Why liberalism and conservatism are both (mostly) wrong: Politics from a Christian worldview

28 Nov 2019 Why liberalism and conservatism are both (mostly) wrong: Politics from a Christian worldview

by John Sikkema

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms acknowledges the “supremacy of God”. Many see this as an inappropriate mixing of law and religion. Is it?

What if the Charter stated instead that the individual is supreme? Or the people? Or the nation? Or the working class? Each of these would be a statement of the law’s foundational commitment, a statement of belief. We shouldn’t think that politics becomes nonreligious simply by leaving out references to God. In his new book, Christian political philosopher David Koyzis helps us understand why.

In the new edition of his book, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Political Ideologies, 2nd ed. (2019), Koyzis examines the political ideologies that shape our world, their partial grasp of truth, the redemptive narratives they tell, and their underlying religious – that is, idolatrous – commitments. These ideologies are all rooted in a religious worldview that shuts out God and claims human autonomy. Koyzis’ account of Christian politics is rooted in God’s Word and His enduring yet unfolding creation. It’s a superbly written and readable introduction to political theory for Christians.

This article is quite a bit longer than our average ARPA blog, but for good reason (I think). It’s worth sharing the wisdom of a leading Christian philosopher who taught political theory for 30 years. My hope is that this article will either (a) motivate you to read the book and help you to understand it when you do, or (b) at least give you the benefit of knowing its main ideas, which are so helpful for understanding contemporary politics Christianly. I’ve taken Koyzis’ 285 pages and given you only 10 pages here (until you get the book). Not bad, right?

What is an ideology?

Koyzis’ thesis is that political ideologies are manifestations of idolatry. “[E]very ideology is based on taking something out of creation’s totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it,” Koyzis explains. Each ideology assumes that it “has the capacity to save us from some real or perceived evil in this world.”

The ideologies that Koyzis examines flow out of the gnostic heresy that “locates the source of evil not in our rebellion against God and his world but in something structural in his creation.” Thus these ideologies see salvation as deliverance from some facet of God’s creation. Also, these ideologies deny that sovereignty belongs to God, or that God has any real relevance for politics. Rather, they believe in human autonomy, which can take various forms depending on whether the emphasis is on the autonomous individual or autonomous group.

That’s pretty abstract, so let’s look at Koyzis’ examples. He examines liberalism, conservativism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism as competing secularist political philosophies.

Liberalism: the god of self

Liberalism believes in the sovereignty of the individual. In liberal theorists’ “state of nature” myths, individual freedom characterized our original, pristine state, but people chose to grant some authority to a minimalist state to protect themselves and their property. Evil is found where an individual’s freedom is constrained without his consent. Salvation is being freed from such external restraints on freedom of choice.

Early liberalism was wary of state power as a potential threat to individual liberty and focused on protecting individual political liberties by restraining state power. Later liberalism came to see private concentrations of wealth and power as another major threat to individual liberty and came to see the state as a potential liberator, freeing people from the restraints imposed by poverty, for example. Yet to do so, a government must  expand its powers, thus becoming a greater threat to individual liberty. This is one of the tensions inherent in liberalism.

Koyzis explains that while some liberals see freedom as more of a once-for-all goal accomplished by enacting and enforcing a bill of rights, others frame the liberal story as an “endless struggle to acquire more and more freedoms from all sorts of limits, whether political, social, economic, or natural.” You might think of publicly funded “sex-change” treatment as an example of “freeing” people from natural and social limits, for example. Later liberalism won’t settle for a basic, static set of political liberties, but will continually fight “oppression” of all kinds for the sake of greater individual autonomy.

Now, Christians can celebrate the legal protection of certain individual liberties without being ideological liberals – that is, without falling into the idolatry of individual autonomy. Koyzis points out the “truth in liberalism”, namely that certain decisions ought to be left to individual consciences and not dictated by the state, or church, or others. It’s unlikely liberal ideas would have taken root in a culture not shaped by Christianity, which provides a transcendent basis for individual dignity, rights, and duties.

But liberalism is grounded in a belief in individual autonomy. It therefore has no standard for right and wrong, progress or regress, besides an ill-defined individual freedom. Freedom for what? You decide – and then, you might demand not only toleration but also support for your choices. Such demands place pressures on others. Thus liberalism’s internal tensions are manifest.

Conservativism: idolizing human traditions

Conservatism is harder to pin down as an ideology. What is labeled “conservative” varies greatly by place and time. We might think of conservatism as simply a tendency within other ideologies, to avoid rapid, disruptive, top-down change. Conservatives tend to have a “heightened awareness of the fragility of human beings to fall into evil and chaotic behaviour.”

