Discover more from Philosophy in Progress
David French, Christianity, and Politics
Can one participate in politics in an unworldly way?
David French maintains that Christians cannot, if they are to remain true to Christian teachings, support Donald Trump:
The proper way for Christians to engage in politics is a rich subject . . . but there are some rather simple foundational principles that apply before the questions get complex. For example, all but a tiny few believers would agree that a Christian should not violate the Ten Commandments or any other clear, biblical command while pursuing or exercising political power.
But of course we see such behavior all the time from hardcore Christian Trump supporters. They’ll echo Trump’s lies. They’ll defend Trump’s lies. They’ll adopt many of his same rhetorical tactics, including engaging in mocking and insulting behavior as a matter of course.
I fully recognize what I’m saying. I fully recognize that refusing to hire a hater and refusing to hire a liar carries costs. If we see politics through worldly eyes, it makes no sense at all. Why would you adopt moral standards that put you at a disadvantage in an existential political struggle? If we don’t stand by Trump we will lose, and losing is unacceptable. (Emphasis added.)
French has just touched upon the deepest issue in this debate. He is right that it makes no sense for conservative Christians not to support Trump if politics is seen through worldly eyes. The question, however, is whether one can avoid doing so. Can one see politics and pursue it through unworldly eyes? Can one participate in politics at any level, and especially at the higher levels, while adhering strictly and unwaveringly to Christian principles and precepts and while practicing Christian virtues? Can one combine contemptus mundi with political action?
I don't believe that this is possible.
Christian precepts such as "Turn the other cheek" and "Welcome the stranger" make sense and are salutary only within communities of the like-minded and morally decent; they make no sense and are positively harmful in the public sphere, and, a fortiori, in the international sphere. The monastery is not the wide world. What is conducive unto salvation in the former will get you killed in the latter. And we know what totalitarians, whether Communists or Islamists, do when they get power: they destroy the churches, synagogues, monasteries, ashrams, and zendos. And with them are destroyed the means of transmitting the dharma, the kerygma, the law and the prophets.
An important but troubling thought is conveyed in a recent NYT op-ed (emphasis added):
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
The problem referenced in the bolded sentence is very serious but may have no solution. That's the aporetician in me speaking.
The problem as I see it is that (i) the pacific virtues the practice of which makes life worth living within families, between friends, and in such institutions of civil society as churches and fraternal organizations are essentially private and cannot be extended outward as if we are all brothers and sisters belonging to a global community. Talk of global community is blather. The institutions of civil society can survive and flourish only if protected by warriors and statesmen whose virtues are of the manly and martial, not of the womanish and pacific, sort. And yet (ii) if no extension beyond the private of the pacific virtues is possible. then humanity would seem to be doomed in an age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Besides, it is unsatisfactory that there be two moralities, one private, the other public.
I say that we need to face the problem honestly.
Consider the Christian virtues preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They include humility, meekness, love of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, love of peace and of reconciliation. Everyone who must live uncloistered in the world understands that these pacific and essentially womanish virtues have but limited application there. Indeed, their practice can get you killed. (I am not using 'womanish' as a derogatory qualifier.)
You may love peace, but unless you are prepared to make war upon your enemies and show them no mercy, you may not be long for this world. Turning the other cheek makes sense within a loving family, but no sense in the wider world. (Would the Pope turn the other cheek if the Vatican came under attack by Muslim terrorists or would he call upon the armed might of the Italian state?) My point is perfectly obvious in the case of states: they are in the state (condition) of nature with respect to each other. Each state secures by blood and iron a civilized space within which art and music and science and scholarship can flourish and wherein, ideally, blood is not shed; but these states and their civilizations battle each other in the state (condition) of nature red in tooth and claw. Talk of world government or United Nations is globalist blather that hides the will to power of those who would seize control of the world government. Under which umbrella of common values and principles and presuppositions are the so-called United Nations united?
What values do we share with the Muslim world? Do they accept the Enlightenment values enshrined in our founding documents? Obviously not. Christianity has civilized us to some extent. Has Islam civilized them? Their penology is barbaric as is their attitude toward other cultures and religions.
The Allies would not have been long for this world had they not been merciless in their treatment of the Axis Powers.
Israel would have ceased to exist long ago had Israelis not been ruthless in their dealing with Muslim terrorists bent on her destruction.
This is also true of individuals once they move beyond their families and friends and genuine communities and sally forth into the wider world.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all
earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular
-- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been
frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended
protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of
the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the
wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned
against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who
for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good
for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for
others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth
interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics,
Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.]
There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen. As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare.
This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug smuggler or a human trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order. This order is among the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who confuse private and public morality.
David French is such a one.