Letter from Rome: The Noble Failure of Christian Politics

July 2013

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Even though the craziness of preparing for and delivering three Acton University lectures has passed, I still find myself trying to work out just how Christianity and politics relate to each other. Recent developments such as the debates over abortion and gay marriage may be one reason but it also may have something to do with my perceptive Acton Institute colleagues who asked me to sum up the importance of St. Augustine of Hippo, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (45 minutes each!). There’s nothing quite like preparing a lecture or writing an essay on a seminal, complicated thinker to make you come to grips with his thoughts. The problem is that you realize you’ve just barely scratched the surface, and end up re-formulating and re-thinking the premises of your lesson long after it’s finished, but I guess that’s what life-long education is all about. It may be old hat to some of you who attended my AU lectures or the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conference “Western Culture? Western Values?” that took place just afterwards, so please bear with me as I attempt to clarify what I mean by the noble failure of Christian politics.

These two descriptions of Christian politics – nobility and failure – may seem an odd way of putting it from someone who works for the Acton Institute, since our mission is to demonstrate and promote the compatibility of Christianity and free-market economics, the latter of which makes up a big part of our liberal commercial society. But as I was comparing what Augustine, Locke and Rousseau had to say about Christianity as a “civil religion,” it seems pretty clear that 1) the early Church did not expect to “govern” society; early Christians simply tried to spread the faith and promote holiness by preaching and example, 2) Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire did not eliminate theological or political disputes within the Church or society, as the Donatist and other controversies showed, and 3) Christianity had to be re-interpreted by thinkers like Spinoza and Locke to serve liberal purposes, which changed the nature of Christian moral and social thinking and eventually contributed to the demise of “Christian society,” as it was once called.

Of these, the third is the most controversial because it implies that authentic Christianity is not sufficiently liberal or tolerant for the modern age and that there were few or no pre-modern liberalizing trends within Christianity itself. There’s much historical and scholarly evidence to support the latter, much of which has been published in Acton’s Journal of Markets and Morality over the years. But the larger question is: What has happened to this Christian basis for liberalism over the succeeding centuries? Or to put it another way, while Christianity may have provided fertile soil for modern liberalism, has liberalism returned the favor?

Answers to the above questions are obviously complex and mixed, depending on how we define liberalism and success in Christian terms. The cultural patrimony of Christian Europe is certainly evident to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Yet one need only glance at current trends in architecture, art, literature and music, let alone in film and television, to realize that these are generally moving away from, not towards, Christian imagery and symbolism, and to the degree that Christian images are invoked, they have less and less significance for each generation. Furthermore, such imagery and symbolism were generally thought to inspire the religious imagination of the people, a case that’s getting increasingly hard to make with falling Church attendance, shrinking families, fewer marriages, etc. Yet, for all our supposed rationalism, we’re more fascinated than ever with horror films that depict the occult, as David P. Goldman has pointed out. Welcome to the land of the “spiritual but not religious.”

By “Christian politics,” I don’t mean to limit the discussion to political parties or politicians who call themselves Christian, or to limit it to the “post-Christian” West when the Church is growing in Africa and Asia. I mean, instead, to ask whether there is a particularly Christian way of structuring and governing society in general. The answer taken from the experience of the early Church, to say nothing of the New Testament itself, seems to be negative. One gets the same sense from modern Catholic social teaching which calls the Church a “leaven to society,” i.e. it improves whichever type of society it finds itself in, without imposing any particular form of its own (see Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, n. 40). But don’t all politics justifiably rely on some kind of penal law and coercion? Can a Christian polity based on divine charity and mercy effectively ensure human justice, liberty and security? How can we govern ourselves and be governed by God at the same time? These questions make up some aspects of the “theologico-political question” which admits of no easy answer.

This modern Catholic understanding of Church and society appears to return to the early Christian understanding and in line with why Jesus himself did not rule in the manner of Jewish kings. On the other hand, today’s Church has to deal with a “post-Christian” society; the religious and political landscape has indeed changed due to Christianity, for example, which has been (and may yet again be) re-interpreted to fit new political purposes. Proof can be found in Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration where he calls tolerance the “chief characteristic of the true Church” and says that “everyone is orthodox to himself.” It’s as if you could draw a straight line from such statements to Nancy Pelosi’s calling abortion “sacred ground.” Nevertheless, we should remember that for centuries Christians did think there was such a thing as a Christian polity, a.k.a. Christendom; it was this type of society, largely feudal, agrarian and patriarchic, that had to be overcome before a modern, liberal, commercial one could take its place in the West. It’s why Locke spent the entire First Treatise on Government attacking the older types of arrangements, with Adam Smith drawing an equally unflattering picture of the feudal lord and society in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations.

A return to feudalism or distributism being highly unlikely and not very desirable, what are faithful Christians to do? How are we supposed to be leaven in a rapidly de-Christianizing, neo-pagan society? (As the most prominent liberal critic of liberalism, Rousseau also denied the possibility of a Christian republic and sought, instead, to unify society around the general will. I tend to attribute the French public’s opposition to gay marriage to the republican general will rather than a traditionally Christian defense of marriage.) Part of the challenge will be recovering authentic, rather than liberal interpretations of, Christian teaching, which is no small task because liberal Christianity is so reassuring and flattering to liberal prejudices. We can still learn from St. Augustine, who knew full well how corrupting political occupations such as being a judge or emperor could be (see City of God Book XIX, ch. 6 and Book V, ch. 24, respectively). Nevertheless, neither he, nor St. Paul, nor Christ himself tells Christians to avoid politics altogether. Deciding life-and-death political issues is indeed terrifying, which means there is also something noble about it, about arranging our lives together based not only on our interests, but on justice, charity and the common good. Politics cannot and should not be ignored because doing so would make us less human. Instead of trying to resolve the tensions between Christianity and politics, which often results in cheapening distortions of both, perhaps it’s better to be aware of and live with them as much as we can.

As I write this letter, we’re awaiting the July 5 publication of Pope Francis’s first encyclical, entitled Lumen fidei, some of which has been written by his predecessor Benedict XVI. It will be interesting to see how their particular pastoral and theological insights complement each other and to what degree the encyclical inspires Christians to engage the world by enriching their faith. I’ll likely have more to say about this on the Acton PowerBlog, in other media outlets, and next month’s newsletter.

Until then, I wish those of you who are taking time away from work in July a restful, fruitful and safe vacation and a happy July 4th to all my fellow Americans.

Kishore Jayabalan