When it comes to discussing questions of politics, Christians can take several different approaches. A safe and sometimes reasonable strategy is to put a moratorium on such conversations in Bible studies, small groups, and other church functions for the simple reason that the discussion is likely to produce divisiveness or, in the absence of any real diversity within the group, to harden hostilities toward the out group. In some cases, this is a wise approach. But it also carries with it a danger of its own: All Christians will be discipled in our reflections on politics somehow. The question is where and how.
Far too often, this discipling happens via irresponsible media outlets, blogs, social media, and so on rather than in a context of careful Christian care, reflection, and attentiveness that attempts to foreground Christian teaching and discern the shape of our political lives as they are defined by the Gospel. So another option for us, riskier but also more rewarding, is to try and present key ideas, to ground those ideas in Christian truth, and to debate those ideas in a spirit of familial trust and affection. Toward that end, here are seven theses for Election Day.
1. Much of our political life happens outside the voting booth.
Michael Spencer once described the “wretched urgency” that pervaded the southern fundamentalism of his youth. If you swapped all the Christian-specific language in the essay with language about voting, canvassing, and so on, you likely would end up with a very believable treatment of a certain sort of older conservative voter and a certain sort of younger liberal voter, both of whom erroneously place the act of voting at the center of our political life together.
This is not to say voting does not matter. Indeed, pieces like Matt Walther’s that encourage indifference toward partisan politics are their own sort of error, failing to recognize the ways in which voting really does shape the life of a place within a democratic system. A major part of the reason my parents have healthcare, for example, is that Democrats beat Republicans in multiple elections between 2008 and 2014. We should not ignore these real goods that can be obtained partially through voting, but neither should we so elevate the act to a kind of sacramental status within a democratic polity.
Christianity, rather, teaches us that man is naturally gregarious, naturally social, and will inevitably form polities as he lives his life in God’s world. In this sense, we are merely saying the same thing that many other non-Christian people have said throughout history–most notably Aristotle.
We enter the world through community–the community of man and woman drawn together in the sexual embrace. We are born, if we are fortunate, into a community of love able to receive us and offer us love during some of the most vulnerable and formative moments of our existence. And our material lives in the world are sustained through community–the community of businesses, neighborhoods, coops, and a host of other small and large human communities that allow us to eat, have shelter, and enjoy the company of neighbor.
The foundations of our political life together is found in these groups and in the work that is done to sustain their life. Within this context, voting matters a great deal because the policies shaped by the people we vote for will influence the quality and possibility of our life in community.
However, if there is no community in place, an act of voting will not by itself create that community. It must be called forth through other means–sacrifice, humility, fidelity, affection, trust, and the desire to use one’s work to serve one’s neighbor.
You should vote today. But your political responsibilities as a Christian outside the voting booth are far more numerous and more important than the (still significant) responsibilities you will execute as you visit your polling place today.
2. Christian political practice should be oriented to nature.
In American Affairs, Julius Krein has argued that a saner American politics would require that our two main parties become a libertarian party and a communitarian party. Though Krein’s diagnosis of the problem with the three fusions he describes in the essay is correct, the proposed solution fails for the simple reason that political virtue is not going to be arrived at via a consistent commitment libertarianism or communitarianism.
The discussion surrounding books like The Benedict Option explains why: though the robust communitarianism of the traditional American small town exerts a great appeal on many of us today, it should be remembered that such places often squelched individuals who did not easily fit in to the already established norms of the place. To some extent that was not a bad thing, of course: It is not wrong to learn to curb one’s own independent ambitions in service to the community to which one belongs. Yet what happened in these communities often went well past the good work of shaping individuals to serve communal ends and frequently became a sort of psychological violence against individuals who did not belong. I have experienced this myself in churches and I know Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option, has experienced something very similar as a bookish child growing up in a small town.
