In a democratic political system the people rule, but they do not speak with one voice. Instead, voting citizens have divergent priorities that they bring to political life, and these frequently conflict. These priorities flow out of different world and life views, which, conscious or otherwise, are rooted in clashing salvation stories that people tell themselves and each other. Facing a cacophony of voices, we may be inclined to assume that the gospel’s story is one among equals. But if we look at that story more deeply, we will see that it is truer to reality.
This diversity is something the late Sir Bernard Crick (1929–2008) made much of in his classic 1962 book, In Defence of Politics. Crick describes politics as the art of peacefully conciliating diversity within a particular unit of rule. This requires a forum in which citizens or their representatives can debate and consider the issues that potentially divide them, subjecting them to intense scrutiny to ensure that they are sound and, one hopes, minimally acceptable to the greatest number of people in a polity. Crick did not make much of justice as a political norm, but we do well to recognize that the differences that make politics necessary are not only material differences. In fact, people bring different visions of justice to the political process, and this too is a source of conflict. These visions of justice are often labelled ideologies.
What exactly is an ideology? As Gus Portokalos might put it, “ideology” has a Greek root: “words about ideas.” Too vague! Taken literally, it sounds like a class I might have slept through in high school. Yet for Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836), who apparently coined the term, ideology was something like the scientific study of the formation of ideas. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did ideology come to mean something that would be familiar to us today. Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were the first to put a negative spin on it. For them an ideology is something that masks the realities of economic oppression and functions as a kind of Platonic “noble lie” to maintain existing power relations. It produces a false consciousness in the minds of those in its grip, prompting people to believe in invisible gods and the independent efficacy of ideas as distinct from material productive forces. For the follower of Marx, ideologies are always fundamentally conservative—or, better, preservative, insofar as they artificially extend the life of something that by rights should be dead.
Other observers agree in assessing “ideology” negatively but see it as transformative rather than conservative. Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), Václav Havel (1936–2011), and Crick himself were wary of ideology as a force threatening to cut short the ordinary deliberative processes essential to political life. Here ideology is by no means conservative. Rather, it is a set of programmatic ideas dreamed up in the minds of a self-appointed elite bent on remaking their society. But the ideas are not simply arbitrary. Proponents claim that they are based on superior rationality, or the scientific method (“Just follow the science!”), or a particular understanding of the flow of history. Or they may simply be rooted in the ostensibly rightful aspirations of a particular group of people whose history of oppression justifies the means they have chosen to realize them. Talking with such ideologues is typically useless because they are persuaded of the obvious rectitude of their cause. Yet, as Arendt, Havel, and Crick recognize, ideology in this sense spells the death of politics and tends toward autocratic and even totalitarian rule.
Both understandings have fastened onto a moment of truth. Ideologies can be used to protect unfairly people’s privileges and power. Ideologies can threaten ordinary life with their utopian illusions insufficiently grounded in the real world. Yet I believe there is more to them than meets the eye. What if the political ideologies to which we have become accustomed for more than two centuries are fundamentally religious in character? Might they tell a story—or perhaps several stories—complete with a God substitute, a messiah, and a counterpart to the kingdom of God?
In what way can an ideology be seen as religious? We need to be aware that God has created human beings to respond to him actively. Everyone is a person of faith. Even those claiming not to believe in God or a god inevitably place their faith in someone or something to which they ascribe the power and glory assigned to divinity. As H. Evan Runner put it, life is religion. This means that we who are fallen from our original created goodness tend to follow false gods. As John Calvin put it, “The human heart is an idol factory.” Even when we claim to follow the one true God who has revealed himself uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ, we remain sinners with divided ultimate allegiances. This means that idolatry remains a great temptation for us, despite our intentions otherwise.
In reading the Bible, we are confronted with idolatry at virtually every turn. In the ancient world, each nation had its own gods to whom members were expected to pay homage. The Canaanites had Baal and many other gods and goddesses, while the Philistines, originally migrants from the Aegean region, worshipped Dagon and a host of other deities, some of whom they shared with the Canaanites. The Israelites worshipped the God who created heaven and earth, who revealed his unutterable divine name, YHWH, to Moses (Exodus 3). Despite God’s repeated warnings not to worship other false gods (e.g., Exodus 20:3–6; Deuteronomy 5:5–10), the Israelites time and again divided their loyalties among the gods of the surrounding nations, returning to the true God only after experiencing adversity or at the instigation of one of their rare righteous kings, such as Josiah. Ancient peoples raised altars to gods made of stone and wood and bowed before them at their shrines.
