Christianity and Politics VII: Family, Community, Nation
Politics dominates our news outlets and social media. This is not surprising, given the immense amount of power held by our governing officials. We like to imagine that we can tap into that power and make the world a better place–or maybe just get some of that power for ourselves.
The allure of political power, however, easily blinds us to something equally, if not more, important. Political power is something that can be used for good, but politics is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. There are many different realms and spheres of human life that must flourish if the political order itself is to prosper. Let me explain.
Man, a Commonwealth in Miniature
It is often claimed that in the Reformation Protestants swept away everything that had come before them and that they did not believe anything unless they could point to chapter and verse in the Bible that proved it. This would include not just topics like who God is, or how sinners are saved, but even things like science, philosophy, art, and yes, politics. This is far from the reality we encounter, however, when we turn to the original sources themselves.
What we actually see is a robust appropriation of much that had come before, though purified, with excesses and unwarranted accretions removed. This is true in many areas of thought, including ethics and politics. Many contemporary evangelicals would be shocked to learn that the consensus teaching of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Protestant theologians on ethics and politics simply began with the classics: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, and the rest.
The sixteenth-century Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600) is a case in point. On the Law of Nature, his book on Christian ethical and political thought, often reads as little more than a compendium of ancient philosophers. This was not because Hemmingsen lacked confidence in the Scriptures, but simply because he recognized the many ways in which even pagan philosophers had come to understand genuine–and vital–truths about God’s world, truths about individual virtue, family life, the civil order, and more.
In one particularly memorable section Hemmingsen says the following:
But since man is, as it were, a commonwealth in miniature, the result is that the virtues of the soul by which the soundness of the state of man is preserved should be transferred to the society and dominions of men. For by these four virtues—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—men’s societies are preserved, that is, their households and polities.1), p. 70.]
Hemmingsen insists–to put it differently–that the world is like a complex machine: many individual moving parts working together harmoniously to accomplish a singular goal, namely, a virtuous and healthy society and world. Political power at the highest levels is certainly not the only realm Christians should care about. In fact, starting at that level will almost inevitably ensure that one’s nation does not thrive.
Hemmingsen is not unique in saying these things. But he does helpfully encapsulate an entire tradition of classical Protestant thought, focused as it is on the necessity of attending to the welfare of every level of human society so that the whole will be healthy too.
Hemmingsen, then, following in the classical tradition, naturally begins with the individual: “Man is, as it were, a commonwealth in miniature.” Just as a nation can be ordered or disordered, healthy or unhealthy, virtuous or vicious, so can be a man. Thus, “the good for man,” Aristotle rightly notes, “is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”2 Hemmingsen, in similar fashion, insists that the four cardinal virtues of the classical world (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, which he takes to be thoroughly biblical) are the only sure foundation ensuring that “men’s societies are preserved, that is, their households and polities.” If the majority of individuals in a nation do not pursue virtue, the commonwealth cannot long endure. “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), and lawlessness destroys everything it touches (2 Thess 2:3). The very purpose of laws, quoting Aristotle again, is to make individual men good, so that nations themselves will be good:
This truth is attested by the experience of states: lawgivers make the citizens good by training them in habits of right action—this is the aim of all legislation, and if it fails to do this it is a failure; this is what distinguishes a good form of constitution from a bad one.3
John Adams would agree: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As Solomon puts it in Proverbs: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov 14:34). If a nation is to be ruled with righteousness (virtue) it must begin in the heart of the individual. However, that can never be the end of the matter. It is simply the first step.
The second step is the family. Another Protestant theologian of the same era as Hemmingsen, the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics writes the following:
Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics. I see this order as circular. Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good men. If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics. And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each man becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes not only for the body but also for the spirit, and they will take care that citizens live according to virtue.4), p. 12. On the family see also Hemminsen, On the Law of Nature, pp. 77-80.]
The family is an absolutely indispensable intermediary institution between the individual and the nation or state (Vermigli’s commonwealth). And here too virtue is central. Protestants saw much in the classical tradition to emulate regarding the family too, though their views were also saturated in Scripture (Gen 1–2; the fifth and eighth commandments; Eph 5:22–6:4; Heb 13:4; etc.). There are objectively good and bad ways of being a husband or a wife, of being parents, and of being children. Virtue must be inculcated in the life of the family for it to flourish, but also for nations to flourish, since families are the pre-political groupings in which individuals relate to the state. As Vermigli puts it: “If the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.” In our own context, the centrality of the family for national well-being was put memorably in the eighteenth century by Alexis de Tocqueville:
While the European seeks to escape his domestic woes by stirring up trouble in society, the American’s home is the well from which he draws his love of order, which he then carries over into affairs of state.5
Would that a love of order were cultivated in our homes and desired by our governing officials, and thereby carried over into affairs of state.
The family is not the only intermediary between the state and the individual, though it holds a place of pre-eminence due to its biblical status. Protestant theologians and political theorists, in a variety of ways, have also insisted that a healthy nation must be composed of a variety of groups and institutions that carry out countless indispensable functions for a nation and people, functions that cannot be adequately managed in any other way.
The seventeenth-century Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius (1563-1638) described the great diversity of intermediary institutions (collegia) which can exist in the world like this:
The types of collegia vary according to the circumstance of persons, crafts and functions. Today there are collegia of bakers, tailors, builders, merchants, coiners of money, as well as philosophers, theologians, government officials, and others that every city needs for the proper functioning of its social life. Some of these collegia are ecclesiastical and sacred, instituted for the sake of divine things; others are secular and profane, instituted for the sake of human things.