Conservatives also tend to have greater respect for traditions, even if a tradition cannot be defended by appeals to principles like liberty or equality. Traditions arise organically and serve some needed social function. Conservatives tend to favour the traditional – tried and enduring, if imperfect – over the theoretical.

While Koyzis sees wisdom in some of conservatism’s traits, including its recognition of mankind’s flaws and limits, he believes it ultimately fails as a political philosophy. It is insufficient. “The wisdom of past generations is intermingled with a large measure of folly,” Koyzis notes. Traditions may in fact be, in large part, unwise or unjust. How will we discern what to keep and what to change? Conservatives’ resistance to change, Koyzis adds, may fail to appreciate that change is not necessarily bad. In fact, God designed His creation to be developed by us. History begins in a garden and ends in the new Jerusalem.

To develop a Christian understanding of politics, Koyzis concludes, we must look beyond our traditions. We cannot simply look back, as conservative redemptive narratives often do, to supposedly idyllic times before urbanization or technological revolution or other major, disruptive changes. Rather, we must evaluate both tradition and change according to God’s creational norms.

Conservatism in North America today may appear to better align with a Christian understanding of politics since it at least pays lip service to limited government and the importance of strong families and other non-state institutions. But, Koyzis says, “there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it.” It has no coherent view of the proper place of politics in God’s creation. There are good things to conserve, but Christians must not settle for conservatism.

Nationalism: the nation is a jealous god

Nationalism’s “edge” over liberalism is that it takes community seriously, recognizing that people seek identity in community. Nationalism takes people’s desire for a sense of community and belonging and makes the state its focal point. Like conservatism, nationalism differs greatly from one place to the next. Nazi Germany’s nationalism was ethnic, glorifying the German volk and seeking to unify Germanic peoples under one state, while denigrating other ethnic groups. American nationalism is connected with “American values” like liberty and equality, and the American nation is defined by citizenship rather than ethnicity. Quebec nationalism emphasizes a shared language. And so on.

Nationalist redemptive narratives vary, but generally share the following outline. The nation (however defined) has long existed – perhaps supernaturally established – and has been given a special historical mission. But at some point the nation strays from its journey to greatness, falling under the control of outsiders. Salvation comes when outside control is cast off.

While there are good reasons for a “nation” – defined by common language, culture, and traditions – to be self-governing, nationalism errs by denying or ignoring the problem of evil within the nation and its people. Newly formed nations often discover that leaders who share their ethnicity, language, culture, and beliefs can be shockingly corrupt and brutal, even as cults form around them, glorifying them for their role in delivering the nation from oppression.

Oaths of loyalty, national holidays, statues, memorials, parades, museums and more may manifest nationalism, supplying its cultic spaces and liturgies. But the key thing about nationalism is that it demands a loyalty that ultimately supersedes and crowds out other loyalties, such as to church or family. The nation is sovereign, therefore everything must be subordinate to it. Where church creeds clash with national values, for example, the former must yield. Whereas Christian political theory accords the state a limited purpose and powers, “nationalism sees the state as the instrument of the nation’s aspirations and the expression of its will.” But the state itself also becomes an instrument for solidifying the national identity, especially “through the use of communications media and through its educational monopoly.”

Certainly, a sense of solidarity based on shared traditions and culture is not wrong. It is good and right to commit to and love one’s political community – what we might call patriotic loyalty. This, Koyzis says, is the “grain of truth” in nationalism. But such loyalty and affection must have limits. It must not swallow other legitimate loyalties. Nationalism fails by not respecting other communities with different structures and overlapping claims on people’s loyalties. It is idolatrous in that it vests the nation with spiritual ultimacy and sees it as the source of meaning and identity.

Democratism: the people’s will is sovereign

As a political structure, democracy allows citizens to participate in governance, mainly by voting for who will govern. Koyzis sees democracy-as-structure as a genuine advance. The body politic is by its nature not a private concern – it is a community of citizens and their government called by God to do public justice. So, it seems appropriate that citizens should exercise responsibility within and over that community. Another advantage of democracy is that making rulers answer to the people they rule can act as a check their power. Still, as Koyzis points out, many have feared democracy as a recipe for mob rule. Political philosophers from Aristotle to Alexander Hamilton have favoured a mixed constitution for this reason.

