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God and Man and Politics

A Christian perspective on the public square.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The moment is ripe, Gerson and Wehner argue, to build on these developments and craft a new approach. In foreign affairs, Christians should embrace that form of American exceptionalism that sees the U.S. role in the world as a “calling, rooted in the philosophy of the founding, to defend and exemplify” the principles of human freedom and equality. Whereas philosophical schools (Rawlsians, postmodernists, multiculturalists) tie themselves in knots to coherently justify the moral premises of liberal democracy, their defense, argue Gerson and Wehner, should come readily to those who have learned from the Bible “that men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God.”

In addition, Christians should develop a well-rounded view of the state, one that recognizes the reality of power and respects the ends to which power is properly directed and by which it is rightly limited. The first end is the establishment of order, grounded in the rule of law and devoted to securing basic rights. Order must be supplemented by a dedication to justice which, the authors emphasize, as a result of Jewish and Christian teaching we understand as centrally concerned with “caring for the weak, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed.” Both order and justice depend on virtue. Indeed, the authors agree with James Madison’s contention (in Federalist 55) that self-government, more than any other form, depends on citizens’ virtue. And they reaffirm the opinion, generally held by the Founders, that religion, which must remain independent of the state, is vital to the inculcation of the virtue on which self-government depends.

Finally, Gerson and Wehner argue that, despite the biblical strictures about the snares of wealth, Christians today have good reasons to defend capitalism. Through the unrivaled economic growth it generates, capitalism has created large middle classes, lifted countless people out of poverty, unleashed great scientific and technological advances, and fostered a climate friendly to freedom in which individuals learn to pursue their interests and take responsibility for their lives. They emphasize the vital importance, amidst capitalism’s constant churn and change, of social safety nets and market regulation, while stressing that the need for them does not count as an argument against capitalism but rather for prudence in the enactment of necessary and just laws.

Prudence, the authors note, must also govern political rhetoric. In entering the public square of a free society, and in making their case to fellow citizens, many of whom will not share their religious beliefs, Christians should emulate two heroes of freedom, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Their “lives were committed to reversing two great sins in American history, slavery and segregation,” write Gerson and Wehner. Both “used religious symbolism and biblical language to state their case even as they spoke in a style and parlance that resonated with all people, not just people of faith.”

The authors’ new approach to faith and politics is a model of moderation in the service of self-government. It depends on a recovery of the venerable teaching of St. Augustine and its thoughtful application to today’s circumstances. And it performs the enlightening service of demonstrating that Christians can not only accommodate the principles of liberal democracy without compromising their faith, but that their faith, well understood, prepares them to be among the most subtle and effective guardians of liberty and democracy. 

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where he co-chairs the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.

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