Political Theology: Ideologies

One of my major interests in the field of public theology is political theology. It’s exactly as it sounds: the theology of politics. Political theology encompasses everything from whether or not Christians should vote to just war theory and back again: political engagement, running for office, separation of church and state, voting preferences, pacifism, civil disobedience, you name it. I intend for these topics to take up several posts here at the blog, so don’t expect to get all of my thoughts on these today (unless you buy me caffeine and chocolate chip cookies). Today’s post is going to be a general overview of ideologies and the theology behind them.

It’s election day here in the States, so let’s start with democracy. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (or something like that). And it’s true: democracy is far from perfect, but at least it’s the least of the evils. People have voices in the government and the power to mold public policy by proxy (in theory). No single individual can drive the government into wanton corruption, and the government has checks on its own power. Individual freedom is promoted, just as God gave us free will. Which all sounds pretty good, right? So what’s the problem with democracy? It can turn the public into nothing more than an amalgamation of disinterested, selfish voters who promote only their own agendas. Instead of cheering for the common good, people start cheering only for themselves. This is particularly true when democracy is utilized together with capitalism (as it is in America). The free market economy may be the most competitive in every way, and it may yield amazing profits for the successful, but it absolutely fails to care for the marginalized. The limited role of the democratic government shifts responsibility solely onto the shoulders of individuals — and individuals rarely accept the added burden of caring for someone else as they should. (“It’s my money; I earned it; he’s not even working; why should I pay for his medical bills?”) That sort of selfishness/defensiveness leaks over into voting practices: I vote for the candidate who will do the most for me and promote my personal agenda, not the one who will ignore my own desires and do what’s best for the nation as a whole. Definitely not a Christian view of loving one’s neighbor, but at least people are free to try, whether they actually do or not.

But let’s look (briefly) at the alternatives. Socialism has always been highly stigmatized in America, but Europe seems to have embraced it in major ways. It generally allows the public to retain voting rights and a voice in government, but the government is far more extensive than a federalist republic’s take on democracy. The free market is scaled back as the government takes on additional responsibilities as a service provider: health care, transportation, media, etc. It’s true that a socialist government eliminates any sort of competition when it assumes control of these areas, and it’s also true that the overall quality of each of these has the potential to suffer greatly because of the lack of competition. On the flip side, however, this means the public has unfettered access to the services they need and receive (largely) unbiased news programs, newspapers, etc. (Or at least they do in the best instances.) The government therefore provides the care we should each be showing our neighbors, giving them medical care, shelter, food, and other life necessities. It’s not holy, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Communism and fascism are two sides of the same coin, two ideologies so far apart on the spectrum of political thought they almost meet each other as they go around the circle. Communism demands the government take full control of every individual’s life, providing for it (as best it can, which is to say, not at all). Fascism does much of the same, but only for its preferred demographic (and tries to systematically remove everyone else from its populace). Even though these do provide, in limited ways, for their people, neither one does so with the measure of human dignity, freedom, and love deserved by those who bear the image of God. Their governmental provisions and care are nominal at best, and they can hardly be described as meeting the Christian ideals, particularly given communism’s historical hatred of religion in general and fascism’s misappropriation of the same.

Each ideology (almost) has good and bad, then. Democracy does well in its promotion of freedom and public involvement, but it lacks any sense of responsibility for taking care of the Other. Socialism scales back those freedoms to a degree while stepping up its care for its citizens. What solutions do we have, then, for establishing a Christian political ideology working in the constraints given us?

Let’s be clear on one thing, first of all: a theocracy is not the answer. You can attempt to legislate morality, but at the end of the day, people will either a) completely ignore your ethos or b) follow them without truly believing in them. If it’s the former, then no one is behaving morally, and your theocracy has failed. If it’s the latter, then people are religious in name only and not true believers, and your theocracy has still failed. And a theocracy gone bad was the beginning of sorrows for many, many people: the Anabaptist martyrs (murdered by Catholics and Protestants alike during the Reformation), Servetus (slowly burned at the stake by order of John Calvin during his reign of Geneva as high theocrat), innocent colonists accused of witchcraft (hanged, burned, and pressed to death by their Puritan brothers and sisters) . . . the list goes on. Earthbound theocracies simply won’t work.

What do we do as Christians, then? We operate under our respective forms of government and live Christian lives promoting Christian values. Political involvement aside, we should bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers and take steps to care for those who cannot care for themselves. In a democracy, we’re free to do so — and we need to, since the government will offer only very limited assistance at best. A socialist government may do more, but I’m not convinced it should. The Church needs to step up to the plate as she has throughout history. Why do so many hospitals have affiliations with religious groups? Because the people of God recognize our duty to care for the sick. We as Christians built the hospitals; why don’t we run them, working to make healthcare affordable to the ones who so desperately need it? Why can’t we provide transportation assistance for those who simply need a way to get to where they need to be? Why don’t we provide food to the hungry and homes for the homeless instead of relying on government aid programs? I believe a government, whether democratic/capitalistic or socialist, has a responsibility to care for its people in material ways, but I don’t believe it should be the primary caregiver. The primary caregivers are the people of God who can care for soul as well as for body. We as Christians have a duty to promote these things in our churches, in our personal lives, and (as needed) in our governments. (We’ll tackle advocacy in a later post.)

Since it’s election day here, I want to leave you with this thought. The words of John Wesley should still be heard even today as we cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

JW on voting

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