Christians should be politically conservative and left-wing Christians have taken their eyes off the ball, argues Gavin Rice.
The first reality of human political life that Christians ought to recognise is our deeply flawed and fallen nature. St Augustine, Doctor of the Western Church, formalised Christian teaching on this. We not only commit personal sins through choice, we also suffer from an innate sinful inclination – Original Sin.
This does not simply mean the “first sin”, but rather a disposition that’s in our origins and in our nature. So we must be sceptical about any humans’ inherent trustworthiness, goodness and benevolence, particularly when given the temptation of exercising power over others. This is not bleakness, but realism.
Political structures ought to recognise the power of our fallen nature and the potential destruction it can wreak on the powerless. In his City of God, Augustine distinguishes between the City of God and the Earthly City; Christians should not be utopians and should not imagine that they can establish a perfect society here on earth. This isn’t a cop-out: we must balance our desire to improve the lives of the poor with a clear sense that it won’t be possibly completely to eliminate suffering in this life. Rather, we must make room in which the Church can flourish.
Non-Christians too can perceive the fundamental truth of the notion of a fallen nature, even if they take the theological account as more of a metaphor for human weakness: consider how Lord Acton’s proverb that absolute power corrupts absolutely has entered common parlance. Because of our tendency to coerce, to exercise power and oppress others (the “libido dominandi”, or “lust to dominate”), constitutional government is absolutely vital.
Catholics in particular have been a little slow to recognise the need for constitutionalism, mostly because Catholics have been in power in the majority of European states for much of the continent’s history. There is no need for personal liberty, freedom of conscience and the rule of law when you are running the show.
But this is short-sighted. All it takes is for someone hostile to the Faith to take hold of the reins of power, and suddenly Catholics can find themselves persecuted, as happened in England, in Scandinavia, in the Netherlands and in Revolutionary France. The problem is not merely vicious governments implementing bad policies. It’s the political power to which those forces had access one they had taken power, because of the absence of any genuine checks and limitations on government.
Christians must, given their recognition of our sinful nature, and the sad reality of human history, be concerned not only with achieving desired political ends; we must also make sure that we don’t establish unjust or coercive processes. It is very tempting to expand executive power and the scope of government when you are in the driver’s seat, but we must be disciplined in taking the long view and considering what would happen if nefarious individuals gained access to those powers. We must establish all political and constitutional arrangements based on the assumption that the worst people have got hold of them. This takes restraint and foresight, as well as a sense that not expanding the government in order to solve a problem may in fact be the lesser of two evils.
The Anglo-American school of conservatism has been remarkably more successful than European reactionary movements in establishing stability, freedom and justice. More authoritarian Catholics are suspicious of it because if its dependency on Enlightenment (and arguably Protestant) principles such as the separation of Church and state. This separation has in fact existed since medieval times, however. Even then, a formal distinction between lay and secular was established – not to protect the state from religious influence, but to protect the liberty and integrity of the Church from government.
The reality is that property rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech and of religion all create a climate in which it’s possible for Christians to flourish regardless of whether or not they are in power at the time. With clear limitations on what government can and cannot do, the individual exercise of religion can be protected.
Christ himself explicitly rejected political aspirations (“My Kingdom is not of this world”), and clearly supports a division of competence between the realm of secular power and the realm of faith and conscience when he declares “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s”). Christ is not a political revolutionary seeking to overthrow the Roman state; neither is he advocating a particular set of political and legal arrangements. The Christian faith is not tied to the state in the way that ancient Judaism most certainly was.
Therefore, Christian theology that seeks political revolution or agitation against existing political structures simply on the ground of, say, economic inequality, is fairly questionable – unless that status quo inhibits the ability of individuals to live freely, to protect and provide for their families, and to worship God in their own way. For the same reasons we must not confuse morality with economic policy. Just because certain actions are good, it does not follow that those actions must or indeed should be carried out by the state. Christian morality and charity thrive at the level of families, churches, voluntary organisations, local sports teams, youth groups, soup kitchens, charitable fundraising projects, schools, clubs, and all the other “little platoons”, as Edmund Burke called them.
That is where we can live out our lives morally and establish moral relationships. When the state monopolises all aspects of life we are not only deprived of the opportunity to be good based on our own initiative. We are actually encouraged to become resentful (of high income taxes, or of the state spending our money on dubious projects), and less likely to give generously to genuinely charitable causes, whether locally or nationally – and we have less money left with which to do this!
For a long time it has been assumed that limited government is either a uniquely Protestant, horribly secular, or possibly even fundamentally selfish notion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human history is littered with the casualties caused by too much power being concentrated in the hands of those who are unaccountable and who have the desire to dominate others.
Conservatives are sometimes portrayed as callous or uncaring by their left-wing opponents for no greater reason than a fundamental disagreement about how much power the state ought to have. Simply because something isn’t necessarily true does not mean it’s necessarily not true, and the fact that sometimes the state can achieve good outcomes does not mean that all or indeed most of its activities should be thought of as benign. Power once granted is rarely given back, and the more liberty we can preserve for individuals and families, the better.
Gavin Rice teaches Philosophy & Theology at a leading British independent school and read Theology at the University of Cambridge.
The masthead features part of “Saint Augustine writing”, an illumination from Augustine’s City of God, 1459.