Thinking Theologically About Politics: A MARS HILL AUDIO Special Series

The metacrisis of modern politics

In their book The Politics of Virtue, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst offer a compelling explanation for the increasing sense of chaos within global political institutions. They argue that “the whole liberal tradition faces a new kind of crisis because liberalism as a philosophy and an ideology turns out to be contradictory, self-defeating and parasitic of the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition, which it distorts and hollows out.” This distortion includes placing a greater emphasis on the Fall than on Creation. This greater emphasis renders violence and vice (Hobbes’s “war of all against all”) as more salient factors in shaping political institutions than is the given goodness of Creation, a goodness which images the loving character of the Triune Creator in whom we live and move and have our being. Liberalism defines individuals principally as beings who require protection from each other, protection which the State provides more and more comprehensively.

Because the understanding at the heart of liberalism “goes against the grain of humanity and the universe we inhabit,” our political theories and practices are increasingly felt to be dehumanizing, even when political actors work with the best intentions. Milbank and Pabst ominously claim that the sense of political pessimism widely felt is a sign that this flawed view of human nature “is starting to be revealed in its full nihilistc scope.”

The campaign leading up to the U.S. presidential election of 2016 may be seen as symptomatic of this “metacrisis.” Against the disturbing backdrop of social and cultural fragmentation, the two principal candidates for the office seem to be equally divisive, so that whoever wins in November, Americans are certain to be living through a time of further discord and discontent. Meanwhile, American Christians have been perplexed about how to situate themselves in what seems to be an increasingly unwelcoming setting. With this in mind, Peter J. Leithart has asked “Are campaigning and voting the be-all and end-all of Christian political action, or are we better off diverting some of those dollars and hours to less flashy projects that have the potential to leaven political culture over the long haul?”

That long-haul leavening is the rationale for the interviews featured below. MARS HILL AUDIO has selected a number of thoughtful philosophers, theologians, and political theorists to talk about the long-term trajectory that brought about our present condition, and the sorts of redefinitions, reconfigurations, and repentance necessary to navigate our future. We are especially interested in thinking about politics unapologetically as Christians, not as make-believe Deists or agnostics. Christians have often succumbed to the claim that they need to check their deepest convictions at the door before engaging in conversation about public life. We believe that one of the ways in which we should love our neighbors is to recognize the true nature and source of their dignity, and that to abandon that recognition compromises our love for them.

Over the coming weeks leading up to the Presidential election and inauguration, MARS HILL AUDIO will be releasing a series of weekly interviews (old and new) dedicated to thinking about politics — these politics, our politics — theologically. We will post each interview as streaming audio below. Alternatively, you can subscribe to our revived podcast, Audition, to download the interviews at your convenience.

Oliver O’Donovan on the shape of political theology

In his magisterial book of political theology The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996), moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan observed that the West’s project of constructing political life on “an avowedly anti-sacred basis” had reached an impasse. Citizens have lost trust in those holding political power, because the very idea of political authority is, in O’Donovan’s word, unbelievable. O’Donovan argues that political authority rightly understood “is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service. . . . [N]o one can pretend to have invented political authority or to have devised it as an instrument to serve some pre-political purposes of his or her own.” But when the transcendent orgins and purposes of government are officially repudiated — when even the suggestion that governments are agents of divine rule is dismissed as ridiculous and dangerous — the rationale for honoring government evaporates. “Binding political loyalties and obligations seem to be deprived of any point. The doctrine that we set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private, local and unpolitical purposes, has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive moral debilitation, which, from time to time, inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions.”

This feature includes excerpts from a public interview with Oliver O’Donovan held in Washington, D.C., in October 2013, convened by Matthew Lee Anderson and chaired by Ken Myers.

Peter J. Leithart on the Church’s political identity

In a recent on-line commentary for First Things entitled “Never Waste a Crisis,” theologian Peter J. Leithart observed that “contemporary political culture is the product of a convergence of two strains of liberalism: a leftist cultural libertarianism that took off during the 1960s and 1970s, and a rightwing free-market liberalism that reached its apogee with the Reagan-Thatcher alliance.”

Leithart continued: “Though they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both strains of liberalism are founded on a concept of freedom as the emancipation of individual choice.”

Leithart suggested that the sense of dismay many currently have about our political possibilities offers Christians “a rare opportunity to take stock and ask some basic questions about our polity.” He proceeds to list a dozen or so questions we should be asking far beyond who to vote for in November: “Are gay marriage and legalized abortion deviations from American values, or expressions of them? Can we disentangle the two strains of liberalism? Can we defend free markets without endorsing free love? What does ‘freedom’ mean? . . . Can politics be humane without recognizing that human beings are souls? Are campaigning and voting the be-all and end-all of Christian political action, or are we better off diverting some of those dollars and hours to less flashy projects that have the potential to leaven political culture over the long haul?”

In this second interview in our series on theology and politics, Leithart reflects on some of the motivating factors behind endorsements for Donald Trump and the lack of any broader discussion — given the sense of crisis among many — that reexamines the nature of political authority and political engagement in general.

