Peter Leithart asks: Can Civil Society Fix Us? More to the point, he wonders whether civil society as a disparate collection of communities can offer the same challenge to the expansive state that the imposing edifice of the medieval church did to the ambitions of the political rulers of its day.
With William Cavanaugh, I wonder if civil society is (in practice as well as in theory) a construct of the modern nation state and, if so, whether it can pose a real alternative to rampant statism. I wonder too if civil society really has the viscera to do what its advocates want it to do. When medieval rulers overstepped, there was a bishop at the door, terrifying with a real spiritual sword. Before modernity, the counterweight to state power was not some amorphous cobble of associations but a church with real power and a structure just as rigorously organized as the king’s realm, often more so. Solidarity brought down the Polish Communist regime, but would it have done so without a Polish Pope? Civil society looks like an alternative church, and an anemic one. Constantine had a better idea: Empower the church.
Leithart is correct, I believe, to emphasize that the rise of civil society as we know it largely coincided with the rise of the modern state. Both are a product of what Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd describes as the differentiation of society. Writing on Dooyeweerd's social and political philosophy, Jonathan Chaplin points out that “the modern state actually made possible the arrival of civil society. The two were joined at birth and . . . they can no longer be separated.” The consolidation of the state's authority made possible the emergence of a legally-protected sphere of action independent of itself. In that respect, there is something peculiarly modern about civil society, at least in the form familiar to us.
However, I do not think it especially helpful to think of civil society as part of an effort to “fix” something, whether it be the overweening state or the “corrosions of the market and its protean values.” In fact, I believe that Leithart largely misses the point in calling civil society “a proposal for social salvation that doesn’t make any mention of the Savior.” Whether we call it by this name or by something else, civil society amounts to nothing more remarkable than the historic tendency of human beings to organize their activities into multiple communities differentiated according to their principal tasks. The state does not stand aloof from this collection of communal formations; it is an integral part of it. Schools educate children, not in opposition to the state, but simply because children need to be taught. Business enterprises produce goods and services of value, because these are needed and this is what businesses do. The state is called to do public justice in a way to which the state is peculiarly suited. If it fails in this task and claims too much for itself, as many states have done, other institutions may have to check it, but, as Yves R. Simon has correctly emphasized, their very existence as non-state communities is often sufficient for this purpose. In any case, functioning as a check on the state is by no means their primary reason for existence. Civil society will not save, and most of its champions do not expect it to.
As for the church, we cannot make sense of its place in society without initially distinguishing between the corpus Christi, on the one hand, and the institutional or gathered church, on the other. The corpus Christi, or body of Christ, in principle encompasses the whole of redeemed humanity in all of its various activities, whether or not they are overtly “religious,” including those deemed part of civil society. By contrast, the institutional church is a specific differentiated community charged with the task of preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments and being a witness to God's love in the context of the worshiping community. It is no mere voluntary association, along the lines of the local garden club, the bird watching society or the professional group. Yet, like the state, the school, the business and the labor union, the institutional church has its own distinctive sphere and task—not to save us from the state, once again, but to mediate God's saving grace, to nurture its members in the faith and to support them in living the life of obedience before God in Christ. Whether led by a formidable bishop capable of striding confidently into the Oval Office or by a body of local elders, the existence of the institutional church as signpost to the coming kingdom is indicative that the state does not command the ultimate loyalty of its citizens.
Nevertheless, the institutional church, while not a voluntary association, is not “an alternative public or an alternative civic order” either. It has no pretensions to replace the state in its task of doing justice. It is, rather, the visible sign of the covenant between God and his people. As such there is much that it cannot and ought not to do. It cannot restore the nation, as those of a more conservative bent might like. Neither can it be enlisted in a variety of social and political causes, as the more progressive would prefer. Yet in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, it points confidently and authoritatively to the only Person who can fix us.
David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.