Idolatry is based on taking something out of God’s good creation and elevating it to the position of a god. Idolaters worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 8:25), mistaking the good of creation for the Source of all good. Today we—at least most of us—no longer bow to stone images that we esteem as gods. Our idols are more subtle, rarely revealing themselves as such. We seek material prosperity, career success, fame and fortune, sexual satisfaction, scientific knowledge, technological mastery, and other undoubted goods. Each of these in its proper, modest place is worth pursuing. But if we spurn the one true God, we will tend to take one of these elements and make it the ultimate good, with other factors becoming at best ancillary.
When we look at the public life of our respective nations we see the outworking of these various idolatries as they manifest themselves in the several political ideologies vying for power. The labels are familiar: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, socialism, and even something I’ve inelegantly labelled democratism. Proponents of each of these assume that they are seeing the world more clearly than their opponents. They easily see the flaws in their rivals’ approaches, mostly because the flaws really are there, available for everyone to see. However, the partisans of a particular political vision are typically blind to its flaws, despite others easily picking up on them. Yes, debates in legislative bodies often revolve around different prudential judgments on the wisdom of this or that policy proposal. But often the parliamentarians talk past each other because each is committed to a different vision of political life based on rival world and life views.
Let’s focus on liberalism, because liberalism is arguably the most powerful ideological vision in North America, if not the entire Western world. I do not restrict my remarks to a party with the liberal label because many ostensibly non-liberal parties manifest liberalism’s influence. Above all, liberalism is based on the sovereignty of the individual, and its principles were worked out quite early in the writings of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
What’s right about liberalism? Actually, quite a lot. Under the influence of liberalism, we properly value individual freedom—the sorts of liberties we typically find spelled out in bills or charters of rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience. Today the scope of individual liberty is far greater than it was for our ancestors, who generally followed their parents into a trade, married someone chosen by the larger community, worshipped with that same community, and were tied to the land where they were born. We now expect to have a wide latitude for exercising freedom of choice. Young people reaching adulthood do not reflexively take on their parents’ occupations. They may move to a new place, attend university and major in a preferred field of studies, marry someone they have met at university or the workplace, decide how many, if any, children to have, and so forth. If parents try to interfere in their adult children’s lives, we sense that something is amiss. They have not allowed their children to assume the ordinary adult responsibilities into which they have grown. Or if the state unduly meddles in the lives of adults, this too is a cause for concern. The adult individual properly commands a sphere of what might be called personal authority over the course of his or her own life, something that has been enhanced by the technological advancements of recent centuries.
However, for all the good that liberalism has brought about, it fails at the very point at which it contributes most: it makes too much of the individual! Followers of liberalism hold that freedom of the individual must take priority over virtually all other considerations, especially those of a communal character. This gives them a distinct preference for voluntary associations over institutions. Moreover, where they can do so, they pursue policies bent on reducing basic institutions, such as state, church, marriage, and family, to mere voluntary associations, capable of being entered and quit at will by individual members. Yet in the real world we are born with obligations to such institutions and indeed the very self is shaped by things over which we receive but do not choose. We are citizens of a state by birth and, as such, have responsibilities to it. We are born to a specific family, owing obedience to our parents as children and care to them as they age. Many Comment readers are Christians born and baptized into a specific church congregation, our parents making vows on our behalf to which we are obliged to live up when we reach maturity. In short, the most important institutions in our lives operate apart from, and shape, our wills, and we benefit from this reality.
There’s more. Yes, liberalism does make an idol of the individual and her subjective desires. But it also tells a story of salvation that mimics in some fashion the biblical redemptive narrative. The grand story of the Bible takes us from creation (Genesis 1–2), to the fall into sin (Genesis 3), to redemption in Jesus Christ, to the final consummation of the kingdom of God at Christ’s return in glory. It’s an ancient story that has aptly been described as the world’s story. The early liberals told a far different story, taking us from an original state of nature, a potentially warlike state in which individuals must fend for themselves according to their own abilities; to a social contract freeing the parties from its dangers; to a more stable civil commonwealth; with a possible withdrawal of the contract in case the magistrate breaches its terms; capped by a return to stability and a more certain enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.
