The good folks over at Relevant Magazine invited me to chip in my thoughts on a series they’ve been doing on Christians and politics.

You should read the whole thing.  But to whet your appetite, here’s a teaser that didn’t make the cut because I had gone on too long already:

In its pursuit of justice, then, the government’s primary responsibility is to judge against wrongs and protect against threats to society’s welfare–rather than to provide goods directly. Given the diversity and complexity of society, we ought to retain a robust and healthy modesty about our government’s (or our own!) ability to determine “the common good,” and an even stronger skepticism about the government’s ability to promote it. Best to let it simply emerge from each sphere working at its best in its own area, and allow a nimble but strong government to judge the wrongs it uncovers accordingly.

But go on now.  Read the whole thing.  And then let me know what you make of it all in the comments.


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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. Excellent article. This is the axle on which everything else turns: “Conservatism treats the family, rather than the individual, as the building block upon which society is based.” Both liberalism and libertarianism are individualist philosophies (although modern liberalism offers paeans to “community”, they are usually oriented around the notion of how the community can empower the individual, rather than how communities can strengthen and empower families).

    Regarding the scope of government (big vs small), I’m a big fan of the notion of subsidiarity, where issues are handled by the lowest competent authority. I’m fine with the military being run at the federal level. But I think education would be much more effectively managed at a state or local level. I think we would have a much more just and responsible government if local decisions were made at the local level when appropriate, instead of the federal government crowding out all lower authorities and enforcing sweeping solutions that lack any sort of local understanding or nuance.

    With economics, where (modern) liberals prefer something closer to a command economy, and libertarians want to see something along the lines of laissez-faire capitalism, I think the concept of distributism (or something similar) is the one most closely aligned with conservative principles and understanding. It still uses market principles, but with the end goal of strengthening society across the board, rather than a small cadre of privileged people (big business or big government) amassing wealth and power.

    You summary of some other issues was good, too. Abortion is certainly a massive issue all on its own. I do not begrudge anyone who is a single-issue voter on abortion, to the exclusion of all else, and I don’t think history will judge them either. When we look back at the politics of the 1860s, things like tariffs and industrialization and expansionism and alcoholism and immigration and beards were all the rage, but slavery was by far the most important issue of them all, and we wouldn’t criticize anyone who was a single-issue voter when it came to ending slavery. Abortion is on the same scale, dwarfing all other injustices by several orders of magnitude. Now I personally do not think the other injustices should be excused or ignored. But I do understand why people might be single-issue voters about abortion and think they are justified in so doing.

    Your reminder at the end that we are fundamentally citizens of another kingdom is a perfect conclusion. At the end of the day, if we call Jesus Lord, then we are monarchists seeking to see all lesser cities and nations annexed under his glorious rule.

    (…Incidentally, I found the “Christian Libertarian” article to be downright embarrassing… like a bunch of caricatures strung together. I cringed all the way through that one.)


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson February 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Thanks, Andy!

      Love subsidiarity (how *well* it fits with federalism) and am uncertain about distributism. It’s always seemed a bit too romantic for me, but the Front Porch instincts are not very strong with me.




  2. Christopher Benson February 7, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Well done, Matt. Well done. Your conservatism is intelligent, winsome, and compassionate.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson February 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      thanks, christopher!


  3. Hi Matt, nice article. A few questions/points…

    Regarding family vs. individuals, I can’t agree with conservatives or libertarians. As a non-reductionist Kuyperian, I’m not a fan of the “building block” terminology and all I can say is that society includes individuals, families, businesses, non-profit groups, churches, states, and any number of other groups. Neither individuals nor any of these groups are more primary than the rest and any society that elevates one over the rest is in trouble. So I can’t jump on board with conservatism if it means treating family as the primary social structure. (That being said, I agree with your comments about the importance of strong families and family networks.)

    Also, in his book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis mentions one critique of conservatism that I’d like to hear your response to. He mentions that conservatism can lead to the tendency to preserve existing power relations and therefore allows the privileged in society to maintain the status quo. In other words, it can tend to favor those in power.

    I’m also surprised you didn’t mention what I would think is at the core of conservatism … its view of tradition and how change should occur in society.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson February 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm


      Yes, I think that the point about ‘foundational’ is a good one. I go back and forth on this, frankly, especially given the New Testament’s abrogation of the natural family and its insertion of the church in its place. If anything is foundational, it’s that (though I think it re-establishes the natural family inside of it).

      But wouldn’t you say that when it comes down to the formation of virtue, the family has a greater effect than any other institution? Modeling and imitation are powerful, powerful tools–more powerful than we often realize. And the family is where such things happen most.

      As to Koyzis, I’ve read that critique and thing it’s a good one. But he critiques conservatism as an ideology, and many conservatives argue that it’s the only “ism” that isn’t an ideology (I think this was Kirk’s line). But, I share sympathy for Chesterton’s line that in the modern world it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes, and the job of conservatives to keep them from being corrected.

      As to tradition and change, I also think it’s near the core of conservatism. One can not do everything (a lame excuse, I know, but the only one I have!).



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