by Fred Clark
America's two-party, winner-take-all political system seems to have shaped the way even we American Christians approach our thinking about politics, citizenship, and government.
We have a religious right and a religious left. Each is concerned with a separate set of values, which is derived from their religious faith and for which each campaigns in the political arena.
These groups—and the myriad organizations and networks that compose them—function like any other interest group. Their advocacy and lobbying tend to be on behalf of their given religious values,rather than on behalf of some vested financial interests, but otherwise they operate much like their more sophisticated counterparts on K Street.
That's not how it ought to be.
As we saw last issue in our discussion of the principle of subsidiarity, Christian thinking about politics, citizenship, and government ought to go well beyond interest-group advocacy on behalf of "values."
Here we'll explore an even more fundamental principle underlying any Christian approach to politics: the principle of solidarity.
Like many elementary ideas, solidarity can seem so basic that we forget to acknowledge it exists. Yet it both undergirds and transcends much of what we're trying to get at with our talk of values.
Solidarity, essentially, is the opposite of selfishness.
Consider again our hypothetical old man sleeping in the doorway of a church.
This is a free country. Each of us is free to see an abandoned, helpless stranger in need and to do nothing to help. We are free to put our own interests ahead of the interests of others. We are free, in other words, to be selfish.
But that selfishness, ultimately, can erode our freedom. The more we choose to ignore and avoid the concerns of others, the more the State will be forced to expand to attend to those concerns. A wholly selfish people can ultimately be governed only by a Leviathan state. (Or, alternatively, they could be left to an unfettered Darwinian struggle with no government at all. In which case the law of the jungle supplants the rule of law.)
A free people must also, therefore, be a good people.
But what do we mean by "good"?
The philosopher W.V. Quine provides a delightful illustration of what we mean in his book Quiddities (Harvard University Press, 1987). His actual topic is the idea of what he calls here "altruism."But what he means by that, as you'll see, is something very much like the Christian idea of solidarity.
"Altruism is the main stem of morality and the primary concern of moral principles," Quine writes."The landlady says of her student lodgers that they are good boys, while knowing full well that they gamble, curse, drink, drive to endanger, and consort with loose women. What does she mean? Just that they are reasonably altruistic."
Quine's landlady clearly is judging "goodness" by some different standard than that employed by the virtuecrats and professional moralists who do the noisiest fretting about other people's morality here in America. She is not ignorant of the vices of the "good boys" renting her rooms. Nor is she ignorant of the viciousness of those vices. But she also recognizes that goodness—virtue—is something greater than the mere avoidance of such vices.
Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan seems closer to the view of Quine's landlady than to that of the virtuecrats. The story begins with two members of the moral majority, a priest and a Levite, upright men who we can be sure abstained from gambling, cursing, drinking, and consorting with loose women. They left a man bleeding by the side of the road.
This is an important point that our preoccupation with values can obscure. We have come to believe that it is impossible for the landlady's lodgers to be "good boys" if they also "gamble, curse, drink, drive to endanger, and consort with loose women" because we have reduced the meaning of "good boys" to merely those who do not do these things.
My point here is not to defend the indefensible behavior of our rowdy student lodgers. Gambling, driving to endanger, and consorting with loose women are rarely victimless crimes. But Quine's landlady is also aware that goodness depends on something greater and deeper than the mere avoidance of such things. That something is what Quine calls altruism.
"Altruism,"he writes,"ranges from a passive respect for the interests of others to an active indulgence of their interests to the detriment of one's own. It ranges from the barely 'erogatory' on the one hand to the supererogatory on the other."
The shorter, more direct word that the Bible uses for this idea is love. This is the love that, Jesus tells us, fulfills "all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:40). This is the love without which, Paul tells us, all our righteous acts are "nothing" (1 Cor. 13:1-3). It is the love without which, John tells us again and again in his first epistle, we cannot claim to be followers of God.
Solidarity is an expression of this love.
The Politics of Love
The ideal of Christian love as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount is what Quine describes as "supererogatory," demanding "an active indulgence of [the interests of others] to the detriment of one's own."
This ideal seems ill-suited to the arena of politics which is, after all, about finding a balance between multiple, competing interests. A great deal of Christian thinking about politics, government, and citizenship deals with this very conflict between the supererogatory ideal of Christian love and the essence of the struggle to obtain, and wield, political power.
Thus many volumes have been written about the competing claims of love and justice. Many Christians, finding it impossible to reconcile these competing claims, have opted out of the realm of politics altogether, leaving the responsibilities of governance—and citizenship— to others. Such a decision makes obedience to the Sermon on the Mount less complicated, but it also renders impossible the idea of a democracy and of government of, by, and for the people.
Solidarity is an attempt to reconcile politics and love by insisting that, ultimately, our interests and the interests of others can also be reconciled in the pursuit of the common good. It requires us to consider others' interests as our own. It is, in other words, a political expression of the Golden Rule.
It may seem to you, at this point, that we've gone the long way around only to arrive at a fairly simple point. And, in a sense, you'd be right.
But consider the vast difference between the politics arising from this simple point—a politics grounded in solidarity—and the kind of interest group politicking in which American Christians are now engaged in the name of advocating values. It's the difference between a "pro-family" agenda that circles the wagons to protect our families and an agenda that works for the good of all families.
Solidarity also helps to correct something else we overlook when we embrace the idea of politics as a struggle between competing interest groups. Many groups and many people—quite probably most groups and most people—are not powerful enough to jostle their way to a seat at the political table.
Solidarity demands that we also respect, consider, and defend the interests of those people as we would our own.
Find Fred Clark at https://slacktiverse.wordpress.com.