In recent years the liberal story has taken at least two different, related forms. Above all, the liberal redemptive narrative is one of the achievement of liberty or freedom. According to one version of the story, this freedom may be a goal secured for the long term by a written bill or declaration of rights. The happy ending to the story has a society of individuals enjoying this freedom, which they must henceforth jealously guard against all future threats, especially from the state. But once enshrined in a constitutional document, they become the permanent heritage of the people or perhaps of humanity as a whole. The Declaration of Independence presupposes this story in its assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
There is, however, another version of the liberal story, which sees humanity caught up in an endless struggle to achieve an increasing number of freedoms from all sorts of limits—political, social, economic, and even natural. Here freedoms in the plural are not a stable list of immunities to be protected by an alert populace, but mere stages in a constant expansion of autonomy. Emancipation is never complete, but a constant process in which individuals increasingly become their own masters, seeking liberation from one constraint after another, all of which are deemed oppressive. The story moves from one frontier to the next, the final goal located in a future that never fully arrives. But that doesn’t matter. Even a hypothetical future state of freedom functions as motivation for continual action on its behalf.
The other ideological visions tell similar redemptive stories, including the liberation of the nation from outside oppressors, the achievement of the classless society by a messianic proletariat, and the progressive inclusion of more people into what is sometimes called the democratic way of life.
Is Christianity an ideology? Yes and no. Yes, it can become such if professed Christians are too enamoured of one of the faux redemptive stories told by, say, liberalism, socialism, or nationalism. In South Africa, many Reformed Christian Afrikaners—descendants of the original Dutch, French Huguenot, and German settlers at the Cape of Good Hope—launched a “Christian National” movement in the early twentieth century that eventually spawned apartheid between 1948 and 1994. In 1930s Germany, a movement of Deutsche Christen sought to adapt the Christian faith to the reigning national socialist ideology, with destructive consequences for scores of millions of people. In the 1960s and ’70s, liberation theology made inroads among Christians in Latin America who rightly saw injustice in the maldistribution of productive resources throughout the region. Yet in joining the Christian gospel to a Marxist class analysis, it effectively adopted an alternative redemptive story in which activists and revolutionaries would save their societies through their own efforts.
Christians, like all of us, are prone to succumb to the temptation to embrace another such story—something that promises earthly salvation on human terms. As such we are not so much living out God’s kingdom in our daily lives as undertaking to build an approximation of that kingdom in our own societies. It is tempting to ascribe redemptive significance to our own fallible goals and policy proposals. Because the regnant ideologies have formulated their own solutions to social ills, and because one cannot simply draw a program of cultural or political renewal straight from the Scriptures, Christians too easily latch onto a ready-made agenda offered by the ideologies, bypassing the hard work of fleshing out the implications of the biblical narrative for our shared life as citizens of a political community. Hence the proliferation of Christian nationalists, Christian socialists, and even Christian Marxists.
But no, Christianity, properly understood, is not an ideology in that it is not just one more world and life view competing with other worldviews for the hearts of people everywhere. In our current relativist climate many of us are inclined to think of different worldviews as subjective preferences among which we can choose with no significant consequences attached to our choice. We treat the worldview options available to us as if they were a restaurant menu, whose various selections are a matter more of personal taste than of truth versus falsehood. But no, the test of a world and life view lies in how well it accounts for, well, the world. A way of life prescribed by one of the worldviews must be judged by whether it is firmly based in the realities of the cosmos. Whereas the several ideologies I treat in my book Political Visions and Illusions have fastened onto a genuine moment of truth, each in some fashion distorts the real world, failing to comprehend its full complexity. Liberalism tries to reduce the multiplicity of human communities to mere voluntary associations. Marxist socialism views society through the lens of class struggle, neglecting to see other factors conditioning human life. Nationalism cannot make sense of the multiple overlapping loyalties of ordinary people, esteeming the nation as their highest, if not their only, allegiance.
By contrast, the biblical world and life view, because it is based on a recognition that God upholds his creation, which is manifested in a huge diversity of forms, is freed from the need to find a single principle of unity within that creation. We needn’t look for a supreme authority or for a single aspect of reality as key to reality. More easily than the followers of the ideologies, we can affirm what I’ve called societal pluriformity, or the pluriformity of authorities. Families are families. Schools are schools. Businesses are businesses. Of course each of these communal formations has arisen within historically conditioned circumstances. Families in fifth-century-BC Persia looked quite different from their twenty-first-century North American counterparts. The modern state, understood as the community of citizens led by their government, came into existence only around half a millennium ago. The modern limited-liability corporation looks quite different from the ancient Roman household, which combined several functions, including economic, into a single undifferentiated community. Nevertheless, there are constants tying together these forms across the ages. The modern state is still defined by its requirement to do public justice in balancing a variety of interests, something that local rulers were expected to perform prior to the rise of the state. Despite the differences across cultures and ages, each of these communities has its own distinctive status and calling in God’s world. In this respect, biblical faith stands apart from the ideologies, secure in the knowledge that our world belongs to God and that he has redeemed it from sin and will finally renew it at his pleasure according to his timing.