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The Perfectibility Thesis – Still the Great Political Divide

Three hundred years after Plato and Aristotle wrestled with the idea and constitution of the just regime, God incarnate arrived on Earth and added very close to nothing. Christ did tell us to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," and we can certainly glean principles from New Testament teaching. However, Christ made no attempts to establish a righteous political system, nor did he leave instructions to history on this seemingly important matter.

The God of the Old Testament appears no more enthusiastic about investing political lordship in human beings. Upon the Israelite's demand for a king "such as all the other nations have," the Lord instructed Samuel to "warn them solemnly, and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights" (1 Samuel 8:9). Sobering words indeed.

The problem of Christianity and politics is as old as both. Yet, political power appears as permanent and necessary as community itself. The easy answer, and a far too frequent one, is to apply to law an ethos of human teleology: as the end purpose of man dictates, so shall he be governed. What benefit is the political community if its laws do not pursue what is good, true and beautiful? Even the pagan philosophers of Athens understood that justice cannot not merely be the "advantage of the stronger."

Indeed, the reasoning appears simple enough. Coercive force can only manifest in one of two forms: abuse or justice. If the former, it is not law but slavery, and if the latter, it must guide men ever toward perfection of soul and body. Christians in particular recognize that we are fallen creatures, but we are also made in God's image, endowed with greater purpose. We yearn for that untainted existence, Christ alone as our model.

However, such aspirations, righteous as they are for the individual, confront different rules when applied through the instruments of political power. Christians must be particularly careful never to interpret man's innate moral sense and ultimate restoration as evidence of temporal perfectibility. Kings, constitutions, institutions and other secular devices cannot perfect what only God can perfect. In putting our faith in them, we deny human nature, nullify the cross and take salvation in our own hands.

Even as we are witnesses to the arrival of the Kingdom in Christ, we must also recognize that it is not yet in its fullness. The consequences are dire for those who fail to make this distinction and attempt to create Heaven on earth. A young William F. Buckley is known to have popularized the late political theorist Eric Voegelin's phraseology: "Don't immanentize the eschaton!" Buckley and his Young Americans for Freedom were fighting Communist idealism, but the temptation far precedes Mao or Marx.

An Anabaptist revolt in 1534 deposed the political and religious leaders of Münster, Germany. Swiftly declaring it the "New Jerusalem," the reformers sought to establish a true Christian community, released from secular authorities, crooked church practices, and divisive materialism of private property. As the city laid in siege for the next year and a half, God's law was to rule and His provisions were to be shared collectively—communism was strictly imposed.

It did not take long for human nature to find leaven in unrestrained power. As Greg Forster writes in The Contested Public Square:

Many of the more wealthy citizens had themselves exempted from this requirement. The radicals thus gained a reputation for both wealth-destroying extremism and flagrant hypocrisy. […] When the siege tightened and things looked grim, the city's new leader, Jan of Leiden, responded by appointing himself the new messianic king of the world and minting currency with his image on it.

The Munster Rebellion was a failed experiment in Christian utopianism that ended in pride, poverty, and death. After the city's fall, its leaders were captured, tortured, executed. As a warning and a reminder, their remains were displayed in steel cages, which hang to this day from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church.

The Enlightenment's liberal movement taught the West to respect freedom of conscience and build communities on common natural rights, leaving religious and moral culture outside the proper bounds of political authority. But faith in science and human reason brought with it new dangers to replace the old. Man began to convince himself that his very nature could at last be tamed and molded. Philosophers and social scientists argued that proper socialization could systematically eradicate self-interest. Greed, inequality, gender roles and moral judgments are mere artifacts of social construction. A "progressive" agenda therefore promised a final stage in human evolution: eternal peace and equality. In practice, it brought centralized power and mass genocide.

The twentieth century proved that, in the words of Thomas Sowell, "some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity, are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God."


James Madison

The modern liberal/progressive experiment— insofar as it glorifies radical individualism and moral relativism—lacks a foundation of truth on which moral claims and natural rights can be conceived. Many nations have thus implemented an oxymoronic liberal authoritarianism, echoing Rousseau's ideal democracy in which citizens are "forced to be free." Modernity has left us searching once again for a formulation of government under which humans thrive in both freedom and virtue.

In so doing, the Church must reject a false dichotomy between egoist individualism and statist collectivism. Rather, the pursuit of restored community must be coupled with a theologically sound skepticism of human political power. Indeed, the former is not possible without the latter. Perhaps no force is better apt to destroy families, divide communities and deepen poverty than maligned political authority.

In his 1944 essay "Equality," C.S. Lewis used this line of argument in laying out the case for democracy, writing "Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters."

To the chagrin of many college professors who cheer for the progressive man and his ever-enlightened reason, our democratic values are not rooted in elevating human ideals, but in the stubborn limits of human virtue. James Madison, arguing for a U.S. Constitution that would retard and restrain political power, wrote "what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

The perfectibility thesis is the great divide among political philosophers of all persuasions. If mankind is malleable and progress is merely a promise to embrace, such a responsibility must become the aim and purpose of government. But the price is nothing short of the abolition of individual sovereignty.

Our moral sense, which God ordained for good, will always urge us to project upon society the virtues which we are individually incapable of exhibiting in their fullness. It is far easier to stand for a cause and to cast a vote than to live out the same expectations we place upon that vague and faceless "collective." As politicians appeal to these instincts, a free people must exercise cautious discernment in separating promises from possibilities, lest we wake up in suspended cages.

As we limit the scope of man's political jurisdiction to the essential duties of prudent government, we enable society to achieve true progress in markets, communities, families and churches.

Each of these withers and decays under the auspices of the woefully well-intentioned philosopher king.

Wesley Gant works for Houston Baptist University and is a regular contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism.