Is there such a thing as a Christian polity? T.S. Eliot raised the right questions about such matters, on the eve of the Second World War, and offered some answers; but, as Eliot put it at another time, there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Every generation fights the same battles over again. So it is that many Christian communions, in the 1980s as in the 1930s, are deafened by fife and drum ecclesiastic.
Does Christian doctrine prescribe some especial form of politics—and conformity by all communicants to that political model? As debate about such concerns grows hot, many professed Christians seem to totter on the brink of the pit of ideology, forgetting that ideology is the counterfeit and enemy of genuine religion.
One of the stronger and more persuasive recent writers about such questions is René de Visme Williamson, professor of politics and active Presbyterian layman. In the concluding chapter of his forthright book Independence and Involvement occurs a passage which, interpreted in one fashion, offers hope for the renewal of Christian realism in the Earthly City; but which, if taken in another sense, might encourage fallacious endeavors to convert this world of ours into the Terrestrial Paradise instanter. Similar differences over the interpretation of Scripture itself have perplexed Christians and Jews for many centuries—disputations leading frequently to slaughter in the name of the peace which passeth all understanding. Here is the Williamson passage that I have in mind:
Through the Christian faith lies the possibility of the intellectual, moral, spiritual—and political—reconstruction of the world. In the Christian faith lies the secret of perpetual renewal and growth which overcomes the aging process afflicting individuals, cultures, and movements. Because Christ is the substance of the Christian faith, the usual human limitations no longer need apply, and the worst of demonic forces can be overcome. The transformation of the world through Christ is possible.
If the reader apprehends Professor Williamson’s meaning through knowledge of Williamson’s books and essays, he apprehends that Dr. Williamson is expressing afresh that Christian view of social order which Saint Augustine of Hippo expounded—if somewhat more cheerfully than Augustine put it. Yet if one takes Dr. Williamson to mean here that a self-righteous politicized Christendom could remedy in short order all the alleged injustices of life in community—why, then we are back with the Fifth Monarchy Men and their cry, “The second coming of Christ, and the heads upon the gates!”
Christian faith surely must be concerned in some degree with political questions, and surely Christian belief has affected political forms from age to age, and will continue to affect the political modes. But to assume that Christian dogmata, meant to order the soul, can be applied without qualification to the multitudinous prudential concerns of the civil social order—well, that way lies much confusion and violence. Christian faith may transform this world through working upon the minds and the hearts of many human beings, with healthy consequences in the body politic. But the Christian Church is no instrument for administering secular justice, conducting secular diplomacy, or waging war. The Church is not the State. By general vocation, priests and presbyters are not statists.
Nor are order, justice, and freedom to be preserved and advanced by Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers”—whether those simplifiers be ideologues or professed Christians. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by storm only in a personal and mystical sense.
We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus, we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of “Christian revolution.” Doubtless most of the men and women who use such language mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.
This “revolutionary Christianity” has been popularized by professors of theology, tenured at good salaries in American universities, remote in place and time from immediate consequences of their doctrine. Consider the curious case of Dr. Harvey Cox, at Harvard’s divinity school. Professor Cox has been called the most influential living Protestant theologian in America: that was nearly true, at any rate, during the 1960s. From Harvard, Cox has preached “liberation theology” in the name of a “politician-God” (Cox’s phrase) and a servant-God who through Jesus has shown his willingness “to become the junior partner in the asymmetric relationship” between God and man. This Zeitgeist deity, politician, servant, junior partner, nevertheless decrees a world in which people no longer will crave power and property. As Dr. Dale Vree comments on Cox, “It is apparent that Coxian liberation is nothing other than the non-alienating, classless society that dialogical and revisionist Marxists have been advocating.” Stalin and Mao as liberators? But doubtless Harvey Cox has in mind “revisionist” Marxism—which offers the dreary prospect of a universal Secular City, utterly immanent, utterly boring.
Professor Cox is merely a well-known, if somewhat shallow, example of this mode of ideologized religiosity. One might turn for fuller illustration to certain pronouncements of the World Council of Churches, or of the National Council of Churches, or of various eminent “liberal” Protestant clergymen in America. But instead, I offer below, as a fairly vivid instance of the endeavor to prescribe ideological fidelity to immanentized Christian doctrine, a dispute within the Roman Catholic community—in part because I am a Catholic communicant myself, and in part because in recent years many American Catholics have emulated (if unconsciously) certain religio-political notions conspicuous among American Protestants during earlier decades.
In October, 1976, there was convened at Detroit the national conference publicized as “A Call to Action”—nominally the Catholic bishops’ Bicentennial meeting, concerned with liberty and justice. My wife and I attended: she as delegate, I as an observer. (My wife appears to have been chosen as a representative of “victims of injustice,” presumably because she is female, comes in part of Red Indian stock, has engaged in disputations with the clergy, and is wedded to a male chauvinist.) This large assembly at Detroit was dominated by a small clique of persons (some priests, some laymen) who held an ascendancy over the “church mice”—that is, the persons closely involved in the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the visible Church. The very large majority of the delegates were such mice. The president of a Protestant evangelical seminary once told me, “The National Council of Churches is a collection of church secretaries.” This Call to Action was composed, overwhelmingly, of similar functionaries within the Catholic fold. Although passionately interested in political action, most of the delegates to Detroit were little experienced in political governance—and wondrously unaware of the limits of politics.
Under the direction of the clique of “social activists,” the Call to Action convention converted itself promptly into a one-person/one-vote National Assembly, all ranks and dignities confounded, after the French model of 1789 rather than after the American constitutional patterns. The majority of the delegates tumultuously endorsed a number of resolutions directly concerned with Church policies: resolutions sufficiently startling, most of them. My present concern, however, is with the political notions endorsed by this self-styled National Assembly of Catholics.
The Assembly declared its will on subjects which, for centuries, have perplexed the wisest heads among theologians, church historians, moralists, and statesmen: the Church, the family, ethnicity and race, humankind, nationhood, neighborhood, personhood, work. The majority felt no misgivings, and desired not to be troubled with any tiresome facts. No one was permitted to speak for more than two minutes in the preliminary “workshops.” On the floor of the Assembly, only the briefest debate was allowed, and no discussion whatever for a number of sweeping proposals. When a resolution about some Florida labor dispute was adopted without debate, my wife bounded to a microphone and asked the monsignor chairperson why some brief description of the controversy could not have been read aloud before the voting. The chairperson replied blandly that this was a good suggestion: that was all; then the steamroller proceeded as before.
“People, do you know there’s a real world outside?” inquired one bishop at a working session of the conference. He had reason to inquire. The convention’s basic preliminary document called for “the rebirth of utopias.” All the projected reforms were to be implemented by a “Five-Year Plan.” They were such stuff as dreams are made of.
Consider the following resolution on “Defense of Human Rights.” American foreign policy, the delegates resolved, should allow “the development of political and economic systems that differ from our own. We urge that no economic or military support be extended to any government which displays a pattern of gross violations of human rights, whether based on political or religious grounds. We call upon the people of the United States to restrict any further government or corporate involvement in these nations, allowing exceptions only for specific humanitarian needs.”
Thus, American Catholics were exhorted simultaneously to tolerate political and economic systems differing from the American pattern, and yet to deny any public or private assistance to states not conforming to the American civil-rights pattern. Perhaps only Switzerland, scarcely in need of aid, would qualify for assistance under this policy. Yugoslavia and Taiwan would be abandoned, were this norm strictly applied; and Israel, too. Presumably the whole of the African continent, under these standards, would be left to starvation or Russian domination.
With similar omniscience, the “Humankind” section of the Call to Action resolutions insisted “that Catholics be encouraged to support movements for freedom, justice, and reconciliation in other nations. There is a Christian imperative to identify with oppressed peoples in such countries as South Africa, Chile, those countries under Communist domination, Korea, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, and Lebanon, to name a few.” (In this list, “those countries under Communist domination” had been inserted only in the workshop sessions, at the urging of some realistic and voluble delegates.) In vain one searches this resolution for definitions of “oppression.” Who are the oppressed in Lebanon—the Fatah terrorists or the “right-wing Christian militia?” It was interesting that this resolution did not mention Cambodia, say, or Uganda, or Chad—all then countries where persecution of Christians has been more terrible than in Communist China or in Soviet Russia.