Michael Sandel & Scott Moore on the limits of democracy

“Our public life is rife with discontent.” So claims political philosopher Michael Sandel, in his 1996 book Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Sandel identifies two prominent symptoms of that discontent. “One is the fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives. The other is the sense that, from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”

Sandel’s book examines the ideas of liberty that have spawned what he calls “unencumbered selves,” atomistic individuals with no abiding sense of responsibility, duty, or binding attachments. The political mechanism that encourages this care-free sensibility is what Sandel calls the “procedural republic,” the product of a view of the state that envisions government as a guarantor of rights and fairness, scrupulously indifferent to questions of truth or goodness. This segment of our series includes excerpts from a 1996 interview with Sandel in which he outlines a public philosophy committed to promoting civic virtue.

Also featured here is a 2009 interview with philosopher Scott Moore, author of The Limits of Liberal Democracy: Politics and Religion at the End of Modernity. In his book, Moore argues that the Enlightenment views of reason and human autonomy are unsustainable, and that much of our contemporary confusion about political, social, and cultural matters is a symptom of the unraveling of those views. He says that the invention of our democratic institutions was motivated by a desire to accommodate and encourage “the autonomy of the individual and the expansion of personal liberty,” and he asks whether such institutions and their founding assumptions haven’t subtly captured the highest allegiances of many Christians, transforming what we believe about what counts as happiness and success. He asserts that “in a world with fewer and fewer Christians, democratic faith makes ever more exclusive demands.”

To follow up that 2009 interview, Ken Myers phoned Moore to ask him about his views on the political moment that has resulted in the 2016 presidential campaign, and the kinds of questions about political responsibility that aren’t being asked very prominently right now.

Michael Hanby on the political import of a technological society

In an article entitled “A More Perfect Absolutism” published in the October, 2016 issue of First Things, philosopher Michael Hanby observed that: “It is part of the absurdity of American life that we decide questions of truth under the guise of settling contests of rights. Which means that we decide questions of truth without thinking deeply or even very honestly about them.” One reason this deciding process is a particularly American convention is that Americans “have no common faith, history, or culture outside the decision to found the nation on eighteenth-century philosophical principles, we have always looked to politics and the law to perform the work of faith, culture, and tradition in giving us an identity as a people.” But what happens when politics that are all we know fails us?

Unfortunately, those eighteenth-century philosophical principles (i.e. political liberalism) are deeply committed to certain metaphysical assumptions about nature. These assumptions treat nature as merely material stuff, significant to us only insofar as we can act upon it and manipulate it to our advantage. In his article, Hanby argues that this is a deeply technological way of viewing the world that ultimately offers little guidance for political order. 

In this fourth feature of our series on political theology, Michael Hanby discusses what he means when he says that liberalism is fundamentally technological in its assumptions.

Kenneth Craycraft on the myth of religious freedom

Attorney Kenneth Craycraft, Jr. is the author of The American Myth of Religious Freedom (Spence Publishers, 1999). In that book, Craycraft argued that the protection for religious freedom guaranteed in the Constitution is not as vigorous as many believers may hope. The underlying assumptions in 18th-century Anglo-American thought about the nature of freedom, of political authority, and of religion itself were even then predisposed to favor the interests of the state over religious claims if they came into conflict.

Craycraft observes that the liberal understanding of religious liberty is the freedom of individuals to choose from among a profusion of faiths. Religious liberty is thus just one expression of the fundamental fact of human nature and dignity as understood by liberalism: that we are beings with the capacity to make choices. Some religions, however, hold to the conviction that the most fundamental fact about us is that we are creatures made to glorify God and to live in accordance with the truth. Truth is prior to freedom. A choice is not authentically free if it is not in accord with what is true and good. By contrast, the assumption in the liberal idea of freedom as assumed by the Constitution and defended by the state is that freedom is prior to truth.

One of the consequences of Craycraft’s argument — which is similar to arguments made by many other constitutional lawyers, philosophers, and theologians — is that the actions of the government in recent years that are perceived as an erosion of religious freedom are in fact the fulfillment of latent assumptions underlying our Constitutional order.

In this fifth feature of our series on political theology, Kenneth Craycraft, Jr. contrasts the assumptions about religious liberty held by Locke, Jefferson, and others with a view maintained by many Christian theologians and philosophers.

Patrick Deneen on imagining a post-liberal future

In a lecture given in 2010 examining the relationship between community, culture, and liberalism, Patrick Deneen offered this summary of the origins and nature of classical liberalism.

“Liberalism begins with the political philosophy of Hobbes, with refinement by John Locke, with the idea that humans by nature are naturally free and equal. These thinkers sought to describe the natural human condition to be one of autonomous and whole individuals who have no past, no culture, no history, no relationships, no memory. They are like Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus.”

Deneen went on to describe the effects of this understanding of human persons on their sense of membership in communities or cultures. Before liberalism, persons were members of a whole and understood their identity in light of that membership. They were not — in Michael Sandel’s term — unencumbered selves. Liberalism, said Deneen, aims to liberate individuals from the claims and duties of membership

“The autonomous individual at the heart of liberal theory cannot in fact come into being in reality without first liberating him or her from the inheritances of cult and culture. Liberal theory thus redefines all human relations in its wake. . . . Whether one’s religion, one’s community, one’s nation, even one’s family, all human relations are redefined by liberalism’s logic.”

In this interview, Patrick Deneen talks with MARS HILL AUDIO's Ken Myers about the relationship between democracy and liberalism. Deneen outlines some of the main features of liberalism and how they prevent us from imagining other political alternatives, as well as some particularly prescient remarks from Alexis de Tocqueville about the circumstances that elected Donald Trump.

Listen to this clip from the interview