Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Saving Politics from Ideology

Timothy Sherratt


In response to the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, David Brooks urges social conservatives who are Christians to exchange a culture war grounded in Christian convictions on controversial issues for another “built on selfless love.” He believes that social conservatives are best equipped to repair the fabric of a society damaged by much more than the sexual revolution--“a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures, and commitments are strained and frayed.”

Brooks is both wrong and right. His article could be read as an implicit criticism of social conservatives as the perpetrators of the culture wars, and he surely underestimates the obstacles to the shift he urges. After all, faith-based service means faith-based organizations, and these will be vulnerable to the new cultural orthodoxy because they provide services to the public, as Richard Garnett, John Inazu, and Michael McConnell have recently shown. But his observation that orthodox Christians “already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love” is critically important because it identifies the source of genuine power—Christ’s willing sacrifice on the cross, the archetype of selfless love. 

Why is this so important? The simple answer is that selfless love is the truth in our world that gives rise to the hope from which Christians take our bearings. Jesus Christ, the author of creation, came into the world in human form, took on himself our sin in his execution under Caesar’s authority, and in his resurrection redeemed humanity from death itself. Christ promises that we, too, shall be resurrected to a redeemed human community in a renewed creation.

Christian ethics are very important to political reflection, and Christian political thought can offer a comprehensive approach to politics and government. However, both Christian ethics and Christian political thought follow from the Good News of hope in the resurrection. They do not lead. The Good News inspires Christians to the service that Brooks writes of, with or without the help or approval of government. It can also inspire us to political engagement in obedience to Christ and free from the requirement that it is our task to win. Even if Brooks’s hoped-for shift -- from one kind of cultural battling that seeks to reverse government policy or constitutional interpretation on controversial issues to another characterized by lifting up the lonely and fostering stable families-- is an appropriate one, Christians should continue to take their bearings from the Evangel.

With that in mind, I would like to explore a series of theoretical and practical questions related to the coming elections, to public policy concerns, and the posture of Christians in tackling them. When laws are passed or legal decisions made that seem to challenge basic truths about the nature of society or the status of religious liberty, how can Christians bring most salt and light to the political order of which we are citizens and members? How can Christians bring a convinced Christian worldview to contemporary politics without reducing Christianity to one more ideology? How may selfless love guide Christians engaging the political order as citizens?

The Destructive Power of Ideology

David Koyzis[i] writes that ideologies animate politics in democratic and non-democratic systems alike. The varieties of liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and more take their bearings from a particular element or elements of creation to the point of idolatry. From there they give an account of evil, prescribe means of salvation, and set a place for political action.

One approach, grounded in nationalism, may elevate the nation to a status that wants to make every institution subservient to its goals. Another approach endows individual liberation with salvific properties such that custom, tradition, and the institutions that embody them are held hostage to the demands of individual fulfillment. The results in both cases make vulnerable people’s relations to one another, to the environment, to communities, to social norms, and to the purposes of life.

This diagnosis frames the task of a Christian approach to politics for Koyzis. To the extent possible, Christians should embrace a comprehensive Christian vision for all of society, while resisting the temptation to idolize the individual, the nation, or the proletariat. The place of government in the comprehensive vision is as one among several stewards of human care for the created order. The institutions of civil society, among them families, churches, charities, businesses, and circles of friends, all nurture human beings. Each has an irreplaceable role to play.

The promise of liberation derived from liberalism’s foundational belief in the sovereignty of the individual, creates for Koyzis expectations that cannot be sustained because individual liberty performs badly as the sole adjudicator in these situations. (Here one thinks of the insufficiency of policies based on individual choice for addressing the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses.) Reliance on it alone tends to lead to the breakdown of safe, stable relations, rather than their promotion.

Where ideology makes class (or race- or gender-) war foundational, politics and civil society are regarded with suspicion. The Marxist, Koyzis explains, treats a “host of phenomena” including political rule, legal systems, marriage, family life, religion, and philosophies as nothing more than an entrenched superstructure for keeping the oppressors in charge. To take such a position is to preemptively reject dialogue as any part of the way to resolve historical patterns of racial and gender injustices, or the conflicts between labor and management. Instead, it points to a range of tactics, among them censorship, designed to supplant the voices of privilege with the correct opinions of the sufferers. Rather than say, “Let’s talk,” it says “Shut up!” Whether on campus or in the workplace, this enmity becomes the norm for human relations.

