Christian theology and what to do with politics
Released by IPR and forthcoming in their journal (if not in newspapers as well)...
For Christians approaching the difficult decisions of this election year, it is important to keep four concepts in balance: 1) God’s good Creation; 2) the "Fall of man"; 3) the potential for partial, earthly Redemption; and 4) an eager hope for full, heavenly Restoration.
Even outside of Christianity, one still sees at least the first three elements in play: In every aspect of life everyone has an ideal in mind, a sense in which the ideal is not met and some desire to pursue improvement.
A failure to keep these concepts in balance can lead to trouble. For example, if I acknowledge a good Creation but underestimate the Fall, I won't see enough need for Redemption or ultimate Restoration. I’m likely to settle for poor results while imagining that the results are already ideal. To the extent that I address the deficiency, I’m likely to have naive expectations and be disappointed with the outcome, despite my good intentions.
If I imagine a good Creation and see the impact of the Fall but have no passion for Redemption, I will settle into apathy or a lack of compassion for others. If I over emphasize the Fall, I'll settle into cynicism. If I exaggerate Redemption over the Fall and ultimate Restoration, I will imagine that too much depends on my efforts and end up in self-righteousness or burned out. If I focus mostly on Restoration, I'll tend to isolate myself from difficult people and social problems, waiting for all things to be made right in the next life. And so on.
The realm of politics allows fruitful application to the same principles. From the "Creation Mandate" in Genesis 1:26-28 we know that politics were part of God’s good Creation. Adam and Eve are told to exert dominion, to be fruitful and to multiply, all of which require governance and politics. Since government is pre-Fall, it follows that government and politics are not inherently evil.
But with the Fall, all sorts of things go wrong. From Christian theology, all are separated from a holy God by our sin. We're separated from each other by our selfishness and our fears. Genesis 3 describes many types of damage that resulted from the Fall — psychological, sociological, environmental and economic problems — as well as spiritual distance from God and physical death.
In terms of politics this means that our problems are greater and more complicated, our individual capacity to address them is compromised and our capacity to work effectively with others is greatly reduced. As a result, simple solutions are likely to be simplistic. Politics is likely to attract those who wield power in a self-serving manner. Those who enter the political realm are prone to various temptations. And groups of people will find it quite difficult to reach effective solutions.
In “A Conflict of Visions,” Thomas Sowell describes “unconstrained vision” and “constrained vision.” On the one hand, unconstraineds tend to assume away character flaws in those implementing policy and those being impacted by policy. Unconstraineds see social problems as puzzles to be solved, rather than mysteries to be addressed. Unconstraineds tend to focus on benefits, while downplaying or ignoring costs and constraints.
Constraineds can get stuck on the importance of constraints, resulting in cynicism, over-analysis and policy paralysis. Relating this to the terms I’ve used here, the constrained vision can put too much emphasis on the Fall but the unconstrained vision puts little or no emphasis on the Fall, resulting in a flawed worldview and poor policy outcomes.
Particularly with this year’s presidential race, many people have been sorely tempted to overlook profound character flaws on one hand and to applaud wishful but ineffective policy proposals on the other. Still others have responded by burying their heads in the sand or wallowing in cynicism. And yet, as in other challenging areas of life, we're still called to work toward Redemption — sometimes through politics — to try to improve life for those around us, particularly the vulnerable.
All will be resolved in the end. But in the meantime, we're supposed to address the roots of problems, not merely the fruits. We're called to meet physical, intellectual and spiritual needs — ministering to the entire human person. We should address long-term goals, not just short-term objectives. We should recognize our limits and constraints, aiming for improvement, not utopia.
To what extent is more government activism an ethical and practical means to reasonable ends? As it turns out, not often. But that's another discussion for a different day.