King's Evangelical Divinity School

7 March 2010

The Christian Academy and Christians in Politics

At the Evangelical theological conference I've been attending I am struck by how a substantial number of people I've listened to at debates or chatted with lean towards the political left (I think the preferred term is "progressive"). Now it is a truism that the academy always tends towards radicalism and the left. But it is also the case that in politics many politicians on the left move somewhat towards the right when they gain power (according to my politics professor during my MA studies, a classic historical example is the British Labour Party). Of course, there are exceptions to this and most rules. Thus, some people within the academy are on the right, while some on the left do seem to shift further leftwards when in power (though some of these, I think, are actually populists employing leftist rhetoric, but that is an issue for another day).

So the exceptions aside, what are the reasons for a left-leaning academy and politicians who shift rightwards towards the centre? I'm not sure, though I suspect in the case of the academy it is a place driven by idealism, as well as an arena in which to exchange ideas and in doing so challenge the status quo and the Establishment. Meanwhile, I suggest the cold, hard realities of the political world arguably lead politicians to ditch idealism in favour of pragmatism, firstly to get things done, and secondly, because there is a realisation that academic idealism and utopianism is somewhat of a pipedream in the real world. Enter Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism.

Whatever the reasons for both these political tendencies, I do not believe these two stereotypes of the academy and political world should be permitted to influence Christians in either arena. The Christian academy should certainly not be shaped by the world's currents, trends, political outlook, worldview and philosophy. Such postmodern ideals will pass one day, as indeed the scepticism of modernity's biblical criticism - and indeed various philosophical influences upon Christianity during its 2000 year history - has now passed into oblivion. And that's the point, isn't it? When the Christian academy permits the world to influence its mindset and worldview it enslaves itself to the dominant fashion of the pervadign Zeitgeist. This is, in a very real sense, worldliness, that is, allowing the world's values to rub off and influence the Church and its actions. Instead, the Christian academy should be thoroughly biblicist in its approach to issues (and not just issues but in shaping its own agenda and worldview), seeking to establish and walk its own path rather than emulate that of the secular academy. It should be radical by all means (after all, Jesus was incredibly radical), but being radical means being something completely different to what is already out there. Yet all too often, Christianity offers a carbon copy (and a poor one at that) of what the world has to offer. In short, the Christian Evangelical Left should not look much like the Democrats or Labour Party, while the Evangelical Right should not be a religious carbon copy of the Republican or Conservative parties. Indeed, there should be no Evangelical Left or Evangelical Right in the first place, as these are simply examples of how the world has rubbed off on us so that we even categorise ourselves on that basis. But of course human nature and things like political cleavage make it hard for us to shake off these ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, from the political perspective (and here is why, perhaps, Christians don't make good politicians) Christian politicians should not be driven by pragmatism and realism, because this is the route of compromise and watering down one's Christian, biblical values. Rather, the Christian politician should be driven by idealism and firmly challenging the status quo. But of course in this route lies a short political career.

It seems to me, then, Christian radicalism means a Christian academy which espouses realism and pragmatism, while Christian political outlook and activity should be zealously idealist and keen to challenge the status quo. But of course the opposite very often seems to be the case. Everything just seems so messed up, doesn't it?


Philip said...

I agree with you. As a Christian (let alone with a political hat on) I cannot identify entirely with one political party.

On the issue of how and why academics lean leftwards, Robert Nozick had a very interesting piece on the subject, here.

And I may as well put my cards on the table, but Hayek had some great things to say about this in 'The Fatal Conceit': basically smart people think they can understand and plan things better, so they will tend towards supporting central planning.

Stuart said...

Gonna cross-post this one.

Andrew Sibley said...

Hi Calvin. Very interesting posts, and I broadly agree ;o) The division of left and right in politics seems to be a division between the left which preaches social responsibility, and the right which preaches personal responsibility, although today this division is less obvious. As Christians I believe we should balance personal and social responsibility together - as you say we should be idealists for Christ. This secular division though is quite artificial as both left and right are influenced by Platonism - unsuprising as the Greek Classics are required reading for many of the elite in Eton and Ox-bridge. So politicians of all shades tend to see themselves as philosopher kings with the masses either turned into productive units to pay taxes for social programmes, or to be almost slaves to big business.
Some of the worst aspects of Greek philosophy is that it has less respect for the traditional family unit as understood in the Bible, therefore children are seen as the property of the state, which then demands more control over their lives than their parents. The traditional family unit is broken up, and education for the majority is dumbed down.
The city state of Polis also needs a high class armed force loyal to the rulers i.e. a Polis force.