Such scantily-discussed and hastily ratified resolutions were endorsed by the majority at Detroit with a smug assumption of collective infallibility in political concerns which some of the delegates would have denied to the Pope in matters of faith and morals. “Human rights” and “civil rights” were employed as god-terms, unqualified and abstract; the assumption of the resolutions’ authors seemed to be that absolute liberty always has been the norm for humankind, and that any deviation from unlimited freedom is “oppression.” I doubt whether any of the delegates had read René de Visme Williamson’s analysis of “the Christian doctrine of man and civil rights,” in Independence and Involvement.
Man can lay only a very limited claim to liberty on the basis of his origin…. Fallen man can no more have a rightful claim to the some measure of liberty which belonged to him in a state of innocence than a poor copy of a great painting can command the same price as the original…. We must recognize that the denial of liberty is coextensive with sin.
As Williamson implies, our actual “human” or “civil” rights, when and where they prevail, are the products mostly of a long and painful historical development, secured by convention, compromise, custom, statute. The ‘‘natural’’ man is not free—for one thing, in Burke’s phrase, “his passions forge his fetters”—and the common law of England, say, never prevailed in Libya. Nor can civil social freedom, “chartered rights,” be ordained universally by a National Assembly at Paris or a National Assembly at Detroit. The old teaching of the Church is very different from this self-righteous passion for universalizing the attitudes of the American Civil Liberties Union, right now.
Consider a few other resolutions, extracted from the mass of overlapping and sometimes contradictory pronouncements at Detroit on war, diplomacy, international trade, and the like. Christian conscience, the leaders of this Call to Action conference insisted, demands such public policies as these:
The United States government should forbid all sales of arms abroad.
The United States should disarm unilaterally—or nearly that.
The United States should deal severely with multinational corporations, which allegedly exploit the poor and oppressed.
The United States, nevertheless, should import freely the products of Third World nations.
How simple, how pharisaical! Nearly all the delegates to Detroit (despite the organizers’ theory that one-third of the delegates should be representatives of America’s “victims of injustice”) were well-fed, secure, provincial citizens with small experience of the horrors of our twentieth century Time of Troubles, during which the old forms of freedom and justice have been erased, together with peace, from most of the world. Why cannot the Church merely direct heads of state to mend their ways and guarantee that everybody, everywhere, must share the advantages of liberal Americans?
To persons better informed than the majority of those delegates to Detroit, the objections to the complacent resolutions are sufficiently obvious; but I set them down below.
First, were Americans to sell no weapons abroad, in short order much more of the world would fall to Soviet imperialism or to other forms of aggression. For the masters of the totalist powers are unaffected by the pious sentiments of American church mice.
Second, were the United States to disarm unilaterally (especially, as the National Assembly enthusiasts insisted, in nuclear weapons) America and all the world would be at the mercy of those great powers in whose domains religion has been crushed by ideology. This attitude is very like the insistence of British Socialists on the approach of the Second World War that Britain disarm—yet simultaneously undo the Nazis in Germany.
Third, whatever may be said against multinational corporations, those are a means for diminishing that poverty in the “Third World” which the conference so loudly lamented. One resolution accused multinational corporations of so oppressing the Mexican poor that they must flee to the United States—a notion which would startle wetbacks. What Mexicans flee is unemployment, not the ferocity of gringo capitalists.
Fourth, trade with the “underdeveloped” countries is much to be desired, for their economic benefit and America’s. But would this be advanced by fulminations against foreign investment, capitalism, American military strength, and the existing patterns of social order? What “Third World” products do we buy if those peoples produce next to nothing?
I am suggesting that many of the people who manipulated the sentiments of the delegates at Detroit were full of facile slogans, mingled with some Marxist jargon, professing to offer instant remedies for difficulties which have puzzled statists for centuries. These utopians had forgotten Augustine and Aquinas; they seemed innocent of any serious acquaintance with serious Catholic thinkers of our own century—Christopher Dawson or Martin D’Arcy or John Courtney Murray. Few, I fancy, had opened such a book as Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity, Diplomacy, and War—though presumably Methodist laymen have something to say to Catholic laymen.
