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We face yet another presidential election season, and in the fall, college campuses across the country will host seminars, roundtables, and talks to help students prepare for what’s to come. One question that certainly will arise has to do with Christianity’s relationship to political power, a question that’s hard to escape when former President (and candidate) Trump starts selling “God Bless the USA” Bibles. Of course, the issue has been with us for millennia, beginning with Christ’s reflections on Caesar’s coin.

But we live in this moment, and for some reason, there seems to be no end to commentary related to the question, mostly to highlight problems associated with Christians desiring and seizing political power. A couple of years ago, Russell Moore argued that the events of January 6 represent not just a post-Christian culture, but a post-Christian church. Soon after that, David Brooks published a long-form report of celebrity evangelicals decrying the American church’s connection to Donald Trump, its complicity in sex abuse scandals, and its refusal to take stock of racial injustice in society and within its own doors. He concluded that the church will never renew itself as long it continued its “lust for partisan political power.” Finally, within the last year, journalist Tim Alberta published The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, where he lays out the case that conservative evangelicals in America see the country as their own kingdom to dominate others, rather than a place to serve their neighbors in need.

Given this context, I’d like to enter the fray by asking a more fundamental question—one that hopefully responds to but also transcends our contemporary moment. And that question is the following: is political power and its pursuit really so bad?  To answer this question, I want to provide three words of caution (with one caveat to conclude), using the philosophical categories of epistemology (theory of knowledge), ontology (theory of reality), and ethics (theory of action), to caution the Christian as she pursues political power.

First, Christians should be wary of political power because they are limited in what they know to be right, good, and just. This is the epistemological question. Hubris comes in many forms, but it may come first in ignoring our limitations as knowers. Who speaks for God on what the just tax rate is? 25%? 50%? No tax at all? Is it flat or progressive? It’s tough to say what God thinks about anything if He hasn’t told us directly what He thinks.

When we speak about the nature of justice, our first posture should be one of epistemic humility: we don’t always know what the exact expressions of justice should be in specific situations. Because we’re creatures we are limited, and because we’re sinners we distort the little knowledge we have. We think we see the good in its fullness, but we only see half of it. What we see we willfully forget, distort, and twist for our own purposes. To gain political power means we speak for the community on what is right, just, and good. And yet, we don’t fully know what is right, just, and good.

This first point has some interesting corollaries. For example, it’s one thing to have epistemic humility even when we are successful in achieving what we think is just. But what happens when our efforts fail? Even when we think we know what justice is but are unable to bring it about, it’s quite possible for God to be at work in spite of those failed efforts.  When we believe a particular policy option to be the more just one, can we say with confidence that justice has taken a step back if that option isn’t chosen by those in power? How do we know what God is up to?

Perhaps the best expression of this tension is in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In the speech, you can sense the struggle in his own mind as he tried to explain God’s hand in American affairs. On the one hand, everyone prays to the same God; on the other, the prayers of both cannot be answered. On the one hand, surely nobody could “ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”; on the other, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Why can’t Lincoln make up his mind about God’s perspective on the war? One answer, among many, is that Lincoln was trying to thread the needle between epistemic hubris and epistemic ignorance. I think he was modeling epistemic humility.

Second, Christians should be wary of political power because of the nature of history, reality, and human beings. This is the question of ontology. Even if we had full knowledge of justice, we would be incapable of achieving a fully just regime. Living within a fallen world means that reality is incapable of full transformation by the efforts of human beings in politics. To expect politics to bring perfection to the world is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. It’s just not going to work.

Reality’s inability to be fully transformed in the here and now is complemented by the fact that human materials (to use a phrase from Plato and Aristotle) are not the kinds of materials fit for perfection, at least not now. Both those who act and those who are acted upon suffer from imperfect motives and capacities. Just laws will be broken, and just people will create unjust laws. It’s human nature. The nature of reality and the nature of the humans who live within it are not capable of perfection in this life. To gain political power, then, for the sake of full transformation is a fool’s errand. If humility is required for our knowledge, patience is required as we face reality.

Third, Christians should be suspicious of political power because of what it does to the souls of those who wield it. This is the question of ethics. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton famously said. This is the most pernicious of the three categories, since the person with power won’t be aware of what happens to her when she gains it.

Power has a way of corrupting the soul such that the power-holder is unaware of her corruption. The proverbial upstart has high hopes for changing the world through politics, and within a few years she’s making deals with the devil in the back room. Ungodly ambition then gets connected to the idolatry of tribe and party, and before she knows it, she has no idea why she supports the man or the party he leads. She has been blinded by power, and she’ll tend to justify anything to maintain it. Channeling Augustine, James K.A. Smith notes that the most disordered form of ambition is seen in the one who cares so much about winning that she’s forgotten why she’s competing in the first place. If humility and patience are required for our view of knowledge and reality, circumspection is necessary for our view of human action.

So those are three cautionary words, and I think every Christian and every person would do well to reflect on them. However, I need to register one reservation, even as I affirm everything I’ve just said. In short, the time to pursue political power is paradoxically right when its use is at its most corrupt.

As a student of political philosophy, I can’t help but reference the founding text in the western canon, Plato’s Republic, where Socrates contends that wisdom and power must be united if the city of Athens is to be saved. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, it does no good to desire justice if you don’t have the power to implement it. Despite all of its problems and temptations, it’s just not true that power is bad as such. In fact, Socrates tells those who sit on the sidelines that they’re making a dangerous bet. This bet is that the city will do just fine without their contributions—that, somehow, they can muddle through while someone else takes charge. If they hide their wisdom under a bushel, however, they’re more likely to see cynics and sophists take over, rather than philosophers who love the good. If they sit this one out, the “man in the arena” is more likely to corrupt the city than to bring justice. For the sake of the city and even themselves, the risk of disengagement is not a risk worth taking.

The trick, I suppose, is to meditate on the cautions mentioned above, all the while pursuing justice in the public arena. We live in a world where our knowledge of justice and our attempts to achieve it are both limited and fraught with danger, such that humility, patience, and circumspection are required as we strive for its realization. But Christ’s call to love our neighbor remains, and it must be the final word. For if we abandon political power because of its limitations, our neighbors who need to live in a just community will suffer at the hands of the unjust ones who seize its reins.

Andrew Kaufmann

Associate Professor of Politics and Government, Bryan College Dr. Kaufmann has a special interest in Christian political thought and how Christians should engage the public square. His academic background is in the history of political theory, and his expertise is in contemporary political theory, specifically the political and religious thought of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. More recently, Dr. Kaufmann has developed an interest in the importance of citizenship and civic education, especially in the American tradition. Sharing the sense of crisis that many Americans feel about American democracy, he believes that this may be an opportune moment to educate Americans not just on the issues of the day but on the roots of those issues found in the past.

One Comment

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    One question to ask regarding any candidate or party is: what agenda (i.e. values) drive their policies and actions. I say this, in part, because of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, featuring three men, only one of whose actions (and the values inspiring them) pleased God. Two of the men passing by a badly injured man on the road were religious and knew that they were expected to help the wounded man, but their agenda to safeguard their religious purity overrode whatever duty they might have felt to help the victim. God’s viewpoint is clear: we love God wholeheartedly, and we love people because each was made in God image and likeness. For a candidate to allow any agenda to override the priorities God has set before us should result in an instant “red flag” that ought to make a voter think very carefully about how to cast their vote.