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Oliver O’Donovan on the American Political Environment

October 30th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In light light of Andrew’s excellent interviews with Craig Carter, I thought you all might be interested in an interview with Oliver O’Donovan by the folks over at the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (may their tribe increase).

Here are some of the highlights:

“The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide. I should mention, perhaps, that the medieval political theologian, John Wyclif, stated at the beginning of his massive work “On Lordship” that any discussion of political relations must begin from 1 Corinthians 13, where everything essential was to be found….

There is, of course, such a thing as a specific vocation to serve in politics. But the question did not ask about. Indeed, none of the questions have asked about that. And that, perhaps, is one of the things that most strike the European onlooker about the way American Christians think about politics: the “professional” politician, though always present in the background, is never a topic of discussion. Is there, we sometimes wonder, a condition of general denial in the USA about the professionalisation of modern politics?”


“Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”


“I do not trouble you with the useless advice that you should not be partisan. That says too much and too little. The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully. The whole emphasis has to fall on articulating the truths at issue. If there are no issues of truth, if it all comes down to which party will (let us say) manage the economy more skilfully, then there is no call for the church’s ministers to address the question in the first place. But if there is an issue of truth, it must be faced squarely. Truth demands partisanship; there is no impartiality between the claims of truth and error. Our success will depend on isolating the question of truth that demands our partisanship, and not confusing it with matters on which differing opinions are possible. To do this, we must avoid prejudging who is a friend of error, who a friend of truth. We must not assume that the truth is the privileged possession of one party. Truth is liberation for all, and demands repentance of all. It must be commended as available at once to the poor and to the tax collector. Its demand must not be addressed in one direction only – as though one party needed to do all the repenting, while the other could watch – and decide when they had done enough!”

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.