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The Privilege of Atheism, The Politics of Urgency, and The Limits of Policy

October 2nd, 2015 | 16 min read

By Matthew Loftus

What matters more: changing hearts or changing laws? When Hillary Clinton was recently confronted by Black Lives Matter activists about racial injustice in America, she had some frank words: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws.” While leaving the possibility of heart change open, she continued to focus on the necessity of policy solutions to achieve racial justice in America.

Such an approach is appropriate enough for a career politician, if a bit historically simplistic. Other anti-police brutality activists have worked to create Campaign Zero to provide some of the nuts-and-bolts policies that would improve policing in America. Clinton’s story of how movements grow from initial activism (with some heart changes) that eventually translates to more concrete laws being passed does indeed echo some historical movements that did just this. However, because policy is both ultimately limited by human sinfulness and subservient to human whims, a more robust understanding of political and spiritual transformation is necessary to actually address the urgent needs of justice.

It is first important to think about what has changed and what policy has left undone. As The Locust Effect has described, police departments in America used to be far more openly racist and unjust than they are now; a popular movement working in tandem with serious policy reformers helped police departments become more accountable to the people that they served. This doesn’t negate any of the serious concerns people have today with modern policing, but it does clarify that a fairly simple set of procedures can take a police department from a state-sanctioned violent gang to a force for justice. Similar procedures are being carried out with tremendously encouraging results across the world in places where the police act more like a violent gang than a force for justice. These same procedures could probably be useful in certain places in America where the police are failing to adequately protect citizens.

This story is similar for many other areas of human development—particularly health, where a very simple set of measures like vaccination and sanitation can send life expectancies soaring. Having seen a lot of great accomplishment, though, it seems that the margins of societal improvement in Western society are slimming. Making a predictably deadly situation better is a lot easier than doing the same with an unpredictably deadly one; cutting infant deaths by using vaccinations requires a much simpler set of interventions than extending the average mortality rate from cancer by a few years. Pushing for things that “work” as we live and die by “what the data tells us to do” usually means advocating for things which will increase certain desirable outcomes by a few percentage points.

When dealing with the social issues and ills that inequality breeds, this need for more work then often leads reformers to use more extreme tactics in their messaging. Two recent examples are doctors using pictures of knives in bed to represent the dangers of co-sleeping and activists calling police brutality “genocide”. Such rhetoric can both backfire easily, failing the actual concerns of babies dying in beds and black men getting killed by police.

There is a commensurate rhetorical arms race in the urgency and policy calculus that determines what issues take precedent. For example, if one takes the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on face value alone, the number of black men killed by police in America (hundreds) is an order of magnitude less than the number of black men murdered by people other than the police in America (thousands), but even that in turn is dwarfed by the number of black men who die from cigarette smoking (tens of thousands). This is not to say that anti-police brutality activists are wrongheaded to focus on rectifying unaccountable deaths by agents of the state (as such a goal is appropriately prescient given the ethical ugliness of state-sanctioned violence), nor that “black-on-black” crime doesn’t get protests (it does), nor that such activists don’t care about black men who die from cigarettes (the movement has plenty of concern for health and the issues of poverty and justice that determine health).

Rather, it demonstrates that the most urgent movements are the ones for which there are the most accessible policies, just as the pharmaceuticals which just came out have the most commercials on television making people aware of the disease they treat. “Black Lives Matter” refers to the lives of a specific population which is at particular risk from suffering a particular violence that is able to garner more widespread interest and is more susceptible to a simpler set of interventions.

The sense of urgency and the power of policy are magnified in different ways for people who don’t subscribe to any particular faith and Christians with a deeply rooted sense of eschatology. (There are obviously more policymakers and advocates than those who make up these two groups, but these two streams represent the most strongly dichotomous approach to the politics of urgency.) For atheists or agnostics, the question of “heart change” tends to be viewed with the same sort of suspicion that former Secretary Clinton applied—that is, changing the hearts of a populace is far less important than changing the laws which govern them. The issue of eschatological hope– the unshakeable conviction that justice will come at the hands of God because it is His will to accomplish it on Earth– is usually dismissed outright as a distraction to the serious work of policy.

There is undoubtedly a tradition of Christian practice that divorces itself from politics entirely or reduces politics merely to symbolic cultural warfare– the proverbial “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good” Christians. The believers who do apply themselves to politics often treat certain issues totemically, making a few “family values” issues sacrosanct without giving any thought to how we might use policy to help create an environment in which life is welcomed, traditional families are strengthened, and the Imago Dei is recognized in the people for whom it is most often taken for granted. Non-believers who care about policy seem to mostly be reacting to this lackadaisical approach when they see prayer marches or public sermons addressing political concerns– such things may have some limited value for community organizing, but political utility is itself the ultimate schema to judge these activities judged by.

