“Hey, what are you doing here?” a friend asked when I showed up on Tuesday night to watch the election coverage. “Didn’t you write last Thursday, pronouncing politics unimportant?” Not exactly, I said.
Politics is important. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines human beings as political animals. We seek the company of others, invariably organizing ourselves, contributing to collective endeavors—and quarreling over what our common life should be like. Aristotle did not regret the quarrelling. On the contrary, he thought that political life brought out the best in us.
In the first place, it forces us to think. How ought we to organize the public sphere? Who are we? Where do we come from? What must we preserve? What must we change, and why? What ought to be our common goals? What are the best means to achieve these goals?
In the second place, political life forces us to act, for the answers matter little unless we put them into practice. So we develop skills as organizers, acquire a capacity for effective public communication. Further, political life encourages the development of our character, as we develop courage as we face those who think differently, and flexibility, even a certain generosity of spirit, when we realize that we’ll need to compromise in order to get things done.
For these reasons, Aristotle designated the political life—our taking responsibility for public affairs—as the highest form of life.
I don’t agree. Politics is important, but not of the highest importance. There is a deep reason for thinking otherwise, as Aristotle himself recognized at times. There are also practical reasons why our particular electoral system tends to minimize the potential richness of our political life.
First, then, the deep reason.
Jesus was asked whether a faithful Jew should pay taxes to support a pagan Roman regime. His answer accentuated a sharp distinction already present in the monotheism of Israel: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s. Although intertwined at many levels, the affairs of the city of man are distinct from the affairs of the city of God.
The subsequent Christian tradition has elaborated upon this distinction in a number of different ways. St. Augustine took a pessimistic view, accentuating the difference between what he called the city of man and the city of God, while St. Thomas was more optimistic, arguing for important continuities.
Yet the basic thrust of Jesus’ teaching has remained intact. In the Church we participate in a higher and more essential political and public life, a spiritual one, that involves accepting the disciplines of faith and participating in the Church’s common life. What we build in the politics of the city of man will pass away; what we make in the Church—better, what God makes of us—will last forever.
For this reason, it is important for Christians to avoid overinvesting—especially emotionally and spiritually—in politics. We have a clear duty to serve the common good, and this requires a full, intelligent participation in public affairs in accord with our stations in life. But it remains always limited, not only by sin, but also by its very nature as an earthly endeavor.
We must give to Caesar what he is due, but to God what is his. As St. Thomas More famously said on the scaffold, he died “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
In the United States, our approach to democracy makes politics even narrower and less significant, which leads me to my second and more practical point about our calling as Christians living in this particular city of man.
We have a two-party system that follows naturally from our emphasis on winner-take-all elections, as opposed to European-style parliamentary systems that allow smaller parties to enter into coalitions. The effect is to create a political culture organized around capturing majorities by whatever means possible, rather than articulating coherent political positions that will attract a loyal following that can then joint forces with similar parties to create a governing majority.
Coherent positions tend to become political liabilities in a winner-take-all system, because every clear statement will alienate some voters. So we tend to have parties in the United States that maintain the bare minimum of political clarity necessary to motivate their base, while cultivating as much ambiguity as possible to attract independent voters.
This is why clearest and more forceful political advertising is negative. “Joe Smith wants to end Social Security!”—it’s an ad strategy that undermines the studied ambiguity of an opponent’s political party, which like one’s own would rather not say anything at all about how to deal with the projected insolvency of Social Security, since every possible solution carries political costs.
I do not want to make the absurd claim that America political life is less serious than German or Israeli politics where coalition government are the norm. It’s very serious, all the more so because America remains both the dominant world power and the political culture where the two most powerful forces shaping the world today—modernity and religious belief—continue to exercise remarkable influence.
But the fact remains: In a winner-take-all system there’s no official way to exercise power as an articulate minority member of a coalition, as there is Germany or Israel. Within our two-party system, the articulate and motivated cores of the two main parties tend to lose their influence in the election season, because the parties must curry the favor of the undecided, median (and often confused) voter, which involves all sorts of rhetorical tactics that demean the intelligence of most.
If I am right about the systemic source of this feature of our political culture—and I think I am—aside from fascinating questions of political tactics and analyzing spin, there is not terribly much in the electoral season to engage us in the full and robust way that Aristotle envisioned when he described us—favorably!—as political animals.
Moreover, if I am right, and if one cares about the long term political future of America, culture becomes far more important than politics. The political parties are plastic vessels of ambition, always seeking to remake themselves to capture the small percentage of voters in the middle who hold the key to victory.
These voters are in play because their intuitions, hopes, fears, and prejudices—which are more metaphysical than political—are fluid and ambiguous, as the striking and almost certainly temporary shift rightward on Tuesday indicated. Whoever succeeds in shaping and giving solidity to these uncertain sensibilities, intuitions, and prejudices will change the future of both parties.
Welcome to one of the most important goals of First Things magazine.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.