At the December 13, 1999, Republican debate in Des Moines, then-Texas governor and presidential hopeful George W. Bush was asked, as were the others in the exchange, who was his favourite political philosopher. Which political thinker did he identify with the most, and why?
As the third candidate to respond to this query, Bush stated forthrightly: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” When the moderator asked for more, Bush added, “When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the saviour, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.”
I was not impressed with Bush’s response. Wouldn’t, say, John Locke, have been a more apt answer to this question about political philosophers? Was Governor Bush’s reply just a sop to religious conservatives, I wondered? “Jesus” would have been a great answer, so I thought, had the question concerned influential religious leaders. Indeed, the next day, Bush said in an interview with The Des Moines Register that he had understood the question to be “Who has had the most influence on your life?”
But Jesus as a political philosopher? That’s not instinctive. “Because he changed my heart”? Too pious. Please!
I have had a change of heart, however, regarding Bush’s comments. Setting partisan politics aside for the moment, it now appears to me that Bush actually hit the center of the target when he associated Jesus with political philosophy, whether or not this was intentional. Perhaps his words were an inadvertent, yet providential declaration, like those of Caiaphas in John 11:49-53.
In any case, here is the main point: could there ever be a greater political need than a heart changed by Jesus Christ as the basis for the cultivation of the virtues and practices of citizens, leaders and institutions, whether in a liberal democracy or other forms of government? Surely the attitudes and dispositions of the human heart, both individually and collectively, are ultimately the most powerful political forces on the planet, for good or for ill.
For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted in the first chapter of Strength to Love (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1963), “We must combine . . . a tough [i.e., sharp and penetrating] mind and a tender heart [which the gospel induces].” On the other hand, Mao Tse-Tung, who according to Mao: The Unknown Story “was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime,” once said that “people like me want . . . to satisfy our hearts to the full” (Anchor Books, 2006, emphasis added). Radically different sets of political policies, practices and histories arose from the respective treasures of the hearts of these two men: the American civil rights movement, and Chinese communism. Evidently, the heart of the matter of politics is that politics, ultimately, is a matter of the heart.
Ponder this for just a moment before you read on.
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Could it be, then, that a heart changed by Christ is, at the end of the day, politically momentous? Could it also be that a heart that remains unchanged by Christ is, at the end of the day, equally politically momentous?
Ideas like these were at the heart of the teachings of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.). In Augustine’s understanding, God created us as his image and likeness, and he made us for intimacy with himself. As the doctor gratia wrote most famously in the first book of his Confessions, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As a result, we will never find happiness or ultimate fulfillment in anyone or anything other than the triune God as the proper object of our greatest love.
In our profound ignorance, however, we relentlessly attach our loves to various people, places and things that promise us satisfaction, but fail to keep their promises every time. We become prideful, envious or angry. We depend way too much on money, food or sex. Habits, addictions and co-dependencies result as we continue to pursue things that cannot possibly make us happy on their own. Should anyone or anything block us from obtaining the things we think we can’t live without—those things upon which our sense of well-being depends—we will resort to crime, violence, and even warfare, to obtain them.
In our earnest quest for meaning and purpose without God, our disordered loves disorder our lives, and our disordered loves and lives disorder the world—politics included. As Eric Gregory has shown in his recent book Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (University of Chicago Press, 2008), “the Augustinian notion . . . [is] that human beings and the societies they form are best understood in terms of the loves they embody and express.”
To be sure, there is a variety of disordered loves in the world. Therefore, if the world, politics and the public square are to ever change, we need a change of heart and its fundamental loves. This is exactly where Jesus and the gospel enter the picture. Through Christ, we are reconciled to God, and find our peace in him. We learn to love God supremely and our neighbours as ourselves, in accordance with the two greatest commandments in the Bible. In specific Augustinian terms, God is to be the only proper object of our enjoyment, and we should use everything else appropriately in him. For most of us (really, all of us), this requires a tremendous change—the kind of change that the gospel makes in our hearts.
This Christ-based change of heart eventually changes politics. For the better their loves, the better the people; the better the people, the better their politics. As Augustine states, “A people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their loves, then it follows that to observe the character of a particular people, we must examine the objects of its love.” And he continues, “Obviously, the better the objects of this agreement [about the objects of its love], the better the people.” (City of God 19. 24) What lessons might we learn from this about our own nations and peoples? Our own lives and churches?
Apparently, George W. Bush was right.