against British and European identities which reflected the end of the absolute identity of the nation state. That’s why, I think, in the context of Europe and globalization, it’s becoming so hard to spell out the difference between devo-max and independence. But that’s just one symptom. ISTM that, for us, the locus in the state of a “Christian Establishment” is what is dissolving in this process.

    You also say:
    “We human beings can’t grasp enough of God’s mind to be confident we have some truths to ‘apply to a situation'”

    but then:
    We have to try to live into a sense of how God is trying to form us and act out of that.

    Applied to your (2) I see that that has a lot of traction. But applied to a distinction between your (1) – perhaps a tad more generously characterized – and (3) I think that this might amount to a distinction without a difference.People assert that they “have” (or “are”) grasped (“by”) “God’s truth” in many different senses across the Christian traditions. It begs, rather, the question of the theological (and philosophical) answer to the question “What is truth?” across virtually the whole span of contemporary Christian thought. For many of us, a sense of being constrained by our discipleship of Jesus – though our conservative brothers and sisters might well think it a minimal sense – pretty much IS grasping enough of God’s mind to be confident we have some truths to ‘apply to a situation’”.

    So I don’t think your (1) and (3) are mutually exclusive within the same large church – while option (3) lasts. But the credibility of option (3) is being downgraded as the Church moves to the margins.

    In that connection, I’d also note that you model your (3) on the Bishops. The establishment position of Anglicanism is so entrenched that, south of the border, I can see some residual vitality to this – analogously to the Church of Sweden, which wasn’t disestablished until 2000, when it had reached a point at which (endowments being a wonderful thing!) in many parishes the actual attendance at public worship comprised more or less those employed by the Church in the parish! The C of E isn’t there yet, but its relationship with the establishment is such that it can decline far from where it is now and still be a part of that establishment.

    For us in Scotland, of course, the situation is different. The General Assembly is, mediawise, already virtually off-radar, and Ian Galloway is, I would suggest, already in the position of being in the media because he talks a lot of Christian sense as much as that he is Convener of his Council. Likewise the current Primus, and being a Cardinal nowadays is a far different media gig to even a few years ago. I think that for us, option (3) of your typology is pretty much dissolving, and we’re already a good bit closer to a (more positively redrafted) version of your (1) than your (3).

    • Thanks for cross-posting, Owain, and it gives me the chance to start from scratch with a more considered response. I’ll work my way methodically through your points.

      My key point is probably about the centrality of the idea of progress to “modern politics” so you are right to start there. I am suspicious of the idea of a break from modernity into post-modernity but this is less that I think modernity is still unified and more because it seems to me always to have been fractured. That’s to say that much of what the “post-moderns” say is at least partly true but very little of it is new.

      The reason it’s worth insisting on this is that the idea of progress, for good and ill, continues to exert its influence, which is what I’m trying to say here. This is because, in some limited areas of modern social existence, especially science and technology on the one hand and economic life (growth and productivity) on the other demonstrable progress continues to be made. What’s more science has shown as a universe and a biosphere in which change is constant and radical. There is no going back to a pre-modern social and ideational context in which constancy was foundational.

      I have a good deal of sympathy with your criticism of my typology of political forms. It is an occasional categorisation of things to which I was responding and is not without merit but is clearly skewed and tendentious. I keep reminding myself that my distaste for the Occupy phenomenon is overdone and personal and that there is, must be, something in it. Equally that there is something in the cultural conservative instinct that there is loss as well as gain in the transformation of social mores by liberal individualism.

      I remain convinced, though, that the idea that we can formulate a viable alternative to capitalism as organiser of economic life is, for the time being, a non-starter. I’m also unconvinced that the role of the state is declining. The rhetoric of anti-state free market ideologues is as empty as that of anti-capitalist anarchists. State and capital are twins as recent reminders of the dependence of banks and governments on one another should make clear. There is no near term prospect of this changing and any responsible politics has to deal with it.

      The other main idea I’m trying to express here is the basically Augustinian one that politics is part of the order of the fallen world. We can’t expect it to express or implement Christian virtue since it operates in a realm dominated by sin. Hence it is unrealistic to expect or demand agreement among Christians about political programmes or policies.

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