Democracy as ideology, or “democratism”, professes “vox populi, vox Dei” (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Like nationalism, it proclaims the sovereignty of the people. But whereas nationalists focus more on likeness between rulers and ruled (language, culture, ethnicity), ideological democrats focus more on shared will. Thus, evil is associated less with being ruled by people unlike you than with “being ruled by someone else, period.”

Democratism says government is based wholly on the “general will” of the sovereign people. Individuals, supposedly by choice, “give up their entire selves” to the body politic. The general will thus has no limits imposed on it, including individual rights – whatever rights you enjoy or lack are simply a product of the social contract or general will. It’s not that democratist theorists, Rousseau chief among them, wished to establish totalitarian governments. Rather, Koyzis says, they are “almost naively trusting” of the people and did not see the need to limit the legislative power of those claiming to speak in their behalf. Thus democratism, though it has theoretical roots in liberalism, is in tension with it.

Ideological democrats tend to see “more democracy” as a panacea, wishing to extend the democratic principle not only throughout the entire political system (think of Americans electing judges and prosecutors, for example) but also into other spheres – business, education, churches, etc. – making democracy a “way of life” and not merely a form of government. Christians should understand why that is misguided. Even the most congregational of churches, for example, should know that “ultimate authority for faith and practice does not issue from the will of parishioners … but from the word of God.”

Koyzis believes there are more or less Christian ways of doing democratic government. Koyzis favours representative democracy over direct democracy, for example. He also endorses Kuyper’s concept of the elected representative as a “bearer of principle” – someone who is open about and willing to defend and act in accordance with his political principles that motivate him – rather than a mere delegate who does his constituents’ bidding.

Finally, while democratic participation greatly enhances the making of just laws, Christians need to understand that popular approval is not, per se, the source of civil authority or law. Democracy does not equal justice. Justice is a creational, God-given norm, which Koyzis examines more closely in his final chapters.

Socialism: salvation via common ownership

In socialism’s redemptive narrative, people long ago shared the goods of the earth communally. But as communities settled down in one place, land came to be divided into privately owned parcels. Once this happens, and people can accumulate property, original equality breaks down into competition, monopolization, and exclusion. So, socialists wish to return to a society in which everyone equally possesses the earth’s goods. Their means of achieving this is through communal ownership of property. Political socialists try to achieve this by gaining control of government and using the state’s power to compel citizens to pool their resources. Socialists believe this is for the good of the whole community.

Since society has been so shaped by the capitalist spirit, socialists tend to believe that basic structures of society, including marriage, family, and church, must be overturned. For example, family loyalties make people want to take care of family first, neglecting the community, and to accumulate wealth to pass on to their children. Religion, in Marx’s view, was simply the “opiate of the people” designed to keep them from realizing the injustice and oppression of economic disparity. Both family loyalties and religion get in the way of a socialist future.

What if socialism is not working out well and most people wish to retreat from it? Socialists may be unwilling to tolerate retreat. Once the revolution has begun, even if the transition is painful, it must be completed. Herein lies socialism’s anti-democratic tendency. Socialists must retain power to achieve their goal, to complete their redemptive narrative, even by illiberal and undemocratic means. Thus socialism, despite its roots in democratism, is discordant with it – just as democratism is discordant with liberalism. Yet, Koyzis emphasizes, these ideologies are siblings, offspring of a shared faith in human sovereignty.

Despite the collapse of many socialist states, socialism as a worldview has enduring power. Radical feminism, for example, takes up the paradigm of oppressor and oppressed, and laments the (sexual) division of labour. Late liberalism reflects the influence of socialist thought. Social or cultural Marxism divides humanity into oppressors and oppressed in various ways. Tragically, these ideologies’ solution is to extinguish genuine diversity by suppressing ordinary human communities – like churches, religious charities, or independent schools – or pressuring them to comply with their worldview. They cover up this totalitarian tendency by pushing “a managed and false diversity based on race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.”

Nonetheless, even socialism has an element of truth. There is good to be found in seeking a fairer economic arrangement, Koyzis says, and you don’t have to be a socialist to recognize the problem of highly concentrated ownership of property. Further, people need “a certain minimum claim to the fruits of God’s creation” if they are to fulfill their calling as spouses, parents, workers, church members, and so on. Where they cannot obtain that, Koyzis says it is right to speak of injustice. Also, we ought to recognize that there are appropriate forms of collective ownership. Think of your church or school – who owns it? Various societal institutions should exercise ownership (or stewardship) “in a way appropriate to its specific institutional task.” The state, too, should exercise care for things held in common by the body politic. Koyzis also believes the state has a legitimate, but limited, redistributive role. Socialism errs, however, by trying to dissolve ownership into a single, central, collective form.

