- 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.