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Christian Politics: Between or Beyond Red and Blue?

By June 1, 2005 No Comments

“God is not a Democrat or a Republican.” One in five students receiving a diploma at Calvin College this past May wore these words somewhere on their cap or gown. The purpose was to let the world–and the commencement speaker, George W. Bush–know that no party has a monopoly on holiness. This is also the central message of Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics, a book that attempts to extricate the political commitments of American Christians, especially evangelicals, from partisan politics by providing a distinctively “prophetic and social witness.” Employing a jaunty, heartfelt narrative punctuated by anecdotes about his encounters with the rich and famous and the comments of his five-year-old son Luke, Wallis argues that a biblical approach to politics does not fit the agenda of either party. “God’s politics is…never partisan or ideological, but it challenges everything about our politics” (xvii), Wallis tells us, and most of us very much need to listen. Refusing to follow the received wisdom of welfare liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism, Wallis proposes what he calls a “fourth option” for American politics, one that “is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being very progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice” (74).

But is this “fourth option” really as immune from contemporary ideological debates as Wallis wants us to believe? Not quite. While his initial statement might suggest a melding of a conservative social agenda and progressive economic policies, Wallis’s policy prescriptions ultimately are easily aligned with the platform of moderate Democrats. This is no failure on Wallis’s part, except for his performing a sleight of hand with regard to those who would endorse a truly conservative political program, which he does not acknowledge as also being a legitimate interpretation of biblical principles. Book Cover By not taking on directly how his conservative personal ethic can result in progressive social policies, Wallis fails to do justice to those Christians who couple their own conservative ethic with conservative policies that they understand to be biblically grounded. Presumably, Christians who are also Republicans honestly believe that the policies Wallis advocates (increased funding for welfare programs, international cooperation on matters of security, etc.) are not effective in fostering the well-being of all persons. To his call for greater support for single mothers, so as to diminish the number of abortions, they would answer that this would encourage people to embrace single parenting and extramarital sex rather than marital fidelity and stable families. To the suggestion that we ought to increase funding to relieve poverty, conservatives would answer that government hand-outs encourage people to be lazy, discouraging personal responsibility and hard work.

Such conservative Christian objections are rooted in different emphases within the Christian conception of human beings as created in God’s image, yet fallen and inclined to sin. Where Wallis wants to honor image-bearing in individuals by relieving poverty, conservatives focus on restraining the sinfulness in individuals that they see as responsible for that poverty and suffering. Thus, conservatives are more likely to support “discipline and punish” approaches to government, both in domestic matters (welfare restriction, crime prevention) and in international affairs (war on terror, prosecution of Saddam Hussein). While I mostly share Wallis’s political program, he skirts the issue of why Christians can be in such deep disagreement about political matters.

James Skillen’s In Pursuit of Justice comes closer to acknowledging the legitimacy of a politically conservative viewpoint as he argues that people can be unequal not only in the resources at their disposal but also in the responsibility they are willing to shoulder for their own well-being. So he recommends looking at both “economic inequality” and “‘responsibility inequality’ to see how people can be encouraged–and in some cases compelled–to fulfill the responsibilities that are tied to the exercise of their adult freedom” (57). This point is well taken. Book Cover The problem is that conservative approaches tend to equate the effect of sinfulness with a failure to thrive in our capitalist, racially divided society, while neglecting to note that success in this same society can also be the result of sinful behaviors. In other words, if some people fall into poverty because they are irresponsible, lazy, untrustworthy, self-indulgent, promiscuous, and given to theft and deception, it is also the case that people can become or stay wealthy because they are greedy, selfish, arrogant, deceitful, uncompassionate, and blind to the suffering of others. But this way of framing the debate is itself “conservative.” Beyond individual sins, the fall has distorted domestic and international structures–economic relations, electoral and judicial systems, educational opportunities, law enforcement, and national security, just to name a few–so that they reward behaviors incompatible with the ideals of the Gospel. That is why these structures, not just the individual hearts, need to be reformed (or is it “Reformed”?).

Skillen’s treatment of such structures, and the impact of sin on them, also reflects some of the blind-spots of his Kuyperian viewpoint. Skillen urges a Christian-democratic approach to the relationship between the state and the diverse voluntary institutions of civil society to address welfare programs, school funding, racial justice, environmental protection, and the reform of the electoral system. Skillen argues that in a healthy, differentiated society, “government is fulfilling its responsibilities when it recognizes and supports individuals and other institutions that have responsibilities for the rearing and educating of children, for the development and offering of jobs, for the provision of health care and so forth” (56), rather than taking it upon itself to fulfill tasks that these structures are better suited to carry out. At the same time, he does not want to diminish politics: a “Christian-democratic perspective affirms the importance of the political community …as one of the important expressions of human identity and meaning” (9). Skillen thus is no advocate of an “invisible hand.” He rejects the myth that the “common good” can be achieved by focusing primarily on “the accumulation of multiple private goods.” It must be nurtured “for its own sake” (38).

