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The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation

by glenn tinder
louisiana state university press, 257pages, $29.95 

I seek God! I seek God,” wails the madman. “Whither is God?”

“We have killed him,” cries the crowd, “you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . God is dead. God remains dead.”

Thus Friedrich Nietzsche heralded the death of God, and with that the news that we now live under the terrible burden of being on our own in this world. For Nietzsche, the death of God also meant the death of morality, beauty, truth, justice—all the things that a world with God had had. Now we must make these things for ourselves. But most importantly, thinks Nietzsche, we must realize the seriousness of the task. We properly ought to tremble at the thought of God’s death, which leaves us standing at the abyss, shuddering at what now lies before us. God’s death is not a time of celebration. On the contrary, it is a time of great mourning, of utter dread of what could become of us, and a time of extreme sobriety as we contemplate the task at hand: to forge our own values.

While Nietzsche wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century, the news of God’s demise did not reach American shores until about the 1960s. Time magazine was there when it happened, and has been chronicling America’s quest for happiness without God ever since. Many in America who make their livings talking about politics and morality live, like Nietzsche’s last man, under the assumption that we can “be good without God,” as Glenn Tinder phrased it in the December 1989 issue of The Atlantic. In his new book, The Political Meaning of Christianity, Tinder argues persuasively that this quest for goodness in a world without God is not only futile, but delusionary as well.

The issue is not, as many readers of the Atlantic article mistakenly thought, whether one must believe in God in order to be a “good” person. Some have tried to dispute (their misunderstanding of) Tinder’s point by pointing to a roster of great and virtuous individuals in world history who have been avowed atheists. At the same time, some have catalogued the many horrendous deeds performed by those who have claimed belief in God, or who have even carried out their treachery in “the name of God.”

But these assertions miss completely the more subtle point that Tinder, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, makes in this interesting, though uneven, book. The question is not whether nonbelievers can be good people. Rather, it is the more profound question of whether we can even use such categories as “good” or “evil,” “virtuous” or “vicious.” Nietzsche did not think so. With the death of God, notions of good and evil, truth and falsehood, vulgarity and beauty all must be abandoned. These are notions rooted in the ancient Jewish and Christian notion of a transcendent law-giving God, in whom good, virtue, love, and justice are perfectly embodied. To reject belief in God is also to reject the very category “good.” “We cannot give up the Christian God—and the transcendence given other names in other faiths—and go on as before,” says Tinder. If we give up God, “we must give up Christian morality, too.”

Tinder moves the problem of talking about good and evil from the personal realm into the political. Christianity, be explains, teaches us that politics can have its bearings only with reference to something that transcends it. “Many would like to think that there are no consequences” of the death of God, Tinder writes. They would like to think “that we can continue treasuring the life and welfare, the civil rights and political authority, of every individual without believing in a God who renders such attitudes and conduct compelling.” But like Nietzsche’s great disciple Max Weber, Tinder understands that this is impossible. With the death of God comes not only the death of individual morality, but the end of political philosophy as well. With the death of God, we have no moral references around which to frame political debate. The political virtues of “good customs and habits,” explains Tinder, “need a spiritual base; and if it is lacking, they will gradually . . . disappear.”

For this crucial insight. Tinder is to be applauded. He makes a compelling case that politics without God results in either authoritarian regimes (such as those we have recently seen disintegrate all around us) or in chaotic regimes (which Western democracies must be ever vigilant to avoid). Additionally, Tinder is correct to insist throughout the book that proper politics, since it is derived from something that transcends it, must always recognize its inferiority. Politics is necessary, thinks Tinder, but it is derivative and thus lower.

But this is also the point at which the book shows some significant weaknesses. The reader is never clear just how these transcendentally based goods are to manifest themselves in political life. Nor is it clear why, given Tinder’s extremely pessimistic view of man and the world, Christians ought to taint themselves with politics at all. Throughout the book. Tinder leaves the impression that any participation in the political arena is necessarily participation in evil and injustice. Any effort to right an injustice, he suggests, necessarily results in the commission of another.

While the historic Christian position agrees with Tinder that the fullness of justice is not possible in this world—that any justice accomplished here is but a shadow of God’s justice—it does not agree with him that “the very standards of justice are in mutual conflict.” For Tinder, equality is the “first principle of justice,” and he perceives this principle not simply as equality of opportunity”a level playing field”but as equality of result. Christianity, he maintains, teaches a “principled egalitarianism” in which no individual ought to have greater goods than another. Inequality, Tinder alleges, is inherently sinful, “one of the evils reflecting our fallenness.”

But in order to achieve a proper egalitarianism on the political level. Tinder goes on, it becomes necessary to confiscate the greater goods that some have, and thus commit a different injustice. Some people work harder and have more, and “it would be unjust for such people not to be rewarded.” But since it is inherently unjust that such individuals have more than others, “it is in the nature of the human situation that we cannot be just in one way without being unjust in another.” Equal justice is neither “practical” nor “coherent,” Tinder asserts, since “the pursuit of justice is . . . subject to two irreconcilable demands.” But Tinder’s is not the historic Christian idea of justice. Christian thought makes no claim that inequality, per se, is unjust; one must examine the cause of the inequality to make such a judgment. The Christian idea of equality avoids the incoherence in Tinder’s system.