Thus “communitarian” and “libertarian” should not be seen as organizing principles for political parties. Such principles ought to recognize a definitive political telos organized around a coherent set of desirable goods. Both “communitarian” and “libertarian” cannot adequately do that for the simple reason that a just polis recognizes the freedom of both communities and the individual. These traits, then, are not organizing principles for political parties, but rather opposite poles between which human beings must constantly be moving through the use of wisdom and a knowledge of the unique situation in which they find themselves and what that situation demands. After all, in the era of the church abuse scandals, even the most communally minded conservative ought to recognize the possibility of error in their community and, thus, the need for other valid goods to preserve the dignity and appropriate independence of the individual.
Given that, I want to propose an alternative framing of our political debates. They are less about communitarianism and libertarianism and much more about creation and the machine. The way of articulating this is to say that a Christian politics ought to be, as a friend put it in conversation, concerned with protecting creation and the forms of life which respond to it. Foremost, this will mean a protection of the family and small communities, but it also encompasses the natural creation as well as plant and animal life. I would take the political opposite of this to be a mechanical politics that views man and creation less as natural goods with a discernible order of their own that must be respected and reverenced and more as the raw material by which the powerful shape the world–and hopefully shape it to just ends. You might call it Nature versus Engineering, I suppose.
To be sure, this will cash out into a Christian Green political philosophy. But the method of arriving at that conclusion are actually quite plain: If it is true that God has made the world, that the universe is sustained by his hand and contingent on his being, then it is true that God, a rational being, has made the world with a certain intent, a certain design. And it follows from this not merely that it is a good idea for man to submit himself to that design, but that we actually do not have the right to reject it anymore than a pot has the right to reject the intentions of the potter. Just as we should not tolerate violence done to the body in the name of appeasing a felt individualistic identity (which definitionally cuts the person off from the creative life of embodied human beings) so we also should not tolerate violence done to nature or animal life in the name of appeasing the demands of the capitalist class. Nature is to be revered, submitted to, and, when necessary, protected.
A Christian politics should recognize the goodness of the world’s natural order which manifests itself in man, but also in landscapes and trees and animals. And it should, following from this, seek to act politically in ways that will first and foremost protect the goodness of that order and only act when we can be confident that our action will draw out the beauty of that order still more. The goal is to protect what Calvin called “the theatre of God” and to preserve as much as possible a place of natural health in which man can encounter and know God, which is our ultimate end.
3. Lift up the weak.
A second consideration that should shape our political life as Christians is a desire to exalt the weak, the poor, and the disadvantaged. This is a clear scriptural theme that is particularly pronounced in the Old Testament prophets but that also shows up in the Gospels and the book of James, to name only a few New Testament examples.
The reason for this should be obvious to anyone who has heard the Gospel: The Christian owes a unique obligation of love to the weak for the simple reason that he has already received a far greater gift when in a far weaker position: We were spiritually dead and were made alive by the gracious love of God. To receive that gift and then turn to the poor with a sigh of indifference is to err in the way of the man who was forgiven a large debt but then imprisoned a man who owed far less.
The challenge of lifting up the weak in our context is particularly acute. We have one party that is consistently indifferent to the weak (at best) and may well, considering their policies, actively hate the weak. We have another that thinks what the weak most need is self-actualization, the ability to define their own conception of existence. Though one party will do less immediate harm to the poor—a point that is not unimportant in deciding how to vote—neither is able to offer long-term good to them because neither recognize their ultimate end—to know God—nor do they see how their immediate physical sufferings offend the righteousness of God and may well hinder them in their desire to live virtuously.
What is needed is a polity that provides for the felt needs of the poor but that also recognizes the spiritual longings of the human heart, the unique ways in which those longings manifest under poverty, and that seeks to exalt the poor to a place of honor and safety from which they can more easily discern the goodness of God and their need to know him.1
4. Protect small communities.
The third key I would propose for framing a properly Christian political approach is a deference to the life of small places. This deference follows naturally from both the reverence of nature and the exaltation of the poor. A sizable portion of deferring to nature is simply choosing not to do something that one could do because you wish to first do no harm. This is a point Wendell Berry writes about marvelously in many places, but perhaps most helpfully in The Way of Ignorance.
