“The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.”–Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”

“But what is a practical joke in a world of nonsense, what is a rational attitude? Towards politics in a world of ciphers…?”–Louis MacNeice, “The Blasphemies”

We are not born civilized.

We acquire civility, if at all, only later. The truest and best way to acquire civility is under the guidance of a wise moral order, and under the nurture of a well-functioning traditional family. While other paths to civility are possible and sometimes work, the happy combination of family and wise moral authority is the most dependable way to gain access to the hard-won wisdom of our ancestors, wisdom gained slowly and painfully over the centuries in the crucible of real life and in the light of revelation.

In other words, because we human beings are not born civilized, we are always only one generation from barbarism. We must domesticate each new generation, just as we were domesticated in our turn. To convert natural brutes into civilized persons requires nothing less than the wisdom of God. Barbarism is not behind us; it is within us, and it is persistent. Our demons die hard, if at all. If they are to die, God must kill them. Government cannot. The deepest and most profound human ills have no political solution. To think and act as if they do is foolish. How much time, effort, and treasure we have wasted trying to do by means of government what can never be done is far, quite far, beyond calculation.

Faced with the perennial challenge of civilizing the next generation, and fully aware that in order to civilize it we must begin with God, we Christian conservatives turn first to revelation, to the works and words of God Himself, works and words graciously bestowed upon this fallen and twisted world, a world utterly lost and never to be found without them. Thus, while Christian conservatives might value the good, the true, and the beautiful, they know that without God we can never find them or preserve them. Indeed, without God we could not even convincingly define them. While Christian conservatives set about conserving things like justice, the traditional family, and even civilization itself–things always at risk and under siege–they know that the best defense of them is the revelation of God, by which, and only by which, can things be seen and done aright. I am not saying that we cannot begin without God. I am saying that we cannot begin well without God.

Sound political theology is the means by which we can identify the insights of revelation and apply them prudently to the political order. Sound political theology is the wisdom and moral imagination that springs from revelation properly understood and wisely applied. Sound political theology is the theologically and historically informed prudence necessary to preserve the best of the past for ourselves and for our posterity in light of what God has done and said. Sadly, even tragically, political theology of this high order is as rare as it is necessary.

The arena of God’s revelation is history, and the explanation of that history is Scripture. God has acted and spoken in space and time. Christianity is historically and textually rooted, which means that a Christian understanding of politics must be built upon God’s historical and verbal revelation, on the one hand, and then applied to concrete historical situations and conditions, on the other. In other words, revelation comes from the same historical context to which it applies. It fits; it is suitable to its task. We reason on the basis of revelation and of careful observation of current historical conditions–conditions that are the context, or object, or arena, of our policy proposals. Political prudence is rooted both in revelation and in the history to which revelation applies. Specifically, we see first what God says and requires of us and of government; we consult policies and their consequences from the past in order to see what proposals have worked and what proposals have not; and we assess carefully the multitudinous details of the challenge that faces us at the moment.

Facts matter. Until we know all the relevant facts, both revelatory and historical, we cannot propose a prudent prescription for what ails us. Revelation and observation must precede solution. We begin with the real world outside our heads, and we adjust our thoughts to it. We do not start with abstractions and speculations inside our heads and then try to adjust the world to them. The world is not pliable in that way. In short, good policy does not arise from abstract principle or from metaphysical speculation. Reality is resilient, and because it is, the world simply cannot be remade at will to fit the abstract paradigms inside our heads, typically “freedom” for libertarians and “equality” for liberals. In other words, if “objective” means that the object in view controls our thoughts about it, and if “subjective” means that we thinking subjects ourselves control our thoughts about it, then political prudence is objective. We start from the revelatory and historical reality outside our heads and adjust the ideas inside our heads carefully to it. We study both the content of revelation and the world as it really is. We begin there. We do not begin with abstract principles and seek to impose them upon the world, even abstractions as honorable or desirable as “liberty”, “equality,” and “fraternity.”

For example, however much we might be drawn to them, we do not begin with abstractions like equality or freedom and then try to impose them upon the world. The reason is simple: As Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick observed, equality is easy to conceive but impossible to realize. Human beings are, with regard to their objective characteristics, utterly unique. No two of us are alike. We differ physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. We have different desires, resources, and intentions. Some persons are beautiful; others are not. Some are brilliant; others are not. Some are resolute and purposeful; others are not. Some are born to wealth and privilege; others are not. Some are slaves to destructive habits; others are not. Some are athletic, successful and popular; others are not. We come from different countries, cultures and generations. We have different experiences; we speak different languages; we pursuit different ends. Indeed, it is remarkably difficult to identify even one way in which we all are alike, or all are equal. Even if we say we all are sinners, we cannot say we all are equally evil or equally good. While Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler both were sinners, they were not morally or spiritually equal. Though neither was pure, it is patently obvious that to devote oneself to lifting the poorest and most abjectly destitute persons out of despair by the love of Christ is a world away from gassing millions of Jews. Even if we say that we all are equally God’s creatures, equal is not how He made us. God made a hierarchical, not egalitarian, universe.