But this Detroit gathering was unrepresentative of the mass of American Catholics. Few Catholics in the United States are ashamed of their country, whatever its occasional shortcomings. American Catholics and American Christians generally agree with the Spanish philosopher Julián Marías, who wrote, at the beginning of the Seventies, that today the United States presents “an incomparable example of well-being, justice, freedom, and prosperity.” The Declaration of Independence speaks of happiness, besides liberty and justice; and Marías comments that happiness “always has been probable and frequent in the United States.”
So more’s the pity that almost nobody at Detroit, in 1976, was permitted to mention what Christian Faith and Christian thought have contributed to this Republic; and that only the most perfunctory reference occurred to the blessings, under God, which Americans have enjoyed for two centuries—and which they do not propose to relinquish in exchange for what Eliot, in his Choruses to The Rock, called “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
In their Call to Action—no Call to Thought—the majority of Catholics at Detroit seemed happy at the prospect of sweeping away the present framework of society, to clear the path for visionary systems. Even the archbishop who sponsored the Call to Action gathering, Cardinal Dearden, must have been painfully embarrassed by the extremes of this neoterism. I was contemplating the successful author of a resolution proclaiming the unalienable right of homosexuals to gainful employment in the diocesan offices—this man a person recently discharged for incompetence the Detroit archdiocese—when I found myself warmly greeted by Monsignor Gino Baroni, who not long later would become the first Catholic ecclesiastic to be appointed to an undersecretaryship in the Cabinet.
“Russell Kirk! You here!” Monsignor Baroni cried. “Why, this conference doesn’t represent the Catholics of America. Where are the union people, the professional men, the businessmen?” (Where, he might have added, were the Knights of Columbus, the “traditionalists,” and many another powerful force in American Catholicism?)
“These are the church mice,” I replied, “the silly people.”
Monsignor Baroni was well-known as a political liberal, an able advocate of improvement and reform. He was aghast at the follies of the Call to Action, His dismay was shared by most members of the hierarchy; and in effect the fantastic recommendations of the Call to Action were squelched subsequently, if quietly, by the bishops. The New York Times Magazine called the whole affair “a fiasco” and one bears no echoes from that “National Assembly” six years later. Two popes, since then, have led the Church in a different direction.
In retrospect, the Call to Action is interesting chiefly as a conspicuous example of the insolence of churchmen who presume to impose their private political prejudices upon the whole church, regardless of prudence and individual judgment and conscience. At Detroit, these zealots failed ludicrously in their endeavor. As a body, American Catholics have rejected la apertura a la sinistra. Prescription and prudence still govern the politics of American Catholics, as of most Americans. To judge by election returns, Catholics in the United States are conspicuously more conservative in their politics in 1982 than they were in 1976. They refuse to march toward some secular Zion. Cheerfulness and right reason will keep breaking in.
John Henry Newman, despite the lip service paid to him at the commencement of the Second Vatican Council, was not mentioned at Detroit. But certain sentences of Newman, written in 1836, were relevant to this Liberty and justice convention.
Satan is accomplished in promises, Newman wrote.
Do you think he is so unskillful in his craft, as to ask you openly and plainly to join him in his warfare against the Truth? No; he offers you baits to tempt you. He promises you civil liberty; he promises you equality; he promises you wealth and trade; he promises you a remission of taxes; he promises you reform….He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution which reveres them. He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how to become as gods.
Hell, we are told, is paved with high-minded resolutions. I am suggesting that if the Church hopes to enlarge liberty and justice in this bent twentieth-century world of ours—why, Christians will have to think more realistically than did the typical delegate to Detroit. And if we desire peace, it will not suffice to sloganize in a visionary realm.
The Church always has striven for liberty, justice, and peace; but throughout the centuries, the Church has known that man and society are imperfect and imperfectible, here below. The only possible perfection is perfection through grace in death. Christian teaching has endured because of its realism; because it does not mistake the City of This Earth for the City of God. In upholding the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the Church has not neglected the cardinal virtue of prudence. And, most of the time, the Church has not endeavored to usurp the powers of the State. “Two there are by whom this world is ruled,” said Gelasius I, saint and pope, in the fifth century. Although my Scottish Covenanting ancestors and my New England Puritan ancestors sometimes honored the doctrine of separation of church and state more in the breach than in the observance, at least they acknowledged this grand principle—which the Call to Action delegates ignored.
