Churches And The Left

It is often contended, by unsympathetic commentators, that the leading thinkers and officers of the Western Churches are actually committed in some sense to the political Left. The impression derives from their sympathy for Third World radical movements, from the undoubtedly socialist preferences of the World Council of Churches in the 1970s and 1980s, from the apparent preoccupation of Christian bodies with welfare issues which bring them into conflict with conservative political forces, and from the association of the Christian message of peace with actual peace movements under the ultimate direction of radical political influences. In fact Western theologians and church leaders have in recent decades demonstrated, not ideological commitment, but a suprising measure of ideological innocence. The 'Christian-Marxist Dialogue' of the 1960s and 1970s was perhaps the last occasion on which Christian thinkers seriously addressed the philosophical issues of historical materialism in a way which attracted professional intellectual attention. Individual writers, and a number of academic groups, explored the common ground between Christian and Marxist beliefs. The traditional hostility between a Christian insistence on the transcendence of humanity and Marxist teachings about the determinism of historical materialism seemed, at the time, frayed at the edges by the intellectual and political upheaval of the 1960s. Radical theologians were questioning received Christian ideas about the nature of human understanding, and Marxists, in a revolt against Stalinist Communism, had rediscovered Marx's own early writings, and with them the evident possibility of a more flexible attitude towards the phenomenon of religion. In the event the dialogue, conducted in many parts of the world, proved sterile, and the contending parties eventually disengaged. Marxism subsequently collapsed, at the end of the 1980s, as the vehicle of the moral seriousness of both the Western and Eastern intelligentsia, and Christianity, for its part, emerged little altered by its exchanges with its ideological rival. The persistence of Christianity had little to do with the demise of the Marxist regimes, which was due to economic mismanagement, ordinary interior corruption, and intellectual adhesion to the Westernized (and secularized) doctrine of Human Rights. In a few places, as in the German Democratic Republic, the churches took part in the initial upheaval, but this was solely because they were the only available institutions free of State control who could offer a platform for dissent.

It is not difficult to see why the churches were so modestly affected by the 'Christian-Marxist' exchanges. Leading Christian thinkers, and academic institutions, have shown themselves more concerned with the ethics of social welfare than they have with the philosophical questions which lie at the basis of political organization. There are few distinctly Christian contributions today to political debate or political theory. For many Christians the matter scarcely seems important since it is already settled: democracy is the Christian form of government. After two thousand years, Christian involvement with classical political thinking—with determining the philosophical references by which the bases of political society may be located—seems to have run into the ground. There is much heat generated among Western Christians over merely party differences, and these are often mistaken for really serious ideological divergence. But they are not. Most Christians (and certainly all those who look for acceptance by the Christian leadership) adopt a version of bourgeois liberalism and quarrel about its detailed applications, contending that the moral dispositions or policy programmes of this or that party are more 'Christian' than those of another. The test of political virtue is no longer reference to transcendent values of some sort or other, but is simply one of 'caring'. Social compassion is sovereign.

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