Is the Christian view of politics libertarian or socialist? As Tony Woodlief mentioned in his column on Friday, the evangelical left has become quite concerned about the number of Christians who praise the writings of the atheist libertarian Ayn Rand: “Rand advocates a law of selfishness over love and commands her followers to think only of themselves, not others.” Politically liberal evangelical groups, like Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, argue for a more state-dependent politics based on Christ’s command to love one another and care especially for the poor.
Last week, another WORLDmag.com columnist, Alex Tokarev, who I have worked alongside for several years at The King’s College, seemed to agree with the religious left that we have a choice between collectivism and libertarian freedom. (I have never heard Alex mention Ayn Rand; Harry Potter is more his taste in literature.) But are the alternatives that simple? Is either of them genuinely Christian at all?
When God redeems and restores human beings, what does their life together look like? The church is the community of the redeemed. In Christ, God not only restores us to what we were created to be individually, but He also restores our capacity to function together as communities. Professor Tokarev, of course, is a Christian, but his politics, I dare say, is Unitarian. In a libertarian world, there are only interest-maximizing individuals. Everything else is, as Alex says, a “voluntary alliance.” There is no common good, only voluntarily recognized “common ends.”
But Trinitarian politics mirrors the Triune God of the Bible, who is one God in three Persons (see Anthony Bradley’s column from yesterday on the Trinitarian worldview). He is a true unity that preserves the genuine individuality of each person within that divine community. As we are made in God’s image, we too are created to be true individuals living together in real community. We are individually redeemed but into the body of Christ, the covenant community, the church. A soteriology without a corresponding ecclesiology is not a fully biblical gospel. And a Christian political theory that values individual liberty without giving due respect to community, something as natural and good as the people who compose it, is a merely gospel-influenced, secular ideology.
Martin Luther wryly observed that the Devil is God’s ape. His parasite kingdom does not always confront the true king in direct combat. At times he chooses fraud and imposture. So the individualism of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment can look deceivingly Christian. The original exponents of that view hoped to substitute it for the Christian view and were largely successful. Because of resemblances (e.g., autonomy vs. liberty) and what the views share in common (like limited government), many well-meaning Christians preach modern individualism like gospel.
But the tradition of Christian political thinking presents an alternative to socialism and classical liberalism. Reformed and Roman Catholic theories emphasize the importance of mediating institutions that grow out of the complex, organic fabric of corporate human life: the family, the self-government of local communities, reciprocal moral obligation that includes duties among people of different stations in life, the common good, and, of course, the church of Christ itself. People are by nature, by their choices, and, for Christians, by their new nature part of small societies that preexist the state and have their peculiar authorities independent of the state. In 1880, Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper referred to this multifaceted social structure as “sphere sovereignty.” In 1931, Pope Pius XI called it “subsidiarity.” He called individualism and collectivism “the twin rocks of shipwreck.”
When members of the evangelical left lump their counterparts on the right in with Ayn Rand and libertarians, they do injustice to the Christian character of conservative evangelical political views. This is true regardless of the affinity Christian conservatives have for their small government fellow travelers.
Unlike libertarians, conservative evangelicals defend family as a natural society, the foundation of the broader society. They understand society as moral in character with certain essential moral requirements. But unlike the collectivists, conservative evangelicals believe government should be limited because they treasure the many good things God has given individuals, families, and various other communities to do.
Evangelicals in politics need to move beyond taking stands on this and that issue to speaking up on the fundamental principles concerning human nature and our life together.