The Church cannot confer upon the world immediate, perfect secular liberty, justice, and peace—any more than could the zealots of the French Revolution, or of the Russian. But Christian truth does offer this: That perfect freedom which is the service of God, that justice which transcends time and circumstance, and that peace which passeth all understanding. The Church has known that liberty, justice, and peace are preserved and extended only through patient and prudent striving; that Providence moves deliberately while the devil always hurries.
Christian faith may work wonders if it moves the minds and hearts of an increasing number of men and women. But if professed Christians forsake Heaven as their destination, and come to fancy that the State (which, nevertheless, they denounce in its present form) may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise—why, they are less wise even than Marx. I think here of certain sentences from a modern Seeker, Malcolm Muggeridge, in the first volume of his autobiography.
“To accept this world as a destination rather than as a staging-post, and the experience of living in it as expressing life’s full significance, would seem to me to reduce life to something too banal and trivial to be taken seriously or held in esteem,” Mr. Muggeridge writes.
The only thing that could make me falter in taking a position of extreme, if not demented, optimism about our human condition and prospects would be if one of the prospectuses for an earthly paradise—whether Scandinavian-Style, British-Beveridge, old Stalin-Ware, Dollar-Reinforced, Mao-Special, Tito or Castro-ized—looked like providing a satisfying or fulfilled way of life. On this score I see no cause for present anxiety. To attempt to expose and ridicule the fraudulence of such prospectuses is no more life-denying than exposing the fraudulence of one for building a housing estate on the slopes of Etna would be shelter-denying.
Amen to that. Yet distortions of Christian teaching similar to those of the Call to Action conference rise again and again, through the centuries, among professing Christians. One such was the Lambeth Conference of 1930, which provoked T.S. Eliot into writing one of his more enduring essays. All times are corrupt, Eliot wrote then, and in our time Christianity is dispossessed and divided.
“The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality,” Eliot concluded. “The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide.”
Since Eliot wrote those sentences in 1931, the experiment to which he referred has collapsed hideously in many lands. Can Christian faith, hope, and charity renew the order of the soul and the order of the commonwealth? T.S. Eliot and René Williamson argue that the Church may aspire to renew both orders. Although Church and State stand separate, the political order cannot be renewed without theological virtues working upon it.
True, Christ came to save sinners, not to seize the kingdoms of the earth. True, Christianity prescribes no particular mode of politics: the Church has co-existed with, or at least endured under, a variety of dominations—empires, kingdoms, republics, democracies, aristocracies, oligarchies, even totalist regimes which have not succeeded in becoming perfectly total. True, the successes of the Church have occurred rather in limiting the claims of the State than in guiding the policies of the State. True, the institutional Church has fallen into dismal confusion when it has presumed to dictate to the captains and the kings prudential policies in a highly fallible world—the blunder which most delegates to the Call to Action conference would have the Church commit all over again.
Yet despite these limitations in the City of This Earth, it remains just as true, in Professor Williamson’s words, that “through the Christian faith… lies the possibility of the intellectual, moral, spiritual—and political—reconstruction of the world.” Let us confine ourselves here to the possibilities of political regeneration through the substance of the Christian faith.
Christian belief works upon the political order in at least three ways, sometimes effectually. These three ways are faith’s influence upon statesmen: faith’s influence upon the mass of mankind; and faith’s shaping of the norms of the social order.
First, influence upon statesmen. In the medieval schools, this question, it is said, was a subject for comical disputation: “May an archdeacon be saved?” The implication was that a churchman who meddles in worldly concerns must touch pitch and be defiled. That peril is even greater for statesmen than for archdeacons. Nevertheless, Christian king, Christian prime minister, Christian president, Christian legislator, Christian magistrate—though they cannot create the Kingdom of Christ upon earth—do much to redeem the time, to restrain us from violence and fraud. Sincerity of profession is not in itself enough for the statist: prudence and imagination and power of command also are required. And we need to remember the danger of “righteousness” —that is, self-righteousness among politicians, against which Sir Herbert Butterfield repeatedly has warned us: for states, unlike persons, are not free moral agents. The United States is not a “righteous” nation: there are some righteous men and women, but no righteous nations. For all that, conceivably the hard necessities of our time may summon up leaders in public affairs who unite practical talents with theological virtues.