Authentic equality in any measure that is not trivial, tautological or irrelevant remains resolutely evasive. Any political plan, therefore, that begins with equality as a fundamental premise, or that seeks to make all persons equal, must be tyrannical. What God has made so impressively different and unequal, government cannot succeed in making equal. If it seriously attempts to do so, it must ruthlessly suppress human nature and radically curtail liberty. If you leave human brings alone, their natural differences inescapably emerge. Equality requires tyranny.

Even if we say that we all ought to be equal before the law, our purpose is still not quite right. I don’t want equality from the law; I want justice. “Justice” means getting what you deserve. “Equality” means getting what your neighbor gets, regardless of what you or your neighbor deserve. I want equality from the law only in situations where justice equals equality. Those situations are exceedingly rare.

Alternatively, if one selects the principle of freedom as the point of political departure rather than equality, then a different set of obstacles and difficulties arise, the first of which is conceptual: Freedom is an incomplete concept. When someone insists upon freedom, the only prudent response is to ask, “Freedom–to do what?” Only the answer to that intentionally specific question can tell you whether or not the freedom sought is good or evil and deserves to be endorsed. Like the persons who pursue them, not all freedoms are created equal. Some freedoms are wonderfully appropriate to the human situation, like the freedom to pursue education, prosperity, or happiness. Other alleged freedoms are colossally evil, like the supposed freedom to abort one’s children. In other words, freedom in the abstract cannot be endorsed. Endorsable freedom requires precise definition and careful application. Unspecified, or abstract, freedom cannot be our generalized answer to the challenges of fallen human nature because inside unspecified freedom lurks the awful human capacity to do colossal evil. Despite that natural human capacity, there is no right to do wrong, and we are not free to do it. We are able to do evil; we are not free to do evil. Ability is not the proper measure of freedom. Our abilities and our capacities are not the same as our rights. Simply to be for freedom is to be a careless political thinker.

As hinted at above, the simultaneous pursuit of freedom and equality proves antithetical. You cannot maximize both at once. They are a tradeoff. The more free we are, the less equal we are. The more equal we are, the less free we are. Prudent government, which is based upon a sound knowledge of human nature–knowledge rooted in revelation–teaches us best just how that tradeoff needs to be constructed and pursued.

By way of comparison, unlike equality and freedom, justice is not an impracticable metaphysical abstraction. Justice is getting what you deserve. The pursuit and preservation of justice maintains the order of soul and of society necessary for human flourishing. To the requirements of justice, we all are born subject. No contrivance, political or otherwise, can or should extricate us from its obligations, which come from God Himself. To reject these obligations is to tear apart the fabric both of soul and of society. No person, no polity, can long endure, much less prosper, outside the obligations of justice.

In short, we must not begin with metaphysical abstractions, no matter how desirable we might think they are. We begin with revelation  and with the world as it is in all its incalculable complexity, a complexity that mocks the facile imposition of abstractions and easy recourse to metaphysical sloganeering. Sloganeers are fools, as are those who vote for them. Justice, for those requiring a reminder, is not an abstraction but a moral, social, and judicial obligation placed upon us by God. As much as we can do so, we are obligated to give folks what they deserve.

Another way of saying this is to insist that (1) human beings have rights against their governments, and (2) these rights are something that governments must never abrogate, although they can. Our rights, our dignity, are never to be transgressed by government. Governments exist to protect, not to plunder; they exist to defend, not to defile. The choice before us is always the same: tyranny or justice. Love the latter; hate the former. Revelation makes possible knowing which policies and which beliefs fall into which category.

Nations are defined by their righteousness, or they are destroyed by its absence. That fact is bad news for a nation that sets aside the immutable principles of God and that replaces them with a new (but not improved) brand of culturally relative ethics. Ethics does not depend upon culture; culture depends upon ethics. Indeed, “ethics” is perhaps not the word we want: “righteousness” is far better because it resonates more richly with the overtones of its Divine origin. “Ethics” sounds too much like what it really is: a humanly devised system of moral or political casuistry, and it implies that we can construct such systems satisfactorily all on our own. Righteousness is not a system; it is a means of acquiring and assessing character, wisdom, prudence and goodness. Righteousness is conformity to the character of God. Without righteousness and the character and wisdom it entails, a nation cannot flourish or even long sustain its very existence. When you undermine either the religious principle or moral conduct of a nation, when you trample moral and religious authority underfoot, you trample the nation underfoot as well. Never forget that religious faith–religious faith–is the bedrock of political liberty and the death of tyranny, a fact known very well by the ideologies and regimes that seek to topple us. Those who worship the state, whether they are Americans or not, tolerate no alternative faith, especially The Faith, because they know that one who fears God does not fear men. A God-inspired fearlessness that gives rise to resolutely righteous conduct is the death of tyranny. The fear of God generates wisdom and courage. Together they spell the death of despotism.

This whole discussion would finally go astray if I did not insist that, like the content of revelation, the content of human nature is a fundamental datum of which all wise governance must take account. When we take account of it, we learn that human beings are nothing if not depraved and different. Given the self-destructive foolishness of human nature, the real question we need to ask and to answer is “How are we to spare ourselves the ravages of anarchy and evil?” The answer is revelation, solid families, prudent government, and the wisdom of the ages. Nothing else can domesticate the savage lurking just beneath our skin. The less fully we recognize that savage’s existence and identity, the more control he has over us–indeed the more fully he is us.

Books related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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