But Skillen’s advocacy on behalf of plural social institutions does not address the question of what makes these institutions normative and indispensable to human flourishing. He does not specify the origins of his belief in the normativity of these structures or acknowledge that the shape that these structures take is also a matter of debate. What constitutes a family, a business, or a church is arguably historicallyand culturally relative. To take a controversial example, families in Puritan New England look quite different from nuclear families in twentieth-century urban America, the extended families of the Old Testament, or the families of same-sex couples in twenty-first-century Amsterdam.

Skillen seems to assume a traditional view of the family, as when he agrees that “strong, undemocratic families are essential to an open society” (29). But this description is framed by a category mistake: democracy is a political term, and a family is not a political entity. It is not that families are democratic or undemocratic; it is that the category does not make sense when applied to them. The authoritarian family in which the pater familias calls the shots without having to explain anything to anyone is not, I assume, what Skillen is advocating. Intact two-parent families that establish healthy boundaries are the healthiest environments for child development, but it is misleading to describe this family model as “undemocratic.” It is my hunch that parents who allow children to raise questions, who include them in family decisions, who trust them with responsible freedom, and who expect them to make thoughtful autonomous decisions are probably encouraging the kind of civic virtue that sustains healthy democracies. And this pattern of parenting is itself quite “democratic,” if we want to apply the term to a non-political community.

But even if we define “institutions” in the broadest sense and are willing to include as legitimate and deserving of government support a wide variety of them (religious, ideological, and sociological), it is not likely that they will be able to completely substitute for social services provided by the government directly. Skillen does acknowledge that not “every group will be able to serve every eligible person, nor will every eligible person want to receive his or her benefits indiscriminately from every service provider.” Yet he insists that “the government’s general or universal public purpose can best be fulfilled through partnership with a diversity of providers that can, in a variety of ways and from a variety of viewpoints, reach all the different kinds of eligible recipients” (71). But what ensures that all potential recipients will find service providers that suit their needs? If a town has only two government-funded service providers (e.g., orthodox Islamic and conservative Methodist), and if these providers use the funds for services that are inflected with their religious beliefs, and urge recipients to adopt their faith commitments, what would a Jewish person do? Such possibilities indicate the need to maintain current distinctions between the use of funds for social services and proselytizing and to ensure that non-religious providers of social services are available in all communities, especially those without wide diversity in religiously affiliated providers.

In spite of their limitations, Wallis’s and Skillen’s books are admirable attempts to negotiate the treacherous waters of contemporary American politics while keeping the rudder firmly toward the Promised Land. What they lack, perhaps, is a clearer sense of the cardinal points of the compass of Christian political principles, the points that should orient a Christ-like political engagement. This is what Alan Storkey aims to provide in Jesus and Politics. The book’s central claim is that Jesus is not only the messiah as redeemer of the world from sin but also the messiah as exemplary, “gentle servant” ruler. Jesus’ earthly ministry thus provides a model for governing and for Christian political action. Storkey begins to explore this idea by providing a crisp– if restrictive–definition of politics as “all the business of the state” (10). However, throughout the book he expands the meaning of the term, concluding that becoming “a follower of Jesus is the deepest political act” (283). Book Cover While heartfelt, this seems an overstatement and a distortion because it erases the distinction between the spiritual realm and the sphere of political action. While connected–God is sovereign over all–the two are not identical. To suggest that they are flattens and diminishes the richness of human experience.

More problematic is Storkey’s failure to address the relationship between individual redemption and the fact that the entirety of creation, nature as well as humanly produced social structures, calls for renewal. Storkey provides a passionate account of the principles that ought to govern the political involvement of all Christians: the notion that each person is uniquely important, that active peacemaking is a duty, that integrity ought to overrule popularity in public service, that we ought to practice relentless compassion for the poor and stewardship of God’s gifts, and that we ought to be on guard against our selfrighteousness. Yet his vision of how to implement these principles is stunted and disappointing. These “truths,” Storkey argues, “are to be spread through changes in people’s hearts and lives” (282). Any attempt by Christians to “look for the shortcut of control” is unacceptable; instead, followers of Christ ought to concentrate on the fact that “changes come through people’s hearts as their thinking, convictions, principles, and living open up to God’s way and close to their own selfish way” (282). Storkey insists that acquiring “power over” is not compatible with Jesus’ politics, that force and compulsion do not characterize “the gentle rule of God.” But this neglects the structural effects of sin and the need for structural remedies that require the enforcement of policies on a large scale. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is an awe-inspiring example of peacemaking as Storkey advocates it, the creation of the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes against humanity is the sort of structural change also indispensable to promote justice as Storkey envisions it.

Storkey, Wallis, and Skillen ultimately make important contributions to the debate about the political implications of a deeply held Christian faith. In particular, Storkey’s challenge to self-righteousness and his commitment to make “politics more sober and less sure of itself” should be embraced by Christians and non-Christians alike. But these books also reveal how the beliefs that Christians consider as emerging from their faith commitments reflect contemporary cultural discourse and social mores. The denial of the state’s ability to serve citizens in more ways than as a “law and order” enforcer and the conception of autonomous individuals fully in control of their destiny are products of conservative and liberal ideologies, respectively, not of a biblical vision of politics and human nature. Sorting out which of our beliefs are gospel truths and which are ideological incrustations is the next task for Christians who care about politics.

Simona Goi is assistant professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.