As politicians and others debate whether and to what extent the state should protect freedom of religion in Australia, it’s worth recalling the ways that Christianity has in fact made the state as we understand it – and not infrequently protected the individual from it.
We are to be committed to the good of all
Wherever we may stand on the political spectrum, there are at least five insights Christianity has brought to political understanding in the West over the centuries. Insights that have become so deeply embedded that many people are ignorant of their origin.
These insights, highlighted in a long essay by Michael Matheson Miller on the Law and Liberty website, hold true despite the mixed legacy of the church and individual Christians over history.
Since Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it has been subject to the negative influences of greed and ambition that gained little foothold when it was the religion of mainly the poor and oppressed. Since then, the church has often sided with power and with oppressors, and acted to preserve its own status and wealth, as we have seen right into the 21st century. Political power has been abused in the name of religion.
Nevertheless, the contributions that Miller identifies as born of faith’s assumptions about the state, the individual and conscience are vital to a flourishing democracy.
1. The state is not divine. In first-century Rome, the emperor was a god and morality, politics and religion were all part of the one system with one authority. Then came Jesus with his revelatory instruction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. He clearly separates the two and decrees the state is not sacred.
There have been many secular attempts to make the state sacred, from the ancient empires of Egypt, Assyria and Rome to the French Revolution, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
2. The state does not trump the individual’s conscience. The second insight is related. The state is important, it is there for our benefit and should be obeyed, as Paul exhorts, but it is not the source of truth or law. It is not the final arbiter of what is right and just; no matter how hard it tries, it cannot outweigh individual conscience. And the state is bound by the same moral laws as individuals, as recognised by the checks and balances built into our political system, thanks not least to Protestant reformer John Calvin.
Importantly, Christianity explicitly teaches that justice must be impartial, for example Leviticus 19:15. That is the foundation for the rule of law, as opposed to the arbitrary will of humans. We understand this truth all the more in the light of its absence, such as in nations plagued by corruption.
3. We are to be committed to the good of all. The third insight is commitment to the common good, in other words the political and social conditions that allow individuals, families and communities to flourish. Secularists with whom I’ve discussed this are often unwilling to concede its religious origins, but it is not a natural understanding in many non-Christian societies across the globe and the centuries. The Nazis, for example, identified the common good with the good of the state or the Party (the two were more or less coterminous), but that is not the Christian vision. Instead, we are bound together and the state must work for the good of all.
No state can build a perfect society because the reality of human fallibility gets in the way.
4. Humans are fundamentally members of communities. This fourth insight, all the more important in an age of identity politics, is the importance of the family and of a diverse civil society. Humans are social beings, born into families and cultures, who flourish in community. The family is the basic unit of a flourishing society and, as Miller observes, is a biological and sociological reality that exists prior to the state (both logically and historically). But the family needs help to flourish, as expressed by the axiom that it takes a village to raise a child. The common good needs a rich and varied civil society, including civic groups, churches, charities, schools, volunteer organisations, sports groups, police and more.
5. The state can never bring about a perfect society. The fifth insight is particularly out of step with modern secularism: the recognition that the Christian vision of government is anti-utopian. This is not popular because it rests on the reality of sin – an idea increasingly out of fashion, yet the only Christian doctrine amply evidenced in the pages of our newspapers every day.
No state can build a perfect society because the reality of human fallibility gets in the way. As Miller notes, “politics cannot solve the fundamental problems of suffering, evil, sin and death. We cannot be redeemed by the state or technology, or the dictator or the majority.” Jesus recognised this sad reality when he said “the poor you will always have with you.”
Of course, Christianity is not a political program and does not endorse any particular political vision. But a Christian vision of government, as Miller says, is not simply a secular vision of government with religion sprinkled on top. Secularism is not neutral. A Christian vision of government is grounded in key theological and philosophical ideas about the nature of God and reality, the importance of justice, the value of freedom, the role of the family, and a rich understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, made for flourishing, and called to an eternal destiny.
In an age of political polarisation and self-doubt, it’s a vision that still has plenty to offer.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.