In Althusius’ day the state made little attempt to regulate the minutiae of human life. Totalitarianism was impossible from a technological and a governmental-administrative standpoint, and undesirable from a philosophical one (though, no doubt, some would-be tyrants would have desired otherwise). It is no surprise that one of the central priorities of the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia was to eliminate all intermediary human institutions, because these organizations allowed citizens to manage and direct their own lives, to solve their own problems in collaboration with others, rather than at the command of the state. The state’s power to control its citizens ideologically is radically curtailed when other institutions take responsibility for vital local, state, and even national interests.
Roman Catholicism articulates a similar concern for intermediary institutions in its doctrine of subsidiarity, which “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” Among modern Protestants, Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of sphere sovereignty attempted much the same thing:
There can therefore be no disputing the independent character of the life of the people. Society, family, and household lead their own independent existence—an existence that is neither created, nor maintained, nor regulated by the government. . . . It is therefore simply not true that government encompasses our entire life and that on its own authority it must regulate our entire lives. On the contrary, we lead our own personal lives independently; the same is true for households and for society as a whole.6
Althusius’ collegia, Catholicism’s subsidiarity, and Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty, in their own unique ways are all attempting to articulate a vital principle: the state does not own its citizens, and is not designed to solve all of society’s problems. The state’s authority, while great, is not all-consuming. Many areas of life are left by God to individuals, and collective bodies of individuals, to determine. Scripture provides evidence of this, but so does nature itself. “Man is by nature,” Aristotle rightly observed, “a political being.”7 “Culture,” then, “should develop in partnership with our design, not against it.”8 As has been evident throughout history humans, as social animals, are designed naturally to form collective organizations to tackle pressing problems, problems the state is not intended to handle.
A healthy society is like a living organism: the individual, the family, and various intermediary organizations, all in one harmonious whole. But where, if at all, does the nation figure into this? The most prominent voices in our culture decry the very idea of the nation–with secure borders, attending vigorously to its own national well-being, etc.–seeing a defense of the nation as little more than a pretext for jingoism, xenophobia, or worse.
What is the Christian response? In short, nations are (or at least are meant to be) good things. This claim can be defended in a variety of ways, but I’ll simply focus on one. The Bible takes for granted that nations exist as distinct entities, with real authority (and corresponding duties) derived from God (Gen 10; Isa 2:2, 4; Matt 28:19; Rev 5:9; 22:2; etc.). Justice, therefore, demands that nations exist in a certain way: it is just for nations to protect their territorial integrity, defend themselves against unjust aggression, welcome guests as they see fit, and provide for the well-being of their citizens, just as nations are held accountable to God for the justice (or its absence) that exists within their borders. The question is not whether nations should exist, but whether they will exercise the power given to them by God justly or not. Nations do not exist in a moral vacuum any more than do families or individuals.
This, then, brings us to the question of whether we should embrace the label “Christian Nationalism.” The first thing to say by way of answer is that any approach that argues that God’s moral law (as known from Scripture, but also nature) is the only sound basis for legislation, jurisprudence, and governance will be called Christian Nationalist today. Labeling it as such is often an attempt to scare ordinary Christians into backing away from the fact that society cannot be well governed in a moral vacuum, and that God’s moral law is the only sound alternative to moral anarchy.9 Christians should simply be aware of this dynamic and not allow it to cause them to back away from what they know to be good and true.
But that doesn’t fully answer the question. I believe that Christian Nationalism is an unhelpful label for two reasons. First, despite many careful proposals and definitions, the phrase is used in many contradictory ways, even by those who apply the label to themselves. There is a magisterial Protestant version, there is a Baptist version, and then there is a kind of folksy appropriation of the phrase that really doesn’t signify much more than that Christians who love their country and seek its well-being recognize that its well-being is impossible without God. The magisterial and Baptist versions, while having much in common, are incompatible on the question of the role of the civil magistrate with regard to spiritual matters.10 What would I signify by claiming to be a Christian Nationalist? It is still not clear to me that I would signal something precise enough to most of my fellow citizens, even to those who like the label. Second, I remain unconvinced that the label is pragmatically useful in our setting. I think it probably still scares more people who are on the correct side of cultural issues than it persuades. Thus, I think it ends up being a distraction and diversion from more important matters.
The discussion above has been somewhat abstract. What would a society so described look like in practice? Since this series is about Christians and politics I’ll close with some brief reflections on what the state could do with regard to the different spheres of society.
With regard to individuals, the law should seek what is right, which is the same thing as what is genuinely good for people as individuals. This would mean things like not just banning transgender surgeries for minors, but banning them for everyone. They are objectively destructive for the individuals having them performed on themselves. Their feelings about this don’t matter. The very notion that “consenting adults” can act however they choose so long as consent is involved must be abandoned. This slogan has done untold harm to countless individuals, and to society as a whole.
With regard to the family, it could mean laws that encourage people to get and stay married, as well as to have and nurture children, laws banning pornography, and laws (and other incentives) disincentivizing divorce. Education savings accounts are another possible option, allowing private-school and home-school families to regain a portion of their taxes currently spent to educate other people’s children.
For intermediary institutions, there are too many different kinds to speak to how the law can support them in detail, but clawing back power from the federal government and returning it to intermediary institutions better equipped to serve civil society would be a good start. The state doesn’t have to exercise draconian control over the different spheres of society in order to be supportive of their well-being. It can pass laws that are conducive to the thriving of individual, familial, communal, and intermediary institutions without trying to take over those areas of life.
What would it look like with regard to the nation? It would include at least the establishment of law and order, secure borders, responsible governmental expenditures, and fiscal responsibility.
Put most simply: in every realm of society legislation and laws (and custom) should be oriented toward virtue. As Aristotle rightly said, “Lawgivers make the citizens good by training them in habits of right action—this is the aim of all legislation.”11 Civil law obviously cannot regenerate the hearts of sinners, but good laws, rightly enforced, can lead to civic well-being in every realm of human society.
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