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Political Affections: Civic Participation and Moral Theology

Joshua Hordern
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Stephen M. King, Political Science, Taylor University, and Michelle L. King, Student, John Wesley Honors College, Indiana Wesleyan University

A new release by Joshua Hordern, University Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Oxford, titled Political Affections: Civic Participation and Moral Theology, is a significant addition to our conceptual understanding of the nature and role of affections in politics. Hordern contends that a thorough examination of affections or emotions, using the lens of Christian political theology and contemporary political theory, helps us understand better the decline in individual rights and freedoms (something he refers to as the “democratic deficit”). It also provides political and policy solutions for addressing this deficit.

Drawing from political theory, Christian theology, and Christian Scripture, Hordern explores how affections, depicted in Old and New Testament passages, characters, and narrative, such as the Israelites’ expression of joy through tribal festivals and the early Christians’ depiction of hospitality and hope, influence institutional and policy areas such as healthcare, law, and democratic representativeness. Hordern calls for greater political participation and representation at the local level, with a strong Christ-centered perspective concerning emotions.

A rich conceptual understanding of affections significantly demonstrates how people interact with the local political representatives. This engagement, in turn, enhances civic participation, increases awareness to constitutionalism, and inevitably reduces the decrease in attention to democratic tools and processes in various Western democracies. Political theorists do not accept the important cognitive dimension of human affections; however, Hordern claims this is due less to the fact that cognition and affections are incompatible and more to the fact that their compatibility is not witnessed through the secular lens of political theory and philosophy (2).

Using the term affections has two advantages. First, emotions is considered a non-cognitive term (11). Second, affections is linked to earlier theological usage, dating to Jonathan Edwards’ “account of natural and gracious affections” and Augustine’s argument for explaining why and how the soul has witnessed such an experience (12). Politics is and always has been an emotion-laden enterprise. Policy and political examples abound. For example, the 2009 UK Westminster parliament crisis, which included individual MPs’ revelations of unethical behavior regarding finances, sparked the British public’s wrath.

Hordern lays out his case for what he deems essential: a theoretical renewal of and attention to the cognitive qualities of affections. By this he means that emotions or affections are cognitively directed and intentional, because they are “directed at something or someone” (26). In effect, our affections or passions help us recognize value in an object. For example, Hordern challenges secularist claims to the contrary, such as those from neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who argues against anything religious, and specifically Christian, that may have influence upon the impetus of cognition (38).

To accomplish this task he engages the work of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum “shows how deep theological commitments can influence an analysis of the nature of emotions and their role in politics” (41). She argues that baseline emotions, such as anger, compassion, and hospitality, are acceptable and understandable responses to values or objects, including political. Emotions have a cognitive foundation because they are ordered around what people believe rather than simply how they feel, and thus knowing how and why we feel something, even if it is political, means it is the condition of the particular emotion.

She adopts what Hordern calls a “neo-Stoic” claim, where political judgment about the world is an “assent to an appearance of reality,” meaning that any judgment is an “emotional evaluation” of the principal object, and not simply an “assent to its appearance” (42). For example, the death of Nussbaum’s mother, which was obviously not under her control, involves her grief, and because her grief was directed toward her mother, the affection was stimulated cognitively. Emotions, then, whether toward a relative’s death, or a political event, such as the passage of a law or the election of a controversial figure, are all events that evoke intellectual judgments, and not simply non-evaluative emotional responses.

Nussbaum argues that the “education of emotion” is an important political goal; meaning that from birth to death, and especially as adults, we learn to be interdependent on each other and the world in which we live, including the political world. “Interdependent” does not mean acceptance; it really means vulnerability, because it is when a person is vulnerable with her feelings, or emotions, that she can understand how to relate politically, particularly with justice and compassion. The lack of attention by political theorists to the potentially powerful cognitive role of emotions in the political realm is what contributes to Western societies’ declining emphasis on protection of rights and freedoms.

Hordern claims that affections are positively directed toward political morality in three ways. First, affections begin in the way that people communicate and connect with each other, particularly culturally, starting with the family structure, and continuing into moral and civic life. Second, affections last for long periods of time, primarily because they evoke a deep sense of memory and development of morality. If affections were not long-lasting, then their attraction to and stipulation for initiating and influencing politics and political relations would be negated. And third, affections have established the foundation for describing interconnectivity between the political, eschatological, and the affectionate (119). As affections influence these “beginnings,” so, too, do they influence the end. For example, a key concern for Hordern is to examine “the vindication of Christ in the resurrection,” particularly as it directs attention to the “new moral order” of life (119).

