In preparing for an Acton University lecture last week on Christianity and Government (you can listen to it here)

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I was reflecting on some of the core differences between a Christian vision of government in comparison to modern, secular visions.

While there is no single Christian vision of government and good Christians can disagree on a host of topics, one of the things that sets apart the Christian vision is a robust vision of the good life and integrated human flourishing directed toward certain ends that are fitting to man as a rational and free creature with an everlasting destiny.

The Christian idea of the good life is one of the reasons why for Christians, politics and the state, while necessary and ordained by God, are just not that important in the way they are to many ancients and modern visions.

Many critics say this is because the Church is focused on otherworldly matters. But this is insufficient. While it is true that the main concern of Christianity is eternal salvation, the Church is very concerned with living in this world—but its vision of the good life is found first in relationship with God, and then in the Church, families, and other associations in the place or places in which a person finds himself. This contrasts with certain ancient visions, or those influenced by the thought of Rousseau, which tend to see a plurality of associations as a dividing force and see man becoming integrated in and through the larger “community” of the state, thus making the state and politics central to life.

For Christians the purpose of politics is to create peace and order under which men can live out their freedoms, their responsibilities, and pursue an integrated vision of the good life. Politics is necessary and important, but by no means sufficient, primary, or the end of life–even life here on earth.

This is the vision of medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and the Reformed theologian, Johannes Althusius, who wrote that “politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” He called this “symbiotics” and said that “the end of the political symbiotic man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis…”

This is why Christians today need to be concerned with the revival of community, private charity, mutual aid societies, strong families, and vibrant churches. But it is also why we must beware of finding community in the state, but I’ll leave that for another post.

For those interested you can find Althusius’ Politica at Liberty Fund, and Acton colleague, Jordan Ballor discusses Althusius’ contribution in his new book Ecumenical Babel just out from Christians Library Press and available at the Acton Book Shop.

  • Roger McKinney

    The main difference between the Christian and secular views of the state are over the nature of man. Christianity teaches that man tends toward evil and must be “civilized”. The state’s job is to protect life, liberty and property from evil men.

    The secular view of human nature is that it has not tendency to evil. People are born innocent and morally perfect. They turn evil only because of oppression, and private property is the greatest oppressor. The state can perfect human nature by removing all oppression and allowing human nature to return to its state of innocense.

  • Neal Lang

    “The secular view of human nature is that it has not tendency to evil. People are born innocent and morally perfect. They turn evil only because of oppression, and private property is the greatest oppressor. The state can perfect human nature by removing all oppression and allowing human nature to return to its state of innocense.”

    Of course, this “secular view” flies in the face of the concepts and principles upon which our Nation was founded. The men that founded the United States believed the man “comes out of Nature” and forms a “society” and a government for only one reason, which is to secure the individual’s God given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In Nature, they believed that survival went to the fittest (strongest, swiftest, and most ruthless).

    The idea that nature reflects the most innocent, gentlest, and safest state is totally counter-intuitive and defies all reality.

  • Roger McKinney

    Neal, I agree, but the secular view dominates today, even among most Christians.

  • Neal Lang

    “Neal, I agree, but the secular view dominates today, even among most Christians.”

    I know of no “true Christian” who believes that man’s nature is not corrupt, and that man can only survive by the Grace of God and the Salvation provided by Jesus, the Christ. Man, through Natural Law, may know the difference between right and wrong, but man can only only be moral and righteous through the Grace of God. Man’s Nature must be tempured with knowledge and morality, which is why every one of our Nation’s Founders promoted education and moral teaching in order for our Nation’s people to enjoy liberty. Unordered Liberty is totally impossible, and never can exist!

  • Roger McKinney

    “I know of no “true Christian” who believes that man’s nature is not corrupt,”

    I think you know a lot of them. I’m talking about the people in the pews, not the leadership. Most people, even most intellectuals, have no problem believing conflicting things. In church, all Christians will agree that we need Christ to save us from our sins. But in politics and at school, they are convinced that people are basically good and turn bad only because someone does something awful to them. That’s why most Christians have complete faith in the state to perfect mankind by eliminating oppression. And it’s why most Christians think the public school can eliminte crime if we simply teach the right things.

    Otherwise, why would most Christians place so much emphasis on public education and socialist policies? If they really believed that all mankind is corrupt, as they claim, they wouldn’t have such complete faith in education and the government.