Misguided “Christian” approaches to politics and political ideologies

Koyzis notes three kinds of mistaken approaches Christians often take toward politics. First, “many Christians fail to acknowledge that their faith has anything to say to these ideologies.” For them, politics is secular and Christianity “does not address politics as politics and has few implications for public policy,” though it may be relevant in that it makes people more virtuous. We might call this the dualist or secularist view. Second is the “antithetical approach” or separatist view. It emphasizes the separation of the church from the world and disparages politics as worldly. It teaches that Christians should not try to be the state’s ethicists, but should focus on building up the church, which will endure forever.

Koyzis rejects both approaches. The former fails to grasp the all-encompassing claims of Christ. The latter neglects the state as a political community called by God to do public justice. While the institutional church has the divinely appointed tasks of gathering believers for worship and sacraments, preaching the gospel, and maintaining discipline, the church as organism is the body of Christ manifested in every field of human endeavour. Koyzis says the second approach (and the first, I would add) risks conceding much of reality to the kingdom of darkness.

The third mistaken approach is to fuse Christianity with belief in one or more ideology. Koyzis points to the “Christian national” movement of Afrikaner Christians in South Africa and to the rise of self-described “Christian socialists” in many places, among other examples. Christians wed themselves to one political ideology or another, Koyzis contends, when they fail to perceive them as intrinsically religious (and idolatrous) and instead see them as mere alternative means to attain goals like greater wealth or greater protection of rights.

Making an idol of one aspect of God’s creation, like individuality, community, nation, tradition, or economics, brings negative consequences. In North America, for example, we see the idolatry of individual autonomy destroy marriages, families, and communities. As Christians, we need to appreciate the importance and proper place of all these aspects, without idolizing any. But how do we do that?

From Christian worldview to Christian politics

Our political philosophy must be founded upon a Christian worldview. God is sovereign. He created all things good. He made us in His image and gave us the “cultural mandate” – to cultivate or develop the world He gave. Politics, like agriculture, architecture, industry, art, and so on, is part of creation. Even without the fall, human beings would need to develop rules for common action and systems for serving the common good. Romans 13 says God appoints rulers to punish evil – which is needed because of the fall – but also as servants for good. Of course, we are fallen, meaning our art, agriculture, music, scientific pursuits, and our politics are fallen too. But just as creation and fall are cosmic in scope, so is redemption. “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay,” Paul writes.

Understanding God’s creation as a “normative order”, Koyzis says, is foundational for understanding how we are to live in God’s world, including with respect to politics. Here, Koyzis notes the objection of the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder that, because of sin, we cannot know what God’s creation order is. Koyzis cites in reply Al Wolters’ statement that the “fundamental knowability of the creation order is the basis of all human understanding, both in science and everyday life.” Not only can we discern truths of mathematics or biology through God’s general revelation, but also truths of logic, justice, and ethics.

Some have responded to two kingdoms theology – which makes the Bible the book of the church and “natural law” the common moral language of believers and nonbelievers alike – by denying that we can reach any meaningful agreement on justice or ethics with those who reject the Bible. Koyzis is critical of two kingdoms theology too, but avoids this track. Indeed, if there really were no point of contact with unbelievers, it might seem to render futile the work of ARPA and other organizations to promote conformity to God’s norms, unless and until many more politicians accept Scripture as authoritative (and politically relevant).

Still, we must be cautious, Koyzis says, because “sin may prevent us from seeing these norms.” “This is where Scripture, coupled with a generous measure of spiritual discernment, plays a crucial role.” Because of sin, you and I need a divinely inspired “lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Calvin said the Bible gives us spectacles to see the world more clearly. The Belgic Confession speaks of the creation order and the Bible as “two books” that reinforce and are continuous with each other. God’s Word enables us to perceive the partial truths embedded in ideologies, but also to identify what they neglect, warn of their dangers, and point to a better way for politics. That better way is what Koyzis calls pluralism.

Creational diversity and Christian pluralism

By “pluralism” Koyzis does not mean moral relativism. Far from it. Rather, he means that Christians should affirm “social pluriformity” or “structural diversity”. That is, we reject attempts to locate an earthly sovereign with final authority in all walks of life. God alone remains sovereign over all individuals, communities, and nations. “God is one, but his works are manifold.” We, God’s special creations, are culture-forming beings. We marry, raise children, work, play, study, visit museums, watch performances, participate in worship services, join clubs, support charities, vote in elections, and so on. We readily distinguish between marriages and country clubs, families and phone companies, fathers and CEOs. It should be obvious that these differences are important, but the ideologies obscure them as they idolize some form of human sovereignty and seek to shape society after it.