Also, though Christian public men always have their failings, the statesman devoid of a religious understanding of the human condition cannot quiet our present discontents or restore the foundations of order. With Coriolan, in Eliot’s only political poem, the masterful politician lacking the Light must murmur to himself, “Cry, cry, what shall I cry?” And to his ears there must come, soon or late, the crowd’s roar of “Resign, resign, resign!”
Second, people sustained by Christian faith, hope, and charity form a “colony of Heaven”—a social order in which it is possible to strive together for the preservation and the advancement of justice and freedom and peace. Without the bond of a shared faith, any society begins to disintegrate: even a society governed by soldiers and secret policemen. As Talleyrand said, “You can do everything with bayonets—except sit upon them.” Religious sanction lacking (or, temporarily, the sanction of fanatic ideology, religion’s sorry substitute), it becomes difficult for the state to enforce even the most essential laws.
During the Cambodian campaign, I talked with President Nixon in the White House for an hour. Mr. Nixon was disheartened. He spoke of a lack of purpose and public spirit in the United States, and then asked me, “Do we have any hope?” He repeated the question: “Do we have any hope?”
I replied that it is all a matter of faith. If the people believe the prophets of despair, then indeed hope vanishes, for everyone seeks his private hidey-hole, endeavoring to content himself with petty ephemeral pleasures. But if the people, not believing the prophets of doom and their self-fulfilling prophecies, still retain faith in a moral order joined to a social order—why, then indeed hope has not departed, for it remains possible for men and women to brighten the corners where they are and to confront together the difficulties of the time. Given hope, great renewal is possible for a people. The thinking Christian does not indulge hopes of Lotos-Land; he knows that politics is the art of the possible; he understands that his ultimate destination is not here below. Also, he knows that here below the race is not necessarily to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Yet, accepting the mystery of Providence, he remembers that God helps those who help themselves. He is not easily beguiled by predictions of general dissolution. “But the men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark,” in Chesterton’s lines.
Third, though Christian doctrine insists upon no express frame of government and embraces no particular political party, nevertheless it is from the Church that we receive our fundamental postulates of order and justice and freedom, applying them to civil society. (One truth “Christian activists” sometimes forget is the historical fact that the Church incorporates within its wisdom much acquired from classical civilization.) The common law (rooted, as Justice Joseph Story pointed out, in Christian moral assumptions) is merely one conspicuous example of how the timeless order shapes the temporal order. Such historians as Eric Voegelin and Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson, in their several ways, have been reminding us that culture and worldly order, in all their aspects, arise from the cult—from the community of believers in an order more than human. Thus, it is from religion that our norms for social order grow; and when faith decays, those norms are flouted. Then, order overthrown, squalid oligarchs take power, and the Savage God lays down his new commandments. As Eliot expresses it, “If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
In short, Christian belief does influence the political order, and should do so. Yet there is a gulf fixed between influence of the sort I have described above, and presumptuous issuing of political prescripts to legitimate political authorities. How can it be assumed that some employee of the National Council of Churches, or some nun whose previous experience has consisted chiefly of teaching mathematics to small children, possesses prudential knowledge of diplomacy, military affairs, political economy, and all the complex concerns of modern society, superior to that knowledge possessed by persons long accustomed to the conduct of public affairs? And why should it be assumed that such “Christian activist” zealots are invested with moral superiority over public magistrates? I never have observed a nimbus round the head of such a zealot, and I have found the ecclesiastical politician often quite as afflicted with the libido dominandi as is the secular politician.
And what presumption it is of such church mice (Protestant or Papist) as I have described at the Call to Action fiasco, to proclaim their own infallibility and to endeavor to speak for the whole of the communion to which they happen to belong. They advance, in effect, claims of personal omniscience, infallibility, and perfect virtue—qualities that are divine, not human. Such hubris precedes a catastrophic fall.
My general conclusion is expressed for me by Dr. Williamson in his most recent book, Politics and Protestant Theology. He touches keenly upon the perils of rash political activism by professed Christians—upon the blunder of converting symbols of transcendence into ideological imperatives and upon the blunder of converting the Church into an intolerant political sect.