He examines Nussbaum’s political eschatological argument that ultimate existence for humankind is “mature interdependence” and “internal transcendence,” a condition where man leaves behind his childish ways and joins with others in their need for cultural and political community. For Nussbaum, human compassion is the “paradigmatic emotion,” which is able to sustain a political society that is often frayed and frail.

Exploring political affections through the books of Deuteronomy, Luke, and Acts, he maintains that theologically defined and driven political affections are manifested through various means, such as “tradition, memories, and joy” (141-163), where “political affections sustained by Christian eschatology” offer sustainability and service to the value of a human community, largely by “construing the objects valued by a community in relation to the actual moral order disclosed in the gospel” (144). Scripture is explanative of representation, loyalty, and law. Just as “joy” was defined in the gospel as the penultimate affection spiritually and eschatologically, so, too, is joy representative of the spirit of representation best demonstrated by local political leaders, particularly as the means to enable people “to live lawful lives” (163). Affections engage the community. They contribute to the law and our practice of the law. Compassion, for example, is better exhibited in palliative care rather than in life-ending practices, such as physician-assisted suicide.

Since World War II, the “social and political culture… has acted as an intellectual incubator for discussion of the place of affection” (202), particularly in the life of the nation-state. Jurgen Habermas

summarizes the conceptual framework within which his doctrine of constitutional patriotism operates by describing how the “tension between the universalism of an egalitarian legal community and the particularism of a community united by historical destiny is built in to the very concept of the national state.” (205)

Where Habermas argues that this “tension” should favor the nationalism of “cosmopolitanism” rather than local communities, Hordern argues instead that political affections of joy, anger, sorrow, compassion, and so on are much more alive and vibrant through the lens of a single place, a locality, such as Roger Scruton’s memory of his dying England, specifically Dover beach (211). The strength of the cognitive connection between affections and place is what Hordern claims are necessary to identify the weaknesses of Western liberalism.

The means to legitimatize the cognitive connection of affections and political relations, and to transmit political affections to the reality of politics and policy, is through the church. Hordern holds a committed Christian position: “A politics which is not conscious of and receptive to the significance of Christian worship has deeply idolatrous tendencies,” such as “nationalist ethnocentrism or post-nationalist constitutional patriotism” (252). To avoid these idolatrous tendencies, and even realities, whether evident in Hordern’s England or the United States, it is imperative to subscribe (or should we say re-subscribe) to what Habermas recognizes is the critical public role of religion’s character, acting in a sense as a transmitter of various national and local political virtues.

Trust is lacking in our civic world today. What better way to reenergize it than through the conceptually sound and cognitively pure linkage with human affections, rooted in Christian faith and practice, and practiced transparently through the local church body. This transmission process transposes “human life in the work of the Holy Spirit through the body of Christ” (262).

Affections of joy, praise, and hope, expressed by faith through the body of Christ, influence trust in authority, including political authority, and therefore impact our civic participation. The body of Christ, the people of the local church, “recognizes that God’s government is good” and that their praise of joy and hope, expressed for the righteous King, is a form of representation of not only God’s goodness, but his blessed, hopeful working in and through mankind.

The local church is not a place to withdraw from the world, to exit the vagaries of political trials; on the contrary, it is the primary locale where loving and praising people engage the world for Christ. The body’s praises are filled with joy, permitting the people themselves “to be the city on a hill,” shining their beacon of hope to a dead and dying world. This “transposition” permits the godly influence of God’s people to be of service to their environment, society, and world, thus initiating political ethical behavior.

The heart of affections is connected to God’s identification in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is God’s intentionality for us, for all of mankind: that we might know, through the revelation of the “crucified and vindicated Christ,” the true beginnings of political ethics; a knowledge of the “true moral order;” and where to praise and be joyful in Christ is to appropriate to the whole world that living and existing under his rule is joy indeed (277).

This book, which recommends a renewal of political affections, is not simply an attempt to re-conceptualize the cognitive connections with political theory and theology, although that is certainly an important task of this book. It is primarily a call, by the presence and authority of the Holy Spirit, to the crucified and resurrected body of Christ to assume its rightful place in the civic arena. Christians are to be strengthened and emboldened to pursue political truth and preserve civic trust, using as its sword not the political word, but the truth of God’s Word. And ultimately and finally this representation of truth is expressed through heartfelt joy, praise, and hope that only believers in Jesus Christ can evoke.

Cite this article
Stephen M. King and Michelle L. King, “Political Affections: Civic Participation and Moral Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 305-308

Stephen M. King

Regent University
Political Science, Regent University

Michelle L. King

Indiana Wesleyan University
Michelle L. King is an alumna of Indiana Wesleyan University.