Christians And The Power Of The State

Something has now been said about the relative rejection of State power within modern Christianity, and about the consequent limitation of the competence of the State. There must next be an examination of a quite contrary direction within Christian thinking—an acceptance of the expansive morality in some areas of State power. It has already been contended that the State's lack of a coherent ideological base, its dependence on the democratic majority principle, its presidency over a society of plural values (reinforced in some particulars by ethnic as well as cultural diversity), ensure that the modern State must reduce its control of the purveyance and enforcement of values. Christians often disagree among themselves, as does society in general, about the extent to which this resignation may be effected. When it comes to economic and social direction, however, there is an extensive area of consensus within Christian thinking: the leaders of contemporary Christianity are thorough collectivists. They look to the power of the State for the provision of welfare, and to the regulatory machinery of the State for the creation of what are regarded as goals of economic and social justice. Just beneath the leadership level there are, of course, many Christians who are sceptical of State direction in these areas, who see individual liberty as eroded by State intervention in society and the economy, and who believe that market forces are also simply more effective at achieving the desired end of enhanced material well-being. But there can be little doubt that within the most influential Christian thinking the prevailing disposition, throughout the Western world, sustains a high level of collectivism, and for moral reasons. Although Christian thinkers have no agreed coherent doctrine of the State, and in practice endorse democracy without really setting it within an intellectual framework, their insistence on the moral office of the State in using its power to achieve a more 'just society' receives hardly any internal criticism.

In many Western countries, and perhaps especially in North America and Britain, the endorsement of collectivism has in recent years drawn the leadership of the churches into political conflict with conservative political interests. Yet on neither side, that of the Church or that of the State, have the philosophical differences really been exposed—or even thought through. As a result the differences have remained on the surface of public life. Christian thinkers, for their part, have tended to argue for advanced collectivism on the simple ground of the morality of welfare. The priority, very often, has not been a transcendent view of humanity and its need for instruction into the truths of religion, but human material need. Only the State, they insist, has the capacity, through taxation, to accumulate the necessary resources for welfare benefits, and only the State has the legislative sanction to enforce social justice and overcome individual and vested interests. There is nothing peculiarly religious in this series of attitudes; public commentators, secular writers, and the intelligentsia generally are also characterized by the paradox of a simultaneous option for individual choice over personal moral values and for State enforcement of economic and social morality. There is a widespread supposition that collectivist solutions in certain areas of public life are self-evidently required. In supporting collectivism Christian thinkers are, however, giving their assent to very extensive State power. So the State which is too internally divided by moral pluralism or cultural values to be allowed to prescribe life-styles and ultimate beliefs for its citizens is also the State which is capable of identifying and enforcing very precise and detailed moral norms over economic and social life. Christian thinkers have not done much to resolve this contradiction in their attitudes, nor have they actually shown themselves especially aware of its existence.

As the centre of Christianity moves more and more decisively to the Southern hemisphere, to the countries of the developing world, it is important to notice that there, too, Christian leaders are increasingly advocates of State power for reasons of social justice. In some areas there has been an alliance of nationalism and socialism: socialism, too, not of the latter-day Western variety, shot through with ideological heresies and critical of Communist state Apparat, but socialism in a vigorously collectivist sense. With the demise of the Marxist governments in Europe at the end of the 1980s and, in a domino sequence, in other parts of the world, socialist collectivism has been modified as the goal in some countries. Yet socialism was not the only reason for the appeal of State power among the developing nations—the need for central planning to defeat colonialist influences, for a coherent national response to Western agencies seeking to have economic or welfare relations with the emergent countries, for a mechanism for preventing or else for securing the dominance of one ethnic group against others, and for a symbol of nationhood—all these have tended to the aggrandizement of the State. Christian thinkers and writers have often been among the first (since often the first educated) to propagate these features of Third World nationalism, and to associate them with Christian values. They have envisaged social justice as attainable by State power.

The history of apartheid in South Africa illustrates the point. Although South Africa is, by most tests, scarcely a Third World country, the relationship of its non-white population to government shows many features which are characteristic of the developing world, and the preoccupation of Western Christian opinion with the apartheid question, since the 1950s, provided some clearly defined Christian arguments and attitudes. The creation of apartheid, especially over educational issues, emphasized its inherent collectivism as much as its racism. In opposition to the apartheid system the leaders of black opinion also, over the decades, gradually came to assume the need for extensive State powers (in a future black state) to create a unitary society. This actually involved a good deal of internal conflict, particularly between the rigorous Marxism of the African National Congress and the decentralizing liberalism of the more rural and less well-organized groups. Christians were to be found in all of the various organizations, including the Marxist ones, yet Christian criticism of apartheid, both inside and outside South Africa, increasingly emphasized State power as the necessary way to create a just society. The radical Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s (which was in some measure influenced by black American writers like James Cone) was unusual among the articulate critics of apartheid precisely because of its scepticism of State action and its flirtation with anarchism. Hence its unpopularity—not exposed to the public, especially the Western liberal public—with the hardline Marxists of the ANC. The history of Christian involvement with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa is the history of Christian endorsement of State power. Only the State power of a country run by blacks will achieve justice. The arguments used by the Christians involved have been intellectually unsophisticated: it has not seemed necessary, in view of the plainly unjust nature of apartheid society, to set the assumptions being made about State power within a tradition or interpretive framework of political theory or political philosophy. The issue of racial equality, furthermore, has been lumped together with political democracy as if they were necessarily inseparable. The history of the world, however, shows that most societies have not enjoyed democratic systems, and their moral basis, or the legitimacy of their laws, has not in consequence been invalidated.

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