Koyzis gives a few historical highlights in the development of Christian political thought, but gives special attention to Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. Two key ideas of Kuyper (though not entirely original to him) are the antithesis and common grace. The antithesis refers to the fundamental and unresolvable opposition between the Christian worldview and other worldviews. Common grace means God “preserves his creation against the full consequences of sin even amid human unbelief.” The fact that God’s creation order remains means that when people stray, they bring suffering upon themselves, which can serve as a limit to how far they stray. Unbelievers are capable of perceiving injustice and reacting. Kuyper could appreciate the good even in the humanistic revolutions he fundamentally opposed.

A third key idea of Kuyper’s was the doctrine of sphere sovereignty (Koyzis notes that this idea too is not entirely original to Kuyper or even to Calvinism). This doctrine teaches that (1) ultimate sovereignty is God’s alone, (2) all earthly sovereignties are subject to God, and (3) there is no penultimate locus of sovereignty in this world from which others derive. The latter point means that the state is not above the church, or vice versa. Society is non-hierarchical. The state does not bestow authority on the family, business, school, or political party to exist and fulfil its function. None of them bestow such authority on the others. Rather, God bestows it according to His creational design.

Government’s God-appointed task

“God has ordained an institution with a unique task: to do justice to the diversity of individuals and communities in his world,” Koyzis writes. This has been called government’s “jural task”. But what is justice? For many people, justice is some kind of distant goal. The “just society” is akin to utopia. It might be a society in which all wealth is equally shared, or one where everyone is free to “be who they are” sexually without stigma or consequence (my examples, not Koyzis’). But Koyzis notes that the classic definition of justice is “to render to each person her due,” which requires taking action. The Hebrew word mishpat, often translated “justice”, “consists not so much of an accomplished state of affairs as of an act of judgment.”

Justice is “giving something its right, its created place in God’s world,” as Paul Marshall put it. “In a healthy society,” Koyzis explains, “the various spheres of human activity develop in balanced, proportionate fashion.” Nationalism, socialism, and democratism drive the state to do too much. Liberalism may make the state do too little, particularly in terms of restraining evil. Ironically, this can lead to demands for government to do more to support people who are no longer integrated in healthy families and communities. Each ideology tends to monopolize education as well, to indoctrinate the next generation in its beliefs.

No state is ever entirely without justice, Koyzis says, though states may carry out justice in a distorted fashion. Certainly, questions of justice are not absent from families, schools, etc., but justice is the defining aspect of the state and its jural task captures all individuals, churches, schools, and businesses within its jurisdiction. That does not mean that the state tells families how to behave as families or churches as churches. But the state would rightly protect parents against having their children taken away by a church, or protect a church against being defrauded by a minister, or ensure that a family or household pays their taxes. The state should protect the differentiated responsibilities of the various spheres, including individuals.

But how are we to prevent this refereeing role from degenerating into totalitarianism? Or, as the ancient question goes, “Who will guard the guardians?” A Reformed approach, Koyzis says, posits both internal and external checks. Internal checks are those built into government itself, such as separation of powers, democratic checks, divided jurisdictions, federalism, and so on. External limits are even more various. Individuals, families, churches, and businesses are also called upon to act justly, and by doing so they can help to keep government power limited. Christians also have a prophetic role, to call on government to do justice in its sphere. Christians might even start a political party, “or they might establish a nonpartisan political action organization more modestly aiming to influence office holders.” And that, of course, is why ARPA exists.

Get the book!

Koyzis leaves myriad details to be worked out, of course. The book is not a collection of Christian policy proposals, but a starting point for thinking Christianly about politics. I hope I’ve given you a good sense of its main ideas. Still, it’s worth picking up for yourself. If you’ve got questions based on this summary, there’s a good chance the book will answer them. It will introduce you to important thinkers, both secular and Christian. You’ll learn some history. And you’ll gain new insights into current politics. Reading the news won’t be the same after.

The book is available for order from Christian publisher InterVarsity Press and from Amazon.

BONUS: Just one more thing. Koyzis’ book includes an “Ecclesiological Postscript” that discusses how the institutional church (as opposed to the “church as organism”) should address political matters. I won’t summarize it here, but please check it out.


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