Last week Ray Nothstine and I hosted an Acton on Tap focused on the topic, “Putting Politics in its Place.” For those not able to join us at Derby Station here in Grand Rapids, I’m passing along this essay based on my comments. You can find Ray’s comments here.

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“Three Questions for Putting Politics in its Place”

In my attempt to articulate a way to put politics in its proper place I want to pursue three interrelated questions. First, I’m going to ask and answer, “What is politics supposed to do?” Second, I’m going to ask and answer, “What does politics do today?” And finally in light of those two concerns I’m going to ask and give some tentative answers for the question, “What should we do as Christians?”

So the first thing we have to do is to define politics by answering the question, “What is politics supposed to do?” Other ways of getting at this same concern would be to ask, “What is the purpose of politics?” Or we might wonder, “What is the end or telos of politics?” Just last week R. R. Reno at the First Things website did us a huge service in asking this question because he helps us understand why this question and this point of departure is so important. As he writes, there are really two different questions. One is, “Who is going to win?” That is the Marxist question, the pragmatic question, the question that only sees things in terms of the power of political economy. This is usually the question we start with:

Today as we shift toward a seemingly ever-increasing interest in the machinery of partisan politics, we’re becoming Marxists by default. Marx held that economic realities are fundamental, and questions of culture are epiphenomenal.

To use the technical terms of Marxist theory, the struggle for economic power functions as the base of social reality, while literature and poetry, music, and the arts are part of the “superstructure” that is determined by the base. Thus the primacy of politics, for whoever controls the levers of state power can influence and guide economic affairs, and thus control everything.

So that’s one way of framing the place of politics, and it isn’t the one we’ll be pursuing here.

The second way of framing the question is to ask the classical question: What is politics for? And here I’ll take the formulation of Lord Acton, who said, “Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Notice the modifier “political” in that quotation. It makes all the difference in the world. So politics, in this view, is for “liberty,” and this answer begs the question of how political liberty relates to other institutions and spheres of human life, such as families, churches, charities, clubs, sports teams, businesses, and so on.

Indeed, Lord Acton goes on to say of liberty that “It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” So how do politics and civil society and private life relate? Here I’ll point to two illustrations. The first comes from Elias Boudinot, a president of the Continental Congress, who said, “Good government generally begins in the family, and if the moral character of a people degenerates, their political character must soon follow.” So instead of having political economy as the bedrock of reality, as in the Marxist question, here we have something else, namely the family and morality. Similarly about fifty years later Alexis de Tocqueville observed the reciprocal nature of moral virtue and political laws when he wondered, “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”

So that, in brief, is what government and political life is supposed to do: preserve liberty for human flourishing in other spheres of life.

But our second question brings us to the present day when we compare what politics is supposed to do with what it actually does. The question is, “What does politics do today?” Or, “What are the problems in our world today?” and “What role do politics play in relating to those problems?” And while politics does a great deal, I’m going to focus on three things that I think it does in our lives today.

The first thing politics does is divide us. We’ve all heard the partisanship and sniping that goes on in the media and inside the Beltway. We’ve all experienced the level of political discourse, the basic lack of civility in our public life together (at least in vast swaths of the mainstream conversation as well as new and social media). In this vein I’ll point to the need for a new book by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, titled, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. But beyond the lack of civility or the rudeness of our political discourse in general, I’m going to highlight the political divisions between Christians. For many of us, our political affiliations and identifications trump those of our shared faith, often in practice if not in profession. Here I’ll point to another recent release, a book by Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His book is called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, and takes a point of departure in the close linkage in his experience between conservative politics and orthodox Christian theology. In this way his book and my recent book, Ecumenical Babel, are similar, in that we are both pointing to the undue politicization of the church; he criticizing the identification of the Gospel with political conservatism in the context of confessional Presbyterianism in North America and I criticizing the identification of the Gospel with political progressivism or neo-Marxism in the context of the mainline global ecumenical movement. A final example that I think brings these two claims together (politics dividing us as a commonwealth as as Christians) is a piece that just appeared at the Christianity Today website by David Gushee of Mercer University titled, “Christians Belong Outside the Tea Party.” There are a number of problems with this piece, but here I just want to point to the juxtaposition between the Christian political position on the one hand and the Tea Party on the other. The clear implication is that a Christian can’t in good conscience or faithfulness belong to the Tea Party movement. I think that’s simply wrongheaded and misguided. I want Christians to be involved in all areas of life, culture, politics, and would be very, very loathe to say that a particular party alignment is forbidden. We ought to celebrate political diversity amongst Christians in this sense and not let these disagreements be what ultimately divides us. For the political to divide us it would have to be over something as clear as the Nazi idolatry or some other clear moral absolute, and certainly not something like what Gushee points to, the prudential judgments about government’s role in helping the poor.

