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Christianity and politics

Thoughts on politics and Christian orthodoxy:

Political modernism is the attempt to establish a wholly rational and this-worldly social order. The world is to be re-created and redeemed through man’s will. Political modernism thus substitutes faith in man for faith in God. As such, it is a denial of the nature of God, man, and the world. Its natural consequences are anarchy, tyranny, or both.

Political conservatism is the rejection of political modernism, of the possibility of a self-contained and wholly rational social order. It therefore means acceptance of the complexity and necessary imperfection of all social arrangements. In opposition to the mechanizing tendencies of modernism it makes it possible to recognize the irreducible freedom and responsibility of the human soul, and therefore not only the unavoidable reality of evil but also the possibilities of hope and action.

Collective man cannot control the world because individual men make choices. Moral evil exists because every man is free to err and so do serious injury to himself and others. Without that freedom men would lose their dignity, and since it’s a real freedom it is sometimes acted on. Christian orthodoxy is concerned with the consequences of that situation. The point of the Crucifixion—God abandoned, humiliated and tortured to death—is that evil cannot be managed and made innocuous, as it could if it were a matter of social structure. Basic Christian doctrine thus implies severe limits to the possibilities of social reform.

However, such limits are needed to protect the integrity of individuals and institutions. Christian orthodoxy accepts that the individuals and to some extent institutions that make up society, by reason of their relationship to an order of things transcending human purposes, have an integrity that cannot be violated for the sake of this-worldly goals. As a result, it rejects the collectivism that abolishes the distinctiveness of the individual and of the particular institutions and relationships that help define and support him.

Christian orthodoxy therefore makes room for seeming contradictories: universal principles, the irreducibly individual soul, and ordered diversity—hierarchy, distinct roles for men and women, ethnic and cultural particularity, and civic and occupational groupings. What allows all these things to combine is the principle of “subsidiarity”—genuine particularity within unity—which is fundamental to orthodox Christian social thought.

That thought begins with individual morality. Individual man transcends any worldly order and so must be considered first. Nonetheless, individual man is always this particular man in this setting with these connections. Orthodoxy therefore takes personal morality, especially the morals relating to our closest connections to others, quite seriously. Its concern with family and sexual life has nothing narrow or obsessive about it but is a direct consequence of the primacy of the particular person, and therefore of the habits and attachments that make him what he is. Chastity, for example, is a statement of the sacredness of the human body and intimate human ties, monogamy of the value of the particular person. A morality that slights such things, that does not interpret them to us, would be inadequate and inhumane.

What we are depends not only on family connections but also on our connections to broader groups with whom we share the habits and attitudes that form culture. Culture is learned from the family and the family is molded by culture, so the two cannot be separated altogether. Nonetheless, there is a difference in emphasis: family is more a matter of nature, culture of history. The significance of culture, and of the ethnic, class and regional groupings to which it is tied, is therefore more conditional than that of family. Nonetheless, culture and ethnicity are also part of what we are and so should be respected, as should civic, occupational, avocational and other groupings.

Man realizes his social and moral nature through the participation of each man in governance as ruler and ruled. Man would lack dignity if he could not affect others as well as himself, and he would become self-centered if he did not take direction from others. The effect of subsidiarity is that each man rules and is ruled in turn, through his personal moral life and through participation in the groupings of which he is a member. Even the most prominent man must often submit to moral rules and the will of his fellows, and even the most subordinate is responsible for himself and must sometimes be responsible for others.

Christian orthodoxy thus rejects the comprehensive system of compulsion demanded by modern systems of reform in favor of a complex mixed system that cannot be wholly controlled by anyone. That is in accordance with its nature: Christ does not influence politics through administrative schemes but by making his followers the salt of the earth.

A note on discrimination:

The social complexity native to Christianity means differentiation and thus inequality. Christian orthodoxy therefore accepts forms of discrimination that political modernism condemns. Women priests are an obvious current example. The modern mind believes that discrimination is always wrong because to categorize and so limit the individual violates his right of self-determination. Political modernism demands that man define and so control the significance of all things. That demand is basic, for example, to the current understanding of sex and gender, which treats customary roles and stereotypes as unjust and oppressive and demands their abolition.

From the orthodox Christian point of view, however, what is most important is not the equal application of universal rules to individuals, but the participation of particular individuals in things that transcend them. Since the type and degree of participation differs from individual to individual, we differ in important ways, and simple-minded opposition to discrimination is out of place. That opposition rests in the end on the right of self-definition, which Christian orthodoxy rejects because it deprives the world of intrinsic meaning. Christianity tells us that God made the world and called it good, and that he means something by his actions in it. It follows that man cannot rightfully impose his own interpretation on the world, but must accept things and their significance as God made them.

In the Incarnation God has revealed himself as a specific historical person whom we follow not by abolishing our nature and particularity but by transfiguring them. The things that touch us most deeply—our humanity, but also sex, family relationships, culture, and the other connections that define who we are—are to be transformed and not abolished. The hierarchical family remains the hierarchical family, for example, but it takes on a new meaning. The social world thus remains related to us, since it continues to be ordered by the qualities that make us what we are, but it also becomes more related to God. The consequence is a truly human world totally different from the featureless desert modernity imposes in the name of equality.

A note on the poor:

It is a good thing remember the poor. However, respect for them requires rejection of the view that sin is basically social and that poverty and oppression can be abolished in some comprehensive way. The temptation of Christ is enough to demonstrate that the point of Christianity is not the solution of political and economic problems.

To emphasize sinful social arrangements at the expense of individual sin is to say that at bottom it is others who make man what he is, and so to make each of us the creature of those in power. The result is to diminish the poor themselves. How does it help them to be told that the truly human life is one of secure comfort? What they most need is God’s presence; by comparison social reform is a promise from their social betters of pie in the sky.