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

Upstream, Part One

Gideon Strauss


September 23, 2011
by Gideon Strauss

In recent correspondence with a couple of my friends about the Center for Public Justice’s approach to slow politics, one of my friends wrote that “… in many cases we know what just policy is, but that policy is difficult to enact—not only because of the particular nature of our political system—but also because the culture does not see that particular policy as just.”

Our correspondence reminded me of a statement often made by my friend Steven Garber: “Culture is upstream of politics.” This is sentiment I share, although, along with Michael Gerson, I recognize that sometimes—as was the case for the civil rights movement—politics is upstream of culture.

What then, are our cultural responsibilities, upstream, if we want to see wise policies enacted, and responsible politics practiced? As best as I can tell there are three biblically prompted insights of which we need to remind American culture again and again.

First, people matter.  If the United States of America, as a political community, is committed to anything, it is committed to individual freedom. The Declaration of Independence commits the nation to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and in doing so draws on a tradition of thinking about human life that holds a very high view of the individual human person.

This high view of the human person is unimaginable without the influence of biblical religion. The human person is celebrated as the culmination of God’s creation of the world in the Bible’s poetry from Genesis to the Psalms, and human agency is emphasized in the Bible’s persistent call on people to work, to take responsibility for justice, and to turn away from evil.

It is this high view of the human person that has sustained the American struggle against racism, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, to the continuing struggle for equal recognition in the face of more complex and subtle racisms than those of the past.  And it is this high view of the human person that causes me to be confident that in time America will develop a deeper care, also in law and policy, for the lives of unborn children.

But this emphasis on human dignity requires persistent maintenance, less we succumb to attitudes and beliefs that allow us to treat our fellow Americans, or our neighbors around the globe, as less than human.

Second, community matters. One danger with America’s high regard for the individual, is that it can easily slip over into an individualism. Which makes me grateful for the complementary American tradition of regard for the social dimension of our lives, of which Alexis de Tocqueville remains the paradigmatic exponent.

Human beings are made for relationship. We are, by nature and calling, neighbors to one another. A high view of the social nature of the human person also derives from the teachings of the Bible, and its call to love our neighbor.

Individualism threatens institutions—like marriage—the health of which is a prerequisite for the health of a society at large. Our regard for solidarity is as important as our regard for individuality.

Finally, we need less cynicism and more hope.  American politics in this particular moment is marked by rancor and cynicism. In particular, on the Right, cynicism about government, and on the Left, cynicism about business. As another friend remarked in the correspondence I mentioned above, “… many folks in Christian circles think that markets are [either] inherently evil or the total salvation of an economy, so when it comes to creating policy that involves markets in any way, folks have a knee-jerk reaction to the policy … regardless of how just the changes may be, because of the camp they are coming from.”

But both statecraft and commercial enterprise are noble callings. Both the state and the market are necessary institutions. Both political and economic life are arenas in which common grace restrains evil and enables human flourishing.

America needs less cynicism about government from the political Right, and less cynicism about business from the Left. And, in general, just less cynicism! This is another cultural contribution Christians can make, upstream of politics—perhaps the greatest contribution: being bearers of hope.

People matter. Community matters. Less cynicism, more hope. These are convictions that we need in our culture if our politics is to be healthy, and if we are to enact wise policies.

In Part Two: How do we nurture these convictions?

—Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.


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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.”