Is the Christian tradition compatible with a conservatism skeptical of power and a constrained vision of human society?
The relationship between Christianity and politics is a complex one. The Church has played a mixed role in the history of political liberty to be sure. At times it has suppressed political, religious and economic liberty. Yet despite that, and unserious caricatures of history from secularists like Steven Pinker, Christianity has been one of the most important forces for liberty and the idea of a limited state. Though Christianity is not a political program it nevertheless gives us a certain way of thinking about the state and the role of politics.
It is important to note that a Christian vision of government is not simply a secular vision of government with religion sprinkled on top. Secularism is not neutral. A Christian vision of government is grounded in key theological and philosophical ideas about the nature of God and reality, the importance of justice, the value of freedom, the role of the family, and a rich understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, made for flourishing, and called to an eternal destiny.
The question is, how do these things play out in our understanding of politics?
I will introduce five of the most important ideas that the Christian tradition contributes to the foundation for political liberty. But before I do, it is important to be clear that while Christianity gives us key insights into politics, Christianity is not a political program with specific policy recommendations. There is no single Christian model of government. Christians can hold a variety of political positions and can disagree about many things. What Christianity provides is an orientation—a foundation of how to think about politics and government—one that more often than not speaks about the limits of what politics can accomplish.
The State is Not Divine
The first element of a Christian vision of government is that the state is not divine. In fact, the whole idea of the limited state is intrinsically connected to the Christian tradition. Why? Because Christianity de-sacralizes the state. The state no longer has a sacred character.
As Lord Acton points out, when Jesus said: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s” his words were revolutionary. They also have profound implications of how we understand the state. Not everything belonged to Caesar. In antiquity, as Lord Acton wrote:
The vice of the classic State was that it was both Church and State in one. Morality was undistinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority.
There was no moral appeal beyond the state because Caesar and Pharaoh were divine.
But Christianity says no: The state and its leaders are not divine, and while they deserve respect, they do not stand above natural or divine law. Christianity reminds us that the state’s agents are sinners just like the rest of us.
This does not mean that Christians view the state and politics as evil, or even a necessary evil. Contrary to James Madison, even angels would need some government even if it were only for coordination and to decide which side of the angelic road to drive on. For Christianity, politics plays an important role, but it is a limited one. Christians view the state as important for coordination, administration of justice, and security and defense. But the state is not the source of truth and law.
To be clear—this does not mean that Christians throughout the ages have always respected this. There have been times when Christians—Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have all politicized religion and abused political power in the name of religion.
There is always a temptation to divinize the state, to create a new Tower of Babel. This is a recurring motif, from the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria and Rome, in modern times with the French Revolution and its ideological descendants, the 20th century totalitarians, and contemporary technocratic state.
Christians have not been immune to the temptation to lift the state beyond its proper place. The temptation for Christians is not to divinize the state, but to politicize religion and look to the state to implement doctrine and other tenets of their faith as policy—or even go so far as to compel belief. But this is a departure from the original vision of Christianity and its intrinsically voluntary character. This does not imply secularism or that there is no place for the church to guide and influence the moral character of the state. But the attempt to compel belief turns Christianity into a political ideology which undermines the very nature of Christianity and ultimately leads to unbelief. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, there have been periods where the church and state blended “into one another in a way that falsified the faith’s claim to truth and turned it into a compulsion so that it became a caricature of what was really intended.” Nevertheless, despite these failures the distinction between the claims of God and Caesar, remain. The nature of Christianity cannot accept a totalitarian state that tries to pull every aspect of life under itself.
The State is Not the Final Arbiter of Justice
The second main element, and a related one, is that the state is not the final arbiter of justice. The state is bound by the same moral laws as individuals.
Christianity rebukes the idea that the dictator or the majority determines or equals truth and justice. Some things are intrinsically wrong, and no state power or majority vote can make this not so. Because of this, human law must always be subordinate to divine law and natural laws. As Augustine, Aquinas, and the vast majority of thinkers in the Christian tradition have always held: an unjust law is no law at all.
Central to the Jewish and Christian idea of justice is that justice must be impartial. This idea is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. As Leviticus 19:15 states:
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
This is the foundation for the idea of the rule of law—as opposed to the rule of men. Law must not be arbitrary. It must be fair, accessible, and offer citizens due process. The idea of impartiality is essential and is easily lost. It differs from the crony capitalist practice of giving benefits to the rich and well connected, and from much of the contemporary social justice idea that the poor should get special treatment at the expense of justice.