Democratic discourse and with it, democratic politics, suffer disproportionately from the ideological frameworks of such identity politics. It is particularly damaging to democratic discourse because it dismisses people’s thoughts as pre-empted by their various identities. Ideology wants to replace politics with certainty.

By contrast, a politics informed by a comprehensive Christian vision seeks to save politics from ideology. Ideology makes little space for alternative visions. Genuine politics is humbler. Genuine politics recognizes that solutions are partial, and goals are subject to revision. Genuine politics operates with limited knowledge, its medium is argument, it values representation and being informed, and it expects every polity to be populated with a range of political perspectives.

Engaging Politically with Conviction

So much for the general picture—what of the particular circumstances of contemporary American politics? Certain features of our political system make it difficult to bring strong convictions to the political arena while avoiding the pitfalls of ideological rigidity. Our current practice of two-party politics encourages zero-sum competition. Our electoral system does not facilitate organized expression of multiple viewpoints in the political arena. Liberalism has often shown disdain for traditional social institutions. Religious liberty faces fresh challenges. And some Christian political initiatives have given the impression that faith can be expressed in a series of policy positions that reduces it to an ideological status far short of a comprehensive social vision. This is what David Brooks seems to have in mind when he asks social conservatives to step away from the culture wars.

To engage politically with strong convictions while avoiding the slide into ideological warfare is indeed difficult. But it is possible. It involves two basic strategies.

The first is to insist on the vital role played by civil society alongside government. In the new climate created by the Obergefell decision, for example, Garnett and his co-authors support the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) to preserve the liberty of faith-based and other citizen organizations to continue to provide services or to challenge existing laws and policies without penalty. The authors urge concerned citizens to write their senators and representatives in support of the proposed law. That may amount to just a single step in a process fuller of obstacles than opportunities, but it is a practical step to take in the new climate.

The second strategy is to promote principled pluralism. Principled pluralism upholds the right and facilitates the means for a range of perspectives to be organized and represented in the political arena. Those perspectives include the ones just identified and criticized as ideologies. Ideologies may deform the comprehensive vision of humans in society, as Koyzis argues, but their advocates should be permitted to organize as a principle of public justice. All citizens are subject to the laws society’s representatives in government craft so all citizens should have a reasonable opportunity for their views to find organized expression in the political arena. By facilitating and normalizing such organized expression of multiple, including ideological viewpoints, the comprehensive social vision articulated by principled pluralism contradicts ideology. It erects a hedge against a politics of replacing one ideological template with another. Promoting principled pluralism helps to develop a vocabulary that challenges the justifications offered in the name of personal preference alone.

A Christian Orientation to Political Engagement

The Obergefell decision has hurt the case for Koyzis’s comprehensive Christian vision of society. But is may also have helped it. It has hurt the case because the Court’s decision, while benefiting gay persons seeking to marry, has also converted marriage into a institution where the gender of parents is irrelevant, distancing it from its historical role as the optimum setting for raising children. If it has helped, it has done so by alerting us to the ways social institutions may be rendered vulnerable to a deification of personal preference. The remedies suggested by Garnett and his colleagues, or something similar to them, are promising, but will take a lot of work to put in place. They ask from Christians a political vision for the long haul. But that is the appropriate posture for political engagement.

To sum up: Christians’ orientation to political engagement must begin with recognition of the power of Christ’s selfless love. From that starting point and because of it, Christians may resist ideology’s politics of certainty and embrace in its place a comprehensive social vision that holds the following values: Political solutions are provisional. Absolute or final solutions are anathema. Government is limited. Civil society shares responsibility for promoting the common good. Principled pluralism is consistent with public justice in a democratic political order.

We can also be encouraged that the Good News can take a cultural beating, or several. Believers can live out their lives in full retention of Christian hope while having failed more often than they have succeeded in passing legislation or having had courts decide against them more often than not. The powers of hell fall to the crucified Jesus, so the powers that be win no lasting victories.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What steps can Christians take to ensure that we embrace a Christian worldview that is comprehensive rather than narrowly ideological?
  2. Some may say that the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) doesn’t reflect a comprehensive Christian vision but is too individualistic. What do you think?
  3. What, for you, are the political implications of David Brooks’s call for Christians to engage the culture on the basis of “selfless love?”


-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.


[i] Political Visions and Illusions (Inter-Varsity, 2003)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”