Why many of us don't fit in the left, or the right, or a mushy middle

Left, Right or Middle? Eternity asks John McClean, Vice Principal of Christ College (a Presbyterian Theological College in Sydney) and a lecturer in Christian Thought to explain what he thinks about politics.

You recently told Gospel Society and Culture – a NSW Presbyterian committee focussed on apologetics, ethics and public policy – that it’s getting harder for Christians to engage with political parties. What’s going on?

It’s a pretty common feeling that political discussion has become more polarised, and the common ground has been reduced. Of course, political life has always had plenty of debates and rivalry — I don’t want to pretend there was some golden age of happy agreement. Still, recent research in Australia and in the US concludes that both the electorate and political parties have become more entrenched in their positions. In US federal politics there are far fewer members of Congress who are willing to vote for legislation from the other party. In Australia, fewer politicians consider themselves to be moderates or centrists. The two major parties have probably both shifted away from a centrist position; and the relatively successful minor parties have tended to be on the extremes — the Greens on the left, One Nation on the right. Centre Alliance, the most recent attempt at a centrist party, has struggled.

This polarisation is probably a result of a shattering of a common worldview under the impact of secularisation. Charles Taylor has famously told the story of the “secular age” and identified what he calls the “Nova effect” in which Western Society offers a plethora of religious options. That has also happened in terms of ideologies — we have less of a shared framework and more and more rival approaches. We don’t have just two ideologies — ‘left and right’. In the Australian scene you can identify libertarian, liberal, populist, green, free-market, nationalist and various ‘identity’ positions. But when that filters into real political life, our two-party system tends to translate these various positions into a left-right binary.

The swing from mainstream media to narrow casting has reinforced the polarisation, and social media seems to hype our disagreements.

My observation is the result of polarisation is that issues Christians are concerned about are dragged to opposite sides of political life. So defence of human life and freedom of speech have become “right wing” causes while the environment and welcoming refugees are championed on the left.

Where does a Christian worldview fit in the left/right polarisation?

A Christian perspective will question it, and at a very basic level. Most ideologies take some true insight, which Christians should affirm, and turn it into a single or major principle. So, Christians think that individual rights matter; people who are made in God’s image should be free to make choices about their lives. That is a reflection of dignity God has given to all humans. But, unlike a libertarian, we also recognise that we flourish in community and that the common good often requires significant limitations on individual freedoms. Neither individual nor community is enough on its own, nor are they enough together; human life ultimately is oriented to God and should be lived for him and with him. But we recognise that – especially the spiritual dimension of life – cannot be imposed on people. So, the Christian view complicates and questions all ideologies and subverts simple polarisations.

Christian positions should be radical, but they won’t fit the left-right typology.

A couple of approaches have helped me see this. Christopher Watkin talks about Christian “diagonalisation”, by which he means the biblical view cuts across either-or choices and questions the assumptions and categories of most debates and positions. So it questions all views but also finds something to agree with and build on in almost every position. Diagonalising is critical interrogation — not dismissal or demonisation (nor wholesale adoption). [Editor’s Note: Watkin lectures at Monash University, Melbourne, and has written extensively on how Christians can relate to the wider culture. A recent lecture on reforming the social contract was published in Eternity here.]

As an example, away from obviously political issues, the Christian view affirms the value of science and empirical investigation into the created order, but rejects the scientism which assumes that investigation is the only source for knowledge or insight into life or the world. Watkin’s book, Thinking through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (P&R, 2017), set this out well.

Michael Schluter and The Jubilee Centre (with which Watkin has connections) argue that Western culture is driven by four harmful ideologies: individualism which distorts our relationships with each other others, capitalism which distorts our relationships with money, consumerism which distorts relationships with creation, and statism which distorts our relationship with authority. It argues that these reinforce each other and bring personal, corporate and long-term harm. And they argue that a Christian view will be different to all these dominant ideologies. That seems to me to be very helpful, and they have extensive resources on a range of issues, with worked-out policy proposals.

These approaches are not just about being ‘centrist’ or staying in the mushy middle. Christian positions should be radical, but they won’t fit the left-right typology.

What sets of issues should Christians be concerned about?

Christians should be concerned about politics and social issues. That is sometimes set in contrast to a commitment to gospel ministry but, historically, Christians have recognised the intimate connection. As we proclaim God’s love in Christ, we demonstrate it in loving our neighbours; and because we announce the coming of a kingdom we should think from a community and social perspective, as well as about individuals. Paul’s call for Christians to for our society is very broad (1 Timothy 2:1–2). He focusses on rulers, but says to pray for “all people”, and give thanks for them. God is the God of the whole world, he cares for all his creation and governs and directs all nations. His people should have the same breadth of concerns. And what we pray for, will shape what we act on.

Given that breadth, Christians should engage with almost every issue that gets political attention, and a whole lot that don’t. Of course, most of us will not have the capacity to engage deeply with lots of issues on a broad front. Christians who are called to a role in the political ‘system’ will have to engage very broadly. Lots of us might find a few areas of concern and focus on those. In that case, it is important to remember that my “issues” are not the only ones that matter, so I won’t be frustrated that not all Christians get behind my concerns or that some champion other issues. We need that diversity.

That said, let me suggest a few of the issues that Christians should be thinking about, praying about and acting on at present.