Privileged Christians who are simply praying against injustice without any subsequent changes in their lives or votes for a particular policy seem especially galling. Such ephemeral supplications complement the various forms of religion-as-opiate-of-the-masses, where the eschatological promise of justice dulls the urgency of reform for the oppressed. When Christians subsequently act as anyone with the same wealth or privilege would act and defend only the policies that benefit their own tribe, it renders their witness impotent. It is rightfully infuriating when Christians limit their own expressions of faith in the public square to the exact same sort of self-centered political utility and unsurprising when secularists only see Christians using worldly methods to advance their own particular causes.

However, atheism has its own set of privileges. A recent BuzzFeed article asked several prominent atheists about how they find meaning, eliciting a variety of thoughtful responses. There was an interesting common theme, however: all of the respondents were relatively well-off and mentioned the resources of class and wealth that they used not only to deal with the trials they faced, but to feel meaningful in the work of their daily lives. It is altogether understandable that people who think spiritual realities do not ultimately exist in a meaningful way would submit spiritual practices to the overriding power of political utility. It is more concerning that these advocates do not recognize that their own dependence on privilege has predisposed them to view spiritual means like prayer and preaching with suspicion.

A materialist dependence on the imminence of policy and its transformative, redemptive power thus not only limits itself to that which is politically feasible or straightforwardly drafted into law, but also constrains the moral imagination to view people only in terms of what they will or won’t support and whether they will react to particular policies in one way or another. Transformation takes place in a complex– but still controllable– environment of carrots and sticks that subsidize desirable behaviors and punish the undesirable. This is understandable, as hearts are quite often recalcitrant and tend to self-justify continued participation in oppression.

The greatest drawback of this approach is that it underestimates the creative potential of human sin to cause destruction and enmity. You may integrate schools, but people will move or co-opt the Church to resegregate. You can pass an amendment establishing birthright citizenship, but someone may get elected who will overturn the 14th Amendment. Even supposedly enlightened liberals may buck at integration when it’s their kids at stake. As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, racist systems of control become “more resilient” when just a few policies are applied without a commensurate social movement. The state can (and should) apply more power in certain areas than others to restrain human wickedness, but policy is simply too slow and too simple to match the slipperiness of human hearts. Thus, a reliance on what policy can accomplish still eats away at the margins of social improvement while the rotten core remains untouched, able to rise again and perhaps elect a madman to office who could undo anything already accomplished.

This is not to say that policy isn’t worthwhile or that the state shouldn’t apply serious force to rectify injustice. The Civil Rights Movement demonstrated that the application of the rule of law could prevent black men from getting lynched and it is wholly reasonable to conclude that a similar application could prevent black men from getting shot by cops. However, given that we are seeing quotes tossed around on Facebook from the 1960s that are just as relevant today, the spiritual realities of race and hate have not been seriously addressed for a great number of people. Thus, we should probably expect that the same expenditure of state power will be required to save a smaller number of lives.

A Christian approach to public policy understands that the state is one of many powers and principalities while it is itself subject to other powers. When Jesus is pressed for answers by Pilate, demanding that the King of the Jews give him a way out, he asserts his power: “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Christ’s reply is seemingly abstract for a man who knows he is about to be tortured: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11.) The state’s authority to effect justice is thus always subordinate to God’s authority, meaning that God’s establishment of justice is by no means wholly dependent on the state’s choice to act justly.

For individuals and groups alike, the assurance that God will accomplish his work with or without the state’s consent gives us hope because do not ever need to despair: evil will eventually be punished appropriately and victims will ultimately be vindicated no matter who gets away with wickedness here on earth. Forgiveness is possible because God has forgiven us and will make all things right. Any cop who has shot someone who did not deserve it will have to answer to God in Heaven for what they have done, even if they do not face a jury on Earth. Justice for all sins will come– whether it the individual sinner bearing his own punishment or Christ bearing it on the cross for those who trust Him.

If the poor and oppressed are more susceptible to treating religion as “the opiate of the masses”, it is because they know how terminal our social diseases are and how effective the balm of Gilead truly is. If a better law is the best we can hope for and politics is so fickle (especially when it comes to politicians who ostensibly care about poverty), then there is little hope to be had and fewer material comforts to salve the pain. Spiritual hope—the result of faith that God will bring enduring internal and external transformation—is a much thicker and more resilient reassurance. Jesus Christ is far more accessible, far more responsive, far more powerful, and far more faithful than any political power and is thus relied on far more heavily by those who don’t have material resources to deal with the crises of life.

