David Brooks:

Ward (who is inexplicably being replaced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo) rescued the ground zero project by disenchanting it, by seeing it as it is, not through shrouds of symbols — by attending closely to all the practical complexity. American politics in general could use that sort of disenchantment.

Many issues that were once concrete and practical are distorted because they have become symbolic and spiritual. Tax policy isn’t just about how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of capitalism. Conservatives see tax increases as an assault on the enterprising class perpetrated by arrogant central planners. A tax rate could be seen as just a number signifying an expense, but now it’s a marker in a culture war.

Brooks is exactly right on this, yet whether because of the confines of the article or his perspective, he doesn’t quite get around to saying exactly how politics might be “disenchanted.”  I’m not one to talk, but I would be happy to endorse the idea that legislators need a strong drink of wonky pragmatism in order to, you know, govern, but the simple recommendation to be more practical doesn’t seem like it will get very far without a broader, more systemic change in the American culture.  Brooks again:

Maybe it’s part of living in a postmaterialist economy, but nearly every practical question becomes a values question. You get politicians and commentators whose views are entirely predictable because they don’t care about the specifics of any particular issue.

The more plausible suggestion, I think, is that every practical question has become a values question because values questions have been ruled out of bounds.  Let me try framing it this way:  if first principles are neglected by a society, they don’t recede into the background–instead, they run wild over everything, popping up in the oddest of places precisely because the absence of first principles means there are no second or third principles either.

An unsatisfactory way of putting it, yes, so one more go:  the sacralization of politics such that political decisions get freighted with the most transcendent of meanings happens precisely when the public square is systematically stripped of anything else.  If politics is not to be sacred ground, and hence a site for the new holy wars, there must be some other place more hallowed, more treasured.  There must be a church, and that church must not be neutered or silent.

“The more transcendental is your patriotism,” G.K. Chesterton once put it, “the more practical are your politics.”  A different point in his hands, but it fits just as well here.  In giving priority to a transcendent order, a sphere of life not subject to every wind and wave of political machination, we are freed from viewing every political blunder as a fatal one and every political decision as an eternal one.  The attitude is not the beginning of political engagement as such, but its beginning, for it recognizes the political order as what it is:  politics, and nothing more.



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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Good post, MLA. “every practical question has become a values question because values questions have been ruled out of bounds.” Nailed it…because practical questions are never value-free.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson October 16, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks, man. Much appreciated.


  2. Hey Matt,

    Thanks for highlighting that passage from Brooks. I think you’ve keyed in on what is appealing about Brooks’ Burkeanism in the midst of raging ideologies.

    I do have a few lingering suspicions, though. Correct me if I’m not reading you properly, but it seems like you’re directly associating politics with a contingent/immanent sphere and the church with the transcendental order. But do you want to draw the line so starkly? Or do both civic and ecclesial communities remain earthly witnesses to an eschatological order that has yet to be realized in the present saeculum? Associating the institutional church with the transcendent order per se seems to run against traditional Protestant (esp Reformed) civic theology. It also appears to grant the church militant a surprisingly comprehensive knowledge of the transcendent order.


    1. Davey,

      Any day that you come out to play is a good one. But next time, could you leave the rough and tumble questions at home? Thanks. : )

      Seriously, all the right questions to ask, of course, and I’m still working through exactly how I’m going to work all this out. So go a little easy on me.

      You’re right in your reading of the association, and also right that I’m not sure how stark I do want to make that line. : )

      That said, calling church and state “earthly witnesses to an eschatological order that has yet to be realized in the present saeculum” doesn’t seem to encapsulate what’s distinct about those respective witnesses. I could overinaugurate my eschatology pretty easily at this point, but it does seem like the church has an ability to point forward, an insight into the eschatological order, that the state does not (perhaps I am too tied to think of the state in the context of a liberal, democratic society?). I don’t know if this is a satisfactory way of putting it, but if that’s true of the church then it seems like it may have a distinct responsibility to protect the gap between now and the eschaton in a way that the state simply cannot do. It’s precisely because of it’s special insight, in other words, that it recognizes the “not yet” of the Kingdom in a way that allows it to chasten the pretensions of the state AND, as long as the gap is remembered, its own place within history (i.e. it shouldn’t be triumphalistic).

      That said, I think I could say this without giving the church *comprehensive* knowledge of the transcendent order. No reason to have to describe every detail of the peace to come, I don’t think, in order to offer an alternative to the state that orients society toward a set of goods that the state simply cannot do so on its own, a set of goods that relativizes those the state pursues and prevents the state from overreaching its hand.

      Not sure how this is all going to work out, though. Clearly something I’m trying to work through. Care to recommend the next book for my reading list? : )




      1. Matt,

        Great stuff, and thanks for interacting. And believe me, I’m entirely sympathetic when it comes to the uncertainty of where to draw that institutional line.

        I think I sense the influence of O’Donovan in some of what you write. One difference, however, might be that I read him as giving the state an imperative to submit to Christ. We don’t “expect” the state to listen and obey, but we do hope for it. The church’s mission is to testify to the gospel, first as martyr, then hopefully as vindicated witness.

        So that’s why I wondered about your more definite boundary between state and church. I’m guessing you align more closely with O’Donovan in the end, but my curiosity was piqued.

        If you are headed in the O’Donovan trajectory, I’d be curious what you make of his very incisive essay, “Karl Barth and Ramsey’s ‘Uses of Power.'” Also, while I have some minor reservations, I like Jesse Couenhaven’s comparative essay on Law/Gospel in Barth, Calvin, and Luther.


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