One might conclude from Tinder’s account, as already noted, that Christians ought to refrain from political activity. He writes as a Lutheran, but his view of politics seems closer to the more radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. “Power is intrinsically evil,” he insists, not just subject to evil uses. Likewise, because it employs power, “the state is essentially evil.” Tinder’s notions of justice (which demands “conflicting imperatives”) and liberty (which is “inevitably accompanied by coercion”) suggest that the proper Christian position is one of quietism. To be involved in politics or political “justice,” on Tinder’s account, one must commit injustice.

Explicitly, though, Tinder rejects quietism, saying that “Christian premises decisively rule out any such conclusion”; and he explains at length how Christians ought to proceed in the political arena. His accounts of justice and the evil of power, he says, point out the ambiguity of political life and the tragedy of human history, but do not imply that one ought to withdraw from political activity. Further, he explains, this description of politics reminds us to proceed cautiously when we enter the political arena, so as to minimize the injustice we inevitably will cause. But still. Tinder thinks, to engage in politics is necessarily to commit injustice.

Politics does involve ambiguity, and at times uncertainty about the very possibility of justice; sometimes an evil act must be committed to prevent a much greater one. But one can take full account of the sinfulness of human institutions without concluding that participation in them necessarily implies sin. Tinder wants to save a place for political involvement, but since for him political life is always participation in injustice, it would seem to follow that the proper Christian position is one of passivity. He removes the possibility of any rational politics, and cannot give an account of how Christians might participate in politics without committing sin.

Tinder is brought to this impasse by a rather truncated view of the Christian tradition. Despite his assertion to the contrary at the end of the book. Tinder’s account of Christianity and political theory is a thoroughly modern one. His Christian tradition dates essentially from 1517, and he gives little notice to the contribution that prior Christian political thought can make to the modern situation. Tinder’s notion of Christian egalitarianism is based upon a Cartesian/Lutheran notion of the “exalted individual,” wherein “all individuals without exception—the most base, the most destructive, the most repellent—have equal claims on our respect,” rather than on a more ancient notion of dignified personhood, in which individuality is only the beginning of a complete view of man. For Tinder, the Christian message is not one of human fulfillment, but of individual exaltation. When he speaks of community, it is not natural but conventional and voluntary.

This modern idea of individual human existence also leads to a concept of agape that seems to depend too much on the liberal notion of natural rights and too little on the Christian doctrine of duty grounded in transcendent love. Spawning his notion of the “exalted individual,” Tinder’s description of agape tends to sound less like a responsibility on my part to love unconditionally (though this responsibility is explicitly stated by Tinder), and more like a claim that I have against others to love me. His notion of agape seems to come more from Rousseau than the Christian tradition, as when he says that agape is what has led to such things as the modern welfare state, where echoes of “Christian” egalitarianism can be seen. Tinder’s “individual” is so exalted that he or she has a claim on my love. Indeed, the agape-inspired exalted individual is coincidental with a “secular value” in which “my claims upon others are rightly matched by their claims upon me.” While Tinder never explicitly equates his notion of agape with rights-based claims, he is not as careful as he might have been to make clear the radical distinction between these two ideas.

The political meaning of Christianity is that politics cannot save us, and all attempts to approach justice and peace in this world are analogous and derivative. Christian faith sits in judgment on all political striving. Tinder fully understands this, but he goes too far when he says that Christianity “condemns” all politics. The ancient Christian notion of politics is that it approximates the justice of the kingdom of heaven. While we cannot achieve perfect peace and justice in this world, we have a model by which we can achieve remedial justice. To acknowledge that political justice is not full or complete is not to say that justice remains entirely elusive or that it is an incoherent concept.

Christian faith does not tell us that there is no possibility of justice in this world. Rather it informs us about models of justice, reminds us that earthly justice is only a shadow of divine justice, and gives us hope for the justice that is to come. This leads to prudence and guarded political activity. We ought not identify religious faith with political goals, but neither ought we to conclude that justice is necessarily incoherent, or that politics is necessarily evil. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, we can take seriously the ambiguity of political life but still see that it can be a noble and honorable pursuit.

The Political Meaning of Christianity has the proper inclination. First, it makes a strong argument that morality and political discourse are doomed to failure without a transcendent reference. Also, as over against typical recent books with similar titles, it makes the fundamental and crucial point that politics and Christianity must never be seen as coterminous. Tinder warns us about even tending in the direction of identifying certain political aims with Christian dogma. For this needed correction, the book makes a valuable contribution.

But Tinder’s neglect of the great tradition of political thought that the first 1500 years of Christianity have delivered to us and his commendable but unsuccessful attempt to escape the language of a modern notion of rights and social justice make the book deficient both in what is said and what is left unsaid. Those who write from a Christian perspective while respecting the good things about modern liberalism must be careful to avoid various pitfalls along the way. To his credit, Tinder clearly recognizes these obstacles, explicitly contrasting what he is trying to advocate from similar but different ideas. But he seems unable to break out of a universe of discourse more conditioned by modern liberalism than by ancient Christianity.

Kenneth R. Craycraft is the Calihan Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.