  • Issues about protecting human life and dignity are crucial — abortion, physician-assisted suicide, embryo experimentation, human enhancement.
  • The last year has highlighted the importance of public health and a robust health system, that could do with a lot more thought.
  • Our society is recognising the risk of institutional care for people with disabilities and the elderly; those are areas in which Christians have had long-term ministries and can offer important insights.
  • We need to look at changes in work and work life with the impact of technology (and working from home for lots of us).
  • We should promote freedom of religion, not just for Christians in Australia, but for all religions globally.
  • Creation care should be a Christian concern, including how to manage a just transition to renewable energy sources.
  • The COVID pandemic has impacted the global refugee situation, and we need to understand more about how that is playing out now.
  • We should be aware of the re-definitions of gender, sexuality and marriage which are taking place in our culture and the damage that does to people, families and communities.
  • Australian Christians need to understand the history of the First Nations of our land and work at recognising the Indigenous People and helping them overcome the destructive legacy of colonisation — what gets called “reconciliation”.

There’s the beginning of a long list! Remember, I’m not saying that all Christians need to get involved in each of those issues.

What Biblical ideas can help?

I might start with Christian freedom. The Bible gives us a firm basis to critique ideologies and to think about social policy. It doesn’t prescribe detailed policy positions or political priorities. This means that Christians take a range of political positions and support various parties and policies. We should have a rich conversation in Christian circles, but not expect a monochrome political approach.

I’ve already suggested that the Christian worldview gives us a basis for interrogating all ideologies. Ultimately ,every element of biblical revelation is important for thinking about society and politics. I teach a unit called “theological ethics”, and over the years that has helped me to see that how we live and love our neighbours will go back to our view of God and creation, and will be framed by our expectation of God’s kingdom — and will be shaped by every other area of theology.

I’ll highlight a few of the most important areas.

Our view of humanity as made in God’s image, to know and serve him and to relate to each other, is foundational for any concern for society.

The pandemic has made me more aware of the importance of the common good. Humans cannot live well alone; we need each other and shared life and institutions. So, politics (which is part of the common good) should serve to sustain our common life, not drive us away from each other.

The doctrine of common grace is important. Sin means people distort God’s good patterns, but God remains faithful to his world. Jesus said, “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)  That is true about society, not just the physical realm. So, we find true insights and good works in society, even when people fail to acknowledge God as their source and goal. We should be ready to oppose evil, but not assume that every aspect of social life is only evil and needs to be denounced. Common grace invites God’s people to be involved in his world very widely.

Finally, the connection between the church and the kingdom of God is key. God’s kingdom is guaranteed by the risen and ascended Jesus and will be fully realised when he returns. Now, Jesus is at work by the Spirit to make the Church the anticipation and sign and witness to the kingdom. While our wider society will always be a confusing mix of common grace and corruption, the Church is called to be the counter-culture which lives out the kingdom in the here and now. We always fall short of that, so we have to repent and reform; but the work of the Spirit allows us to follow Jesus. The first step, and often the big step, in responding to every social issue is to ask how we respond in the Church. How can we live faithfully in this area?

What ideologies should we be wary of?

All of them! Of course, it depends what “ideology” means.

David Koyzis, a Christian political thinker, describes an “ideology” as a story of human self-salvation by political and often violent means (Political Visions & Illusions, A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies IVP, 2019, 2nd ed). He points out that the similarity of “ideology” and “idolatry” is suggestive! His list of ideologies which he thinks are illusions is similar to that from the Jubliee Centre, though more specifically political: Liberalism, Conservatism, Nationalism, Democracy and Socialism. Each of those has something going for it as a political theory but abstract the big idea from humans living before God in his complex, good world – and the theory becomes an idolatrous illusion.

Christian political thinking needs deep theology, a good sense of history and willingness to be eclectic (at least from the point of view of secular viewpoints).

How should we as followers of Jesus move forward in a polarised world?

Wow! That’s a whole book, isn’t it? Here are a few thoughts.

We can be part of political parties. I’m not arguing that Christians can’t join a party or stand for election. We need more believers doing that — hopefully in parties across the spectrum and with eyes open for the ideological illusions.

Pursue an integrated life of discipleship with a big picture of God and living for him. It’s easy to be pulled from one political debate to the next campaign, focussing on a series of ‘issues’ without a long-term commitment to building your own life in Christ, investing in your family, friends and church. Public life and politics has a place, but it is not the core of the Christian life.

Keep diagonalising. Listen to all sorts of positions with critical discernment.

Focus on specifics. I think we can make better progress in thought and action by looking at particular concerns, rather than trying to deal with things in sweeping generalisations.

Love our neighbours. Political life as citizen, advocates, public servants, party members and elected officials is a way to serve. We have to keep asking how to do that well. It is often clearer how to love people we know and who live in our community. There is wisdom in focussing on that and allowing the national questions to be in the background (without ignoring them).

Maintain integrity. How we engage is as important as the way we cast our vote or the specific policy we promote. Virtue matters in political life. That will mean being honest, and not treating people with different views as enemies.

Have realistic expectations. An ideology is a story of human self-salvation. The gospel is about how God saves in Christ. It calls us to wait patiently. In the meantime, we can do good, but we won’t bring the kingdom.