So politics divides us, both as a nation as well as a church. What else does it do? It feeds and serves itself. Here you can think of all the problems of bureaucracy that you’ve heard about and experienced. You can think of the idea of government as the Leviathan, as well as the insights about government self-interest that we’ve gained from the public choice theorists. People don’t simply check self-interest, even selfishness, at the door when they get elected (just as they don’t when they open a business). These problems with government are underscored by the sense that elections don’t really matter all that much because they don’t change the fundamental nature of government in its contemporary expression (see for instance The Economist and Ethika Politika posts). Part of this has to do with our “Marxist” (to use Reno’s term) conception of what politicians are supposed to be doing. A piece from The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog says of today’s election, “It doesn’t matter that much,” and describes things thusly:

Think of government as a huge pool of money. Control of government means control over that pool of money. Parties gain control by putting together winning coalitions of interest groups. When a party has control, its coalition’s interest groups get more from the pool and the losing coalition’s interest groups get less.

In the end elections don’t really matter, because everything comes down to the question of money and power, and we hear the Marxist questions echoing again, “Who is going to win?” We could say a great deal more about our ideas about what we want our politicians doing (bringing home the bacon?). Often we think they are there to make laws and to dole out power, and there are structural incentives to this (e.g. limits on bills to be introduced each session, term limits). But all too often today, politics simply feeds itself.

One way it feeds or serves itself is in what I’ll point to as the third characteristic of what politics does today: it deceives us. It makes us think that it can solve everything. It makes promises it cannot deliver. Here I want to make the claim that turning in the first place to the government to solve problems, whether from the Left or the Right, is a form of Statism. Again, this is a complete reversal of the proper view. Politicians, by and large today and generally speaking in a democratic form of government, are actually followers, not leaders (this is something Rev. Sirico pointed out quite saliently at Acton’s recent annual dinner). Politicians make a living on making promises that no government could possibly deliver (or if it could be delivered by the government would end up not being a solution anyone would really want to have).

So, if politics is for the preservation and protection of liberty in civil society and private life, and in actuality today it tends to divide us, serve itself, and deceive us, it remains to answer, “What should we do as Christians?” Here I’ll just point tentatively and briefly to three further points.

The first has to do with the purpose and topic of our event. We need to put politics and political life in its proper place. That is, we need to properly relate the political to everything else (culture, business, family, charity, church). One thing we learn from John Calvin (and here he’s following Augustine quite closely) is that the human heart is an idol factory. We make idols of everything, particularly those things that promise us worldly success and power. So, we must recognize that politics in the fallen world does not save, it preserves. This will help prevent the political from becoming an idol.

The second thing we can do is to make sure that we are not simply seeking political solutions to problems that are deeper than the merely political. If the problems are spiritual and moral, we should be starting there. In this way, the best limits on government come from outsidegovernment…from other healthy, vital, and robust spheres and institutions that simply won’t allow themselves to be subsumed and tyrannized. If and when these institutions do fail in their responsibilities, be sure that government will step in to fill the void. If we allow no moral vacuity, then there are no cracks for governmental intervention to gain a foothold. (Another way of saying this is that we need to read both Romans 12 and Romans 13 together.)

And thirdly, on an individual level, we are to be faithful in our vocations in all of its implications: the political as well as the economic, familial, charitable, and ecclesial. Don’t let the political tyrannize everything else. I’ll finish with a simple concrete suggestion: As a spiritual exercise, be friends and worship with people who disagree with you about political matters. That will help us to put and keep politics in its place.