“In order to avoid the pitfalls of social activism,” Professor Williamson writes,
the church must deal with matters of principle only where the principle is very clear. It is at this point that Barth’s command of the hour becomes relevant. There are controversial issues in which the principle is unmistakable and the command of the hour comes through loud and clear. On these issues the Church must make pronouncements. Few Christians, if any, would find fault with the Declaration of Barman in which the German Confessing Church condemned Nazism. Again, few Christians, if any, would deny that Church pronouncement condemning compulsory racial segregation in the United States was right.
But there are other general issues in which facts and motives are mixed, consequences contradict the principles involved, and equally dedicated and knowledgeable Christians disagree. In these cases the Church should remain silent, letting individual Christians and Christian groups decide for themselves what Christian witness means…. For the Church to sponsor a political party, engage in lobbying, form coalitions with secular pressure groups, and become entangled in the decisions of private business corporations would be to take a position on precisely those issues in which the religious significance is unclear, ambiguous, or nonexistent.
Professor Williamson is an heir to Calvin and Knox; I, to Newman and Brownson. Neither the Protestant mind nor the Catholic mind seeks to justify the confounding of things sacred and things secular, or asserts the right of a clique of zealots to keep the consciences of all Christians. Those fulminatory men and women who set themselves up as judges of the actions and convictions of everybody else in our age, on the principles of “liberation theology,” may come to worship the Savage God, mistaking him for the Redeemer. For those who cannot endure the cosmos, revolution is salvation. But when the revolution is done, the world is ruled not by self-proclaimed saints; those have been extirpated or corrupted in the revolutionary process; no, the new masters are those hard-faced men who do well out of revolutions.
Although human beings live in time, there exists a timeless ground of being, with which our little lives and our mundane institutions are interwoven. This is a perception of Christian theology. Only very gradually and imperfectly does mankind become conscious of this transcendent reality. But only through such imperfect human consciousness, painfully acquired, does it become possible for human beings to live together in peace and justice; to know a mundane order, both the internal order of the soul and the external order of community.
This timeless reality of spiritual order has been perceived fragmentarily, on one occasion or another, in a variety of cultures, by prophets, philosophers, and sages. To such chosen persons have occurred theophanic events and true visions. Those events and visions are the substance of that history which really signifies.
The myths and symbols through which the truths about order are conveyed grow dim with the passage of world-time and many disrupting events. When those symbols have become opaque at best, restless men seek to erect new symbols of their own creation, and to establish a new order in which the revolutionaries exercise total power. But this denial and inversion of the symbols of transcendence do not bring forth a new heaven and a new earth: instead, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse spread fire and slaughter.
The archetype of this destructive infatuation is the gnostic heresy. The modern equivalents of that delusion, and in part the descendants of gnosticism, are the fanatic political ideologies of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, which falsely promise the perfection of man and society, on earth and in time.
Among the victims of this modern heresy are those “Christian activists” who presume to give orders to armies and commands to nations, confounding Caesar’s things and God’s. It is little less presumptuous of them to declare that they speak with the tongues of angels, binding all others who profess their faith in Christ. I had as soon go to a bartender for medical advice as to a church secretary for political wisdom.
Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here. Republished with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review (Fall/Winter 1982).
1. T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London, Faber and Faber, 1939).
2. René de Visme Williamson, Independence and Involvement: A Christian Reorientation in Political Science (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), pp. 253-54.
3. Dale Vree, On Synthesizing Marxism and Christianity (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976), pp. 73, 75, 77.
4. Williamson, Independence and Involvement, op. cit, p. 161. The Intercollegiate Review- Fall/Winter 1982.
5. Julián Marías, America in the Fifties and Sixties (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972), pp. 444, 440.
6. John Henry Newman, “The Patristical Idea of the Antichrist,” In Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (London: Longmans, 1891), P. 60.
7. Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Green Stick (London: Collins, 1972).
8. T.S. Eliot. “Thoughts after Lambeth,” in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), p. 332.
9. T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Faber and Faber, 1935), p. 63.
10. René de Visme Williamson. Politics and Protestant Theology (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), pp. 176-77.
11. For elaboration of this general theory of the meaning of history, see the writings of Eric Voegeglin, particularly from Enlightenment to Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1975); also Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, editors, The Philosophy of Order: Essays on History, Consciousness, and Politics (Stuttgard: Klett-Cotta, 1981).