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My students and I have been discussing Aristotle’s political thought recently. Yesterday, our discussion centered around Aristotle’s insistence that the political association must be about more than the protection of rights (in essence a mutual defense alliance). Aristotle instead endorses civic friendship in which our lives are truly interwoven in pursuit of substantive justice.

As we talked, it occurred to me that President Obama ran as an Aristotelian in this sense. HE would be the one to lift us beyond our petty, individualistic concerns toward a higher vision of community justice. WE, upon joining him, would become the ones WE have been waiting for. Candidate Obama successfully pleaded his case for a left-of-center version of civic friendship.  President Obama has had a tough go of implementing it as the consequences become manifest.

All the way around the table, the students were skeptical of the possibility that a government can move from our current pluralism to unity around some vision. Instead, they seemed to prefer the idea that government sets fair rules and conditions for people to pursue their individual ends. Because my students are mostly Christians, I moved the example away from President Obama to a Christian republic in which people aren’t forced to be Christians but where Christian moral norms hold sway. They didn’t have much hope or enthusiasm for that, either. Or, at least, they thought it was equally impossible in our current culture.

I wonder if there is a clue here indicating to us the limits of an instrumentality like the state and pointing toward the possibilities of the church.

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