Man encounters the universe as a great mystery and the more he discovers it the more mysterious it becomes. And within this mystery is an opportunity and a danger. The danger is that we would regard our own ignorance as a trivial thing, as something which need not influence our life in the world in significant ways because, after all, the Experts have spoken and told us What Must Be Done.
The opportunity is in listening to our ignorance and in proceeding slowly, gently, and with a desire that our actions would draw out the beauty of the natural order in the way that salt draws out the flavor of a dish. When you taste properly salted food, you do not first notice the salt; you notice that the food tastes more like itself. This must be the Christian’s relationship to the natural order. We move slowly and reverently, aware of our ignorance, and with an affection for the earth that shapes us as we act for its good.
Because we must move slowly, we must defer to the communities that naturally develop of their own accord—the bonds of friendship, neighborhood, and, above all, the natural family. These communities will form organically as human beings live together in ways that a good many other “communities” that shape our lives today—the multinational corporation and the imperial state both come to mind—do not. And yet if we are to listen to our ignorance, exalt the poor, and revere nature, we would do well to similarly revere the communities closest to nature.
This is not because nature is perfect or untouched by the fall. Far from it. Rather, it is because even after the Fall we encounter the world not as a chaotic and meaningless ruin, like something devastated by a tornado, but rather as a glorious ruin in which the original design can still be discerned in faint and occasional ways. The natural family can still be discerned, the friendship that comes from living closely with neighbor can still be discerned. And the goods that these communities produce will almost never be replicable outside of those communities. It is for that reason that there is a close connection between protecting the family and exalting the poor: it is in the context of household that we are most fully seen, for the simple reason that it is in the context of household that it is most difficult to hide. It is in these small communities, ideally, that we will encounter the claims of Christ and be brought up in the love and severity of God’s law. A properly Christian politics will defer to these communities.
5. Both dominant parties are defined at their core by desired ends that are hostile to Christian political life.
The Republican party, on the evidence of two years controlling both chambers of congress and the White House, can be safely described as a party which seeks to help the wealthy and the powerful to grow in their wealth and power. This often means, de facto, that the GOP is a party that will hurt the poor, racial minorities, the immigrant, and the refugee and which altogether lacks the will to protect the unborn, the natural family, and nature. Given the events along our nation’s border and the mainstreaming of figures like Joe Arpaio and John Bolton and the presidential endorsement of violence against political dissidents, it is not unfair or unreasonable to say that this hatred of the weak has manifested itself in the acceptance of actual acts of violence against the weak.
The Democratic party, on the evidence of its own recent history, can be safely described as a party which sees the chief good of all people as being their emancipation from all unchosen forms and restrictions, even the unchosen forms imposed upon them by their own bodies and their home places. Advancing this agenda by definition requires the obliteration or the diminishment of many small local communities which necessarily have curtailed individual liberty, if only to maintain their own existence as communities. Thus the violence done to unborn infants, the attacks on local small businesses by the Democratic party’s favorite company, and the threat to religious communities who seek to practice their beliefs in their public life.
Even so, a lazy line about how “both sides are bad” does not serve us well. The ways in which the two parties are bad, though significant, differ in a number of ways and also manifest themselves in different areas. Depending on the issues in play at any given time and in any debate, it is possible that one party would still be preferable to the other. Republicans will at least pay lip service to the pro-life cause while Democrats will at least attempt to provide affordable healthcare for the poor and to encourage higher wages for workers. While we must be clear on the fundamentals of both parties, we must also recognize that different sins afflict us in different arenas. And so, while both parties are doubtless very bad, it is possible to make both serve certain good ends.