So how would such an eschatological hope not inure us to complacency? After all, if God will just work everything out and we’re just nibbling at the margins of policies to prevent the deaths of a few hundred black men that will still die early from smoking, why try? If human sin is so ingenious as to overcome any policy meant to establish justice and justify any injustice after the fact, what can be done?

Since all things (not just state power) are subject to Christ’s lordship and the inevitable consequence of all history will end with justice for anyone to whom it has been denied, we can have a different sort of urgency. This urgency can only be felt with a transformed heart, and it is the urgency of one who has beheld the power of an omnipotent God and experienced His redemptive love. Once we have been loved and pulled out of our own wickedness by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we cannot help but see the needs of the world and be moved to act—and act in ways which address both the internal wickedness that drives sinful actions and the structural forces that perpetuate oppression. A materialist urgency demands immediate policy solutions for fear that any time lost is wasted, while spiritual urgency demands immediate proclamation of what is good and true for fear that any area of the heart not brought under subjection to God will keep us chained to sin and its powers.

The materialist hammer will swing at racist screws all day long and might be able to get a few of them to change by hitting hard enough, but a spiritual screwdriver will do the counterintuitive twisting work that actually moves people. A mind may even be changed by “the data”, but can easily renege when a more rigorous study comes out or the cost of change gets too high. Such a clockwork orange approach to dealing with sinful behaviors will require that we hammer screws harder and harder as we make more social progress. By contrast, a heart that has truly been changed will behave differently and bear whatever burden is necessary for the sake of love; “heart change” that does not precipitate immense policy changes is not really a change of heart at all. It is this sort of transformation that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to in Strength to Love when he said:

“Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed noncomformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing. And this very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress. He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility.”

The problem of human sin confronts us with the possibility that prejudice might cause people to harm others for no reason at all. The hope of Christian redemption heartens us with the possibility that people might selflessly sacrifice themselves as ambassadors of Christ working to bring about justice on Earth. As our moral imaginations are broadened to suppose that people can act beyond their own self-interests, we can stop leaning idolatrously on policy to be the ultimate arbiter of justice it was never meant to be by trusting in God’s transformative power to roll back human wickedness as only it can. At the same time, we can see the various manifestations of white supremacy as the demonic strongholds they truly are and be willing to admit the ways in which our privilege blinds us to these spiritual realities. The subsequent dismantling of such strongholds begins in our hearts and works outwardly into our homes, churches, neighborhoods, and cities as we address all the arenas in which the powers and principalities work.

The aforementioned limits of policy that get more onerous with more deeply entrenched behaviors and attitudes are in turn not cause for despair, but guideposts for where to direct our spiritual energies. If the murder rate is so stubbornly high, perhaps we should be submitting more prayers and pursuing more relationships with at-risk individuals to invite them to embrace hope over nihilism. If the drug war is such a clear root of violence but we are terrified of the possibility of ending state prohibition of drugs, perhaps we should consider giving sacrificially (and paying higher taxes) to ensure that treatment is available for everyone and grace necessary to overcome addiction is extended generously. If we know that racism and hatred lurks within various agents of the state who then translate that wickedness into brutality, perhaps we should seek to disciple those men and women into repentance. We shouldn’t give up on policy—it’s the environment that helps determine what will or won’t thrive— but we shouldn’t suppose that it can do the work that genuine heart change does.

This is not an easy task, particularly in America where the powers and principalities of racism have repeatedly co-opted churches and Christian to turn the spiritual violence of structural racism and prejudice into the physical violence of lynchings and the physical deprivation of segregation. Christians in America repeatedly live out a polemic against eschatological hope by loving safety and comfort over peace and justice, kicking against the goads of the Holy Spirit by resisting His lordship over where their children go to school or denying the Imago Dei in victims of police brutality. Still—as throughout history—the power of God is slowly working in His people to awaken a sense of justice. It happened to me—ten years ago I would affirmed most of the tenets of structural racism and today I am working to undo them on various levels. It is happening in my denomination as we wrestle with our racist origins. The truth that is perhaps more intuitive to contemporary secularists is right there in the Bible, but Christians must encounter and submit to it before they can put their cultural idols to death. Churches in America have been unequivocally responsible for perpetuating racism, but the Body of Christ still remains the most potent resource for reconciliation.

Again from Strength to Love: “If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able.” Christians do not prioritize worshiping God and asking Him to transform hearts because we wish to abandon the hard work of changing laws. Rather, we recognize that laws have limits, while prayer does not. Hearts that are changed necessarily result in lives that are changed, and lives that are changed then resonate throughout families, communities, and even the nation as we speed towards the final and definitive reckoning of God’s justice and the establishment of His peace.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at