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Christians, Prudence, and Politics

Christians, Prudence, and Politics

By Gerald McDermott
July 29, 2020

I recently retired from teaching at one of the finest evangelical seminaries in North America. When students asked me for counsel on politics, I cited St. Augustine's City of God, written after the fall of Rome when pagans blamed the fall on Christians, and Arian Visigoths had raped Christian women and murdered Christian men and children.

Augustine said no state can ever achieve true justice, but that the state is God's gift for order in a fallen world. Christians are pilgrims in the City of God intermingled with the City of Man. So we have to avoid the utopianism that refuses to support any leader or party that is not ideal. And we should think critically of political promises too good to be true.

Christians have not always exercised this Augustinian discernment. In three historically pivotal revolutions, many Christians opted for secularized versions of the kingdom of God. Slow changes in their own societies seemed too slow.

The first was the French Revolution. In 1789 the three Estates General were challenging Louis XIV and the Ancien Regime. They were pushing for gradual, incremental reform. Louis was advised to accommodate them. He refused.

Radical opponents promised equality, liberty and fraternity. They said the Church was a natural ally of Louis' despotism, so both king and clerics must go. Destruction of the existing system would end oppression.

Instead, revolutionary fervor prompted 300,000 arrests, 17,000 executions for treason, and the deaths of 10,000 more who had been imprisoned. Robespierre's Reign of Terror dechristianized the country, exiled 30,000 priests, and murdered hundreds more. Napoleon's subsequent dictatorship ironically reinstated the nobility of wealthy landed proprietors.

Revolutionaries had not questioned how glorious ideals would ever be implemented. Christians disgusted by the Ancien Regime never imagined how their faith would be attacked.

Russia's Revolution of 1917 had a similar pattern. Since 1907 the Tsarist government of Russia had permitted peasants to be proprietors, resulting in rural prosperity. Then after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the new Provisional Government planned for elections to a Russian Constituent Assembly.

But this was too slow for the Bolsheviks, who wanted total overthrow of the regime. They promised free bread, the end of aristocratic control, and power for the proletariat. It would be heaven on earth.

Most Russians never had a chance to consider the alternative of sticking with the existing regime and its slow changes. Opponents were murdered or interned. The Revolution destroyed the few emerging freedoms, killed tens of millions, and nearly extinguished the Church in Russia.

Most Russians who believed Lenin's too-good-to-be-true promises later regretted it. Even Communist Party members were executed or exiled. Communism's global death toll in the 20th century was about one hundred million.

What if young Russians in 1917 had recognized that utopian promises can't be realized for fallible humans, and that incremental progress is more humane? They did not consider more realistic alternatives.

Then there was Germany's revolution in the 1930s that sought, with great support from young people, restored national dignity but resulted in unprecedented barbarity, mass murder and national ruin.

In these revolutions some Christians were attracted to promises of "transformation" with unrealistic and even wicked ideals because they were impatient with incremental progress. They lacked prudence and facilitated great evils.

Prudence is a classical Christian virtue little known to Protestants. It's practical reason discerning both our true good in every circumstance and the means to achieve it.

Thomas Aquinas said prudence is right reason in action -- applying moral principles to particular cases.

Jesus suggested prudence when he warned his disciples to be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). Paul hinted at it when he told the Corinthians to be infants in evil but mature in their thinking (1 Cor 14:20).

So how should Christians exercise prudence in politics? In Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics, Robert Benne says Christians are led astray when they focus on the piety or promises of a particular candidate. He cites Luther's famous statement, "I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian." Party platform is usually more decisive than personalities.

For Christians who rightly believe that abortion is a principal issue, often what a particular candidate says is less important than what his or her party policy says on human life, including euthanasia and fetal tissue.

A second critical issue is religious freedom. Can religious persons and institutions operate freely without surrendering their convictions at odds with secular culture?

Marriage is a third key issue. Will policies further undermine traditional marriage and the traditional family, already so besieged?

Poverty is fourth, but not least. Which economic system most alleviates poverty? An expanding economy provides jobs the poor desperately need, and capitalism has a better track record on that than statism or socialism.

These four criteria should guide Christians in politics and hopefully point towards prudent Christian citizenship in always flawed circumstances.

Gerald McDermott is an Anglican priest in Virginia.

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