The Common Good
The third major element of a Christian vision of government is the commitment to the common good. The common good consists of the political and the social conditions that enable individuals, families, and communities to “reach their fulfillment.”
It is important to note that the common good does not equal the good of the state. Individuals are not simply cogs in the machine of the state. Further, the community cannot be reduced to the political community. This is a common error. Nor does common good equal the greatest good for the greatest number. It is not simply more efficiency or more pleasure. It is rooted in a rich concept of the good life, always keeping in mind the eternal destiny of the person.
The state plays an important role in promoting the common good but cannot do everything. Its main role is in helping to create the conditions where people can flourish and to assist when necessary. As Thomas Aquinas explains, “It is contrary to the proper character of the state to impede people from acting according to their responsibilities—except in emergencies.”
A Community of Communities
This leads to the fourth main contribution: the importance of families and a rich and varied civil society.
Human persons are not radical individuals. We are social beings and flourish in community. We are born into families and into cultures, and flourish in communities. At the heart of society is the family. The family is the fundamental unit of society. While the state recognizes the family and has a place in regulating it, family is not simply a construct of the state. It is a natural community and a biological and sociological reality that exists prior to the state. This is one reason why the attempts to redefine marriage is an overreaching of state power and ultimately a totalitarian act. The state acts as the arbiter of reality itself. If biology can be redefined, what possible limits remain?
A Christian vision of government recognizes both the independence and social dimension of the family and its need to have space to flourish and live out its responsibilities. As Robert Nisbet and others have noted, the Christian vision of the family in politics sits in between the all controlling paterfamilias of Rome and the radically individualist nuclear family of modernity. Basic social and political issues such as education and private property are embedded in a robust role of the family. In education, the parents, not the schools, government, or churches are the primary educators of the children. In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII grounds his discussion of private property not simply in economic or political terms, but in the light of the family.
While families are essential, they cannot flourish on their own. The common good requires rich and varied civil society or what Alexis de Tocqueville called “intermediary institutions.” These include civic and neighborhood groups, churches, mutual aid societies, charitable organizations, schools, and various types of sodalities and voluntary organizations that solve social problems and build community.
One way to think about civil society is as a community of communities that promote the common good and encourage solidarity and human flourishing.
A Naturally Anti-Utopian Creed
The fifth idea, and one of the most important elements of the Christian vision of government is anti-utopianism.
The Christian tradition affirms the goodness of man, but it also recognizes the reality of sin. We are capable of great good. We are also capable of profound evil. This means that we need a government to protect people from harm and to punish evildoers. But it is equally important that we place limits on rulers.
As Lord Acton famously observed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Christian vision of government is deeply skeptical of any utopian visions. It recognizes that we cannot create a perfectly just social order. Politics has an important role, but it is limited in what it can accomplish. As Joseph Ratzinger explained in his essay, “What is Truth, The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values in a Pluralist Society”:
It is not the task of the state to create mankind’s happiness, nor is it the task of the state to create new men. It is not the task of the state to change the world into Paradise. Nor can it do so . . . If it behaves as if were God . . . this makes it the beast from the abyss, the power of the Antichrist.
Politics cannot solve the fundamental problems of suffering, evil, sin, and death. We cannot be redeemed by the state or technology, or the dictator or the majority. This anti-utopianism is not pessimism or apathy in the face of injustice. Nor is it false optimism that things will get better. What anti-utopianism does is put politics in its proper place and warns us that we cannot create perfect justice. In his Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger also observed:
Within this human history of ours the absolutely ideal situation will never exist and a perfected ordering of freedom will never be achieved. An ordering of things that is simply ideal; that is all around right and just will never exist. Wherever such a claim is made, truth is not being spoken. Belief in progress is not false in every respect. But the myth of the liberated world of the future in which everything is different and everything will be good is false. We can only ever construct relative social orders which can only ever be relatively right and just. Yet this very same closest possible approach to true right and justice is what we must strive to attain. Everything else, every eschatological promise within history fails to liberate us, rather it disappoints and therefore enslaves us.
This is only a brief introduction to the Christian tradition and its implications for politics. There is of course much more to say and lots to discuss and debate. But at the core of the Christian vision of government is the human person created in the image of God. The purpose of politics is to serve man, not for man to serve the state. The Christian vision of government places politics in the context of our human freedom, the call to human flourishing, and in the light of our eternal destiny.