Political Illusions, Again

Ideology and idolatry.

When I began writing Political Visions and Illusions in the mid 90s, communism had only recently come to an end in Europe and elsewhere, the 9/11 attacks still lay in the future, and Bill Clinton was in the White House. Over the past quarter century the world has changed, and that warranted an update and revision of the book, the second edition of which appeared in May.

The thesis of the first edition was that the modern political ideologies were subsets of the larger category of idolatry. Each of them effectively posits a god which everything else is expected to worship. For liberalism, individual liberty, a genuine good, becomes individual autonomy, a divinity rooted in endlessly expanding desires, at the expense of ordinary social mores and other legitimate considerations. Nationalism makes of the nation a god, elevating it to a position of supremacy over all else.

In the years after publication, I began to think that my identification of ideology with idolatry didn’t go far enough. If ideologies are indeed religious, then they are further rooted in a redemptive narrative that is counterpart to the biblical story of salvation. The latter begins with creation, proceeding to the fall into sin, then to redemption in Jesus Christ, and finally the consummation of God’s kingdom at Christ’s return. Similarly, Marxism begins with a primordial state of primitive communism, followed by the first division of labour, which creates economic classes and class struggle. A messianic proletariat, or the industrial working class, launches a revolution, thereby ending the struggle and ushering in the eschatological classless society.

The chapter I reworked the most was the one on liberalism, whose quest to validate individual desires of all sorts has moved it in a heavily statist direction. As social mores come increasingly to be deemed oppressive, liberals call on the strong arm of government to intervene in a variety of ordinary communities to enhance individual self-seeking. Since the turn of the millennium this development has led liberals to be less tolerant of those communities, including churches and faith-based organizations, whose membership standards differ from John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Naturally membership in the gathered institutional church is based on adhering to the creeds and confessions and living according to biblical standards, not simply refraining from harming others. This puts the church in an increasingly uneasy position relative to the liberal state.

But what of the institutional church itself? How should it relate to political life? This I have now addressed in a “Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript.” The Church Order of Dort specifies that in synodical assemblies “only ecclesiastical matters shall be dealt with and that in an ecclesiastical manner.” Does the minimum wage qualify as an ecclesiastical matter? Some denominations believe it does and go so far as to advocate a particular dollar amount for the legally mandated minimum wage. Others, professing what they call the “spirituality of the church,” assert that the institutional church should shun politics altogether. Which is right? Neither, I would argue, but in this postscript I examine three ecclesiastical documents that manage to get it right: the 1934 Barmen Declaration, the 1937 papal encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, and the Belhar Confession of 1986. I hope this appendix will elicit discussion, especially among ministers of word and sacrament and seminary students.

The first edition was a steady seller for InterVarsity Press and went through 12 printings before I began working on the revision. I hope and pray that God will continue to use this book to advance his kingdom and to stimulate reflection on our political responsibilities as Christians living and working in his world. 

  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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