Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called “symbiotics.” The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which the symbiotes pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life. (Johannes Althusius, Politica Methodice Digesta, §§1–2)
Category: Of Cabbages and Kings
In his gripping account of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the summer of 480 BC, John R. Hale observes this about the contribution of the Athenians:
Athens alone had mobilized its entire citizen body for the naval effort. . . . The hoplites of Athens had traded their shields and spears for rowing pads and oars. As for the thousands of common citizens, the naval expedition had given them for the first time a feeling of true equality with horsemen and hoplites. Oars were great levelers. Rowing demanded perfect unison of action, and the discipline inevitably generated a powerful unity of spirit. Rich and poor shared the same callused palms, blistered buttocks, and stiff muscles, as well as the same hopes and fears for the future. A new unified Athens was being forged on the decks and rowing thwarts of the fleet. (Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, p. 47)
In Hale’s estimation, it was deployment of the entire Athenian citizenry in naval engagement (at the bold prompting of Themistocles) that laid the foundation of Athenian democracy: because citizens steered the ships of war together, they were eventually prepared to steer the ship of state together.
It’s a fascinating study of how a mutually shared “liturgy” paved the way for a radical reconception of public life and civilization.
I’m following with considerable interest the discussions stemming from Patrick Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism” article in First Things this past summer. We’re starting to hear a lot (e.g., here and here) that the raw polarity of Right and Left in the United States (grimly illustrated in the last election season and beyond) is completely unfruitful, that the stock “conservative” and “liberal” options have gone stale, and that “third ways” are the need of the hour. I think Deneen offers some profound insights as to why this might be the case and how we got here, though his critics aren’t persuaded that he’s right in condemning the American liberal experiment to its foundations. Vincent Phillip Muñoz, for example, wants to distinguish the temptations to which modern liberalism has succumbed from the liberalism asserted in the Declaration of Independence (Deneen responds here). Nathan Schlueter argues that we need to recover, more specifically, the “natural law liberalism” of our founding, which is quite different from its competitors – “social contract liberalism” and “classical liberalism” (Deneen responds here). Most recently, Peter Augustine Lawler has weighed in, and I’m reliably informed that more critical interactions are forthcoming. It’s an exciting and timely conversation.
Last week, Brad Littlejohn and I exchanged briefly on the subject of voting for a pro-abortion candidate (see the comments following his post-election essay). Today he posted a much fuller response to my question. My thanks to him for considering it so extensively, and for his efforts to promote greater understanding among Christians who are seeking to be faithful in their political engagements.
The antiphony of gloating and wailing since Tuesday’s presidential election has been almost as wearisome as the months of inane clamor that led up to it. I have, however, been grateful for a few pieces of truly profound and enriching analysis. Here are four that I commend to you:
1. From Toby Sumpter
2. From Brad Littlejohn
3. From Peter Leithart
4. From Alastair Roberts
There have always been Christians who have little respect for the Christianity that grows under the auspices of a favoring state instead of weathering the harsh rigors of the desert, or who scorn such of their coreligionists as do not make the cut for a spiritual elite. But the Church of God cannot turn itself into a corporal’s guard gathered around the old rugged cross without doing some violence to the universality of the Gospel. (Robert E. Rodes, Jr., “Pluralist Christendom and the Christian Civil Magistrate“)
It’s only January, and I’m already so sick and tired of election commentary, I wish there were a “dislike” button for every time another friend sends out another link on Facebook. That said, I would offer one small comment, in the spirit of showing interest in the future of my country.
I don’t want to be, nor do I want my children’s children to be, ruled by fools. And there are few things God more clearly condemns as folly than the breach of an oath (Eccl 5:4–6). A man who will not keep his vows and oaths is a fool. No two ways about it.
Familiar to us all is the constitutional oath taken by each President of the United States:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States.”
I want a President who is under constitutional law, and who takes his or her oath to preserve, protect, and defend that law seriously. Our constitution is not perfect, but a nation governed by imperfect (amendable) law is a far cry better off than one ruled by fools who swear allegiance to a law they have no intention of upholding. (Do you like your political thuggery blue or red?)
My vote in November will go to a candidate who won’t have his fingers crossed around this time next year. Now that would be a change to believe in.
“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.” (James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, p. 103)
This has everything to do with the biblical political theology our congregation has been exploring in the Books of Samuel:
“[God’s] authority is divinely majestic just because it has nothing in common with tyranny, because its true likeness is not the power of a natural catastrophe which annihilates all human response, but rather the power of an appeal, command and blessing which not only recognises human response but creates it. To obey it does not mean to be overrun by it, to be overwhelmed and eliminated in one’s standing as a human being. Obedience to God is genuine precisely in that it is both spontaneous and receptive, that it not only is unconditional obedience but even as such is obedience from the heart. God’s authority is truly recognised only within the sphere of freedom: only where conscience exists, where there exists a sympathetic understanding of its lofty righteousness and a wholehearted assent to its demands – only where a man allows himself to be humbled and raised up, comforted and warmed by its voice.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.661–62)
Truism: the history of church-state relations is long and troubled. A variety of readings and some recent teaching on the subject, along with my current preaching series in Samuel, have led me to ask this question: if the priests in the Old Testament represent the church, and the kings the state, isn’t it significant that from the beginning the priests are subject to Yahweh’s prophet (the “great prophet” Moses) and that from the inception of the monarchy the kings, too, are subject to God’s prophets (notably Samuel)? Not that the prophets could coerce priests or kings, but they could (and did!) regularly call them to repentance in the strongest possible terms. And doesn’t that say something about how church-state relations should be configured? It is not that the church should rule the state, or the state the church, but rather that both should be subject to the Word of God in the mouth of His holy prophets.