Review: Exposing Political Ideologies

Third Quarter 2003

Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003) is a remarkable new book by David T. Koyzis, associate professor of political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. What makes the book remarkable is its clear-eyed and penetrating assessment of the primary political ideologies that originated in the West and now dominate much of the world. The ideologies Koyzis exposes to the core are liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. Then in the last third of the book, he charts a course by which to transcend these ideologies.

There are five main characteristics of political ideologies, Koyzis explains. First, they are "inescapably religious," and their religious character takes the shape of idolatry. They take something that is part of creation and elevate it to a place of Godlike preeminence. Second, ideologies view their humanly made gods as the source of salvation. Each ideology, in other words, promises "deliverance to human beings from some fundamental evil that is viewed as the source of a broad range of human ills."

Third, political ideologies locate the evil from which they promise deliverance in the creation. Instead of recognizing human disobedience against God as the source of evil, they imagine that some part of creation is the evil that needs to be overcome or escaped. Fourth, confusion about God, creation, sin, and salvation leads each ideology to develop a distorted view of the world "and hence of government and politics.

Because the followers of ideologies see the world as belonging not to God but to themselves, they misunderstand the character of the world in a rather basic fashion." Fifth, and finally, modern ideologies put their own goals in the place of the principles of justice, love, and good stewardship by which God calls us to true creaturely responsibility.

Exposing these five characteristics of contemporary political ideologies, Koyzis shows how liberalism, for example, starts and ends with faith in "the sovereignty of the individual." Conservatism takes history itself as the source of norms." Nationalism deifies or idolizes the nation. Democratism substitutes the voice of the people for the voice of God. And socialism puts its trust in common ownership as the source of salvation. Each of the chapters on these ideologies is rich with examples and quotations from the most important promoters or theorists of each ideology. If the book stopped at Chapter Six it would be worth its price.

The best part of the book, however, is its last three chapters, which point the way to transcending ideologies, developing a non-ideological approach to politics and government, and coming to understand the state and its task as human responsibility before the true God who calls us do justice in this world. Koyzis's work in the last third of his book complements that of David Naugle's Worldview: The History of a Concept, which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of the Public Justice Report ("Review: The World of World Views"). It also complements the presentation by Paul Marshall in God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics, which was reviewed in the first-quarter-2003 issue of the PRJ ("Review: Does Christianity Offer a Public Ethic?"). Marshall, Naugle, and Koyzis all build on the work of Herman Dooyeweerd.

Where does a Christian worldview take us, Koyzis asks, after completing his analysis of the dominant political ideologies? "If, as I have been arguing, the various ideologies are rooted in an idolatrous religion, then what does a non-idolatrous approach to society and politics look like? To begin with, it properly and unquestionably acknowledges the sovereignty of God over the whole of life. Like liberalism, it sees a legitimate place for individual rights and freedoms while reminding us that the individual is not sovereign. Like conservatism, it calls us to recognize the proper place of tradition and repudiates those who facilely believe we can do without it. Yet unlike conservatism, it cannot countenance a simple and uncritical deferral to tradition but recognizes that traditions are human formations, subject, like all other human works, to the taint of sin. Like both nationalism and the democratic creed, it recognizes the rightful place of human community, however defined, but rejects all efforts at positing such community as an all-encompassing focus of loyalty from which other loyalties, to the extent they are permitted, are merely derivative. Similarly, a non-idolatrous political perspective recognizes the legitimate though limited capacity of government to effect economic equity, but it eschews socialist expectations of an eschatological consummation engendered by a salvific working class."

"Normatively speaking," Koyzis concludes, "the state [from a Christian point of view] is more than the passive referee of classical liberalism, but far from the all-pervasive agent of the statist ideologies. The state is responsible to protect the differentiated responsibilities of the various spheres of society, including those of both individuals and communities."

Now that Koyzis has completed this fine study of western ideologies, we can hope that he and others will take on some of the other religious approaches to politics arising from various Muslim and Hindu persuasions in particular.