Do we need a Christian party?

Today I came across this article (via Crystal) arguing that American Christians should abandon the Republican and Democratic parties and form a “Christian party” that embraces something like Phillip Blond‘s “Red Tory” or “Big Society” program:

British theologian and political philosopher Phillip Blond correctly notes that, “the current political consensus” in the United States is “left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.” It’s also the fundamental reason why Christians cannot be at home in either political party – the Christian vision of the social and economic order is almost exactly the opposite of the current consensus.

The author, Michael Stafford, a lawyer and Catholic, argues that we need an American version of a European-style Christian democratic party to put this vision into action:

What would the views of a hypothetical presidential candidate from an American Christian Democratic Party look like? I think they would closely track Marcia Pally’s description of the ideal candidate new evangelicals are longing for, a candidate neither of the current major political parties are capable of producing – “someone who will help the poor, protect the planet and dramatically reduce the need for abortion, someone who will help both secular and faith-based organizations to do this work.”

I’d be the last to deny that both our major political parties have significant flaws. But even if it was possible to overcome the institutional barriers to third party success in the U.S. (ballot access, campaign finance, and our first-past-the-post election system), I don’t think that a “Christian” political party is particularly desirable.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to spell out the reasons why in any great detail, because this was ably done by C.S. Lewis over 70 years ago in an essay called “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”* Lewis points out that a Christian party “must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.” However, all political parties generally agree on ends: happiness, security, freedom, etc. Where they disagree is about what means are most effective in attaining these ends. But Christians, as Christians, have no special expertise or insight into what means will be most effective.

Lewis goes on to argue that, if all Christians formed a party, they would inevitably disagree over the means to attaining their ends. Lewis imagines three “types” of Christians who might make up such a party: an authoritarian, a democrat, and a revolutionary radical. All agree about the ends, but disagree radically about the preferable means. So what happens?

The three types represented by these three Christians presumably come together to form a Christian Party. Either a deadlock ensues (and there the history of the Christian Party ends) or else one of the three succeeds in floating a party and driving the other two, with their followers, out of its ranks. The new party — being probably a minority of the Christians who are themselves a minority of the citizens — will be too small to be effective. In practice. it will have to attach itself to the un-Christian party nearest to it in beliefs about means — to the Fascists if Philarchus has won, to the Conservatives if Stativus, to the Communists if Sparticus. It remains to ask how the resulting situation will differ from that in which Christians find themselves today.

The chief danger here (and this is presumably what the title of the essay means to refer to) is that a Christian party would be tempted to give its political views a kind of divine sanction:

By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great.

[…]

All this comes from pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers’ inheritance: `Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?’ By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us.

What Lewis suggests is precisely the course of action that Mr. Stafford is arguing against: Lewis says that instead of forming their own party, Christians should act as “leaven” in the existing political parties. He suggests that Christians might establish an interdenominational “Christian Voters Society” that would “draw up a list of assurances about ends and means which which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.” I take it that what Lewis has in mind here is a determination of what ends and means are “lawful” (i.e., morally permissible or obligatory) rather than what means are effective in bringing about desired ends.

In a fallen world where our knowledge is inevitably limited and our motives are clouded by self-interest, faithful Christians, like everyone else, are going to disagree on political issues. As Lewis argues, to try and paper over this disagreement with the formation of a Christian party will either result in political failure or religious betrayal.
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*Found in the collection God in the Dock; a slightly truncated version can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Do we need a Christian party?

  1. The trouble with Lewis’s argument seems to be that it is not borne out by the European experience. Clearly, Christian parties have succeeded in these countries and have not been political failures. (Does this mean that in your estimation they are guilty of religious betrayal?) It’s true that a Christian party without any model might be too vague a concept, but if we take the European norm as our concrete standard then that concern seems obviated. The real problem in the United States may lie in the structure of its public opinion and its two-party system. This makes not only a Christian party difficult but any party based on concepts that fail to align on the traditional left-right axis.

    Personally I might very well vote for a Christian Democratic Party if it magically was an alternative to the current American parties, since I am socially conservative but not so ideological on economic issues. Would you?

  2. My impression–and I could be wrong–is that most European Christian democratic parties have gotten less explicitly Christian over time, even if they were originally founded on principles drawn from, e.g., Catholic social teaching. For instance, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany seems to be a more-or-less secular center-right party. So I wouldn’t say they’re guilty of religious betrayal since they seem to have abandoned any claim to provide an exclusively “Christian” perspective on politics.

  3. Thanks for the mention :)

    I do agree with CS Lewis that Christians should work as individual leven, in tension with politics instead of ruling as “Christians”. And agree too that the Christian Democrats in Europe are not what Michael Stafford would mean by a US Christian political party. Even the Big Society in the UK is not really the product of a political party, though it’s supported by conservatives.

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