6. We still should participate in the work of partisan politics.
The nature of our current moment in American political life is that any notion of shared goods that we pursue together as a res publica has been lost. It has been replaced by Kennedyesque individualism in which every person has the right to define “their own conception of life, meaning, and the universe,” in which the government’s chief role is to protect us from things which threaten that pursuit, and in which the primary arena in which we conduct that pursuit is the market. That such an order will produce millions of competing goods is both an inevitability and a fact to which Anthony Kennedy (and all his followers) offer no satisfying response.
It is wholly unsurprising, then, that our properly political life would fragment and what ought to be an avenue through which we promote our life together by defining the legal principles of our union has instead become a contest over who wields the coercive power that serves as tie-breaker when our competing private goods come into conflict, as they inevitably must.
This is a tragedy and yet it is the reality of our political moment. And much like the man who, when asking for directions, heard in response “well, I wouldn’t start from here,” we must begin from where we are presently standing. Thus in our lives as political actors, we cannot simply opt out of our current system, as those who refuse to join one of our two dominant parties essentially do and, just to be honest, as I myself have basically argued in the past.
Rather, we must attempt to discern, as best we are able, the party which best affords us the opportunity to advance a properly Christian politics and we ought to participate in the life of that party, working to push the party toward greater conformity to the moral law but also working with them as we are able to achieve small victories that may serve to advance the greater agenda of a Christian society.
Moreover, the nature of the American system will make it difficult, if not impossible, for a third party to ever assert itself in a real way in American politics. If a third party was ever going to announce itself on the stage, it was in the 2016 presidential election when the two least popular candidates in modern memory competed for the nation’s highest office. But both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party nominated uninspiring choices who had basically zero impact on the outcome of the election.
Because of this, though our primary political actions must happen outside the narrow arena of partisan politics, we should not opt out of partisan politics entirely. We must play the hand we have been dealt. Thus we should, rather, commit to one of the two main parties, identifying places of common agreement, and trying to advance what good we can through that agreement, even as we try to reform the party in the long term.2
7. Joining either party does not obligate you to vote for each candidate the party puts forward or to abstain from public criticism of the party.
One of the strange ideas that one often encounters when talking about the practicalities of life in a political party is the fear that one cannot criticize the party or is obligated to support every candidate put forward by the party. Neither of these things is the case. To belong to a political party simply means voting in primaries and participating in the life of the party as you are able. Ideally it will involve working locally to push the party’s politics toward greater health. But ultimately it does not oblige a person to automatically vote with the party or to publicly support all that the party does.
The pressure to conform to the party is great, of course. This is because for many in both parties, partisan political life has become the sum total of all political life. We must not make this mistake, which is why we must keep the rest of our political life as well as a properly Christian political agenda ever before our eyes.
That being said, the greatest way for Christians to be a blessing in the limited sphere of partisan politics is to work within the existing institutions as we are able, as Republicans advocating for the poor and the immigrant or as Democrats advocating for nature and for the unborn. Because, as Christians, we ought to be able to situate our partisan lives within a far broader context of political life more generally, we ought also be able to contend for policies that advance Christian goods while identifying places of agreement where we can achieve small victories in the short term.
The linchpin to this essay is the idea that radical critiques of our nation’s current political dysfunction need not mean the wholesale evacuation from partisan politics. We ought to be able to hold our partisan identities lightly and achieve what limited goods we can through them, all the while seeking to live and work more generally in ways that advance the common life of our local places through the many non-partisan means made available to us.
Far too often the juxtaposition put forward by Christian writers considering our political moment creates a false dichotomy—choose between an overly optimistic vision of our politics and involvement in our partisan processes or embrace a radical critique of our situation and step away from partisan institutions altogether. Far better, it seems to me, to soberly assess the severity of our situation and then discern a hundred small ways in which we can work to alleviate the damage done by our atomized republic. One way of doing this is through participation in partisan politics. It is not the only way. It is not even the best way. But it is a way.