Which Side of the Political Aisle Should Christians Feel at Home With?

USA – 2012: Hector Casanova illustration of the Democrat donkey and Republican elephant on a seesaw with the plank breaking in the middle. (The Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images via Getty Images)

by John Ellis

By all accounts, society is fracturing. The talking heads and our eyeballs tell us that society has split apart, and we have decamped to our respective corners from where we engage in a vitriolic civil war. In the midst of the growing rancor, though, well-meaning peacemakers plead with us to remember that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson hurled nasty invectives at each other, ungirded from civility by a genuine loathing for each other, and yet the two mended their relationship and died, poetically on the same day, as besties. “Don’t forget that Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to death in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks,” they urge. “Rude tweets are a far cry from that kind of violence.” John Quincy Adams wrote that Andrew Jackson was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name.” Tarring and feathering in the early stages of this nation’s history was not out of the question when an individual challenged the political opinion of the status quo. The list goes on and on. The point being that as bad as it may seem in 2021, we would do well to remember that, overall, our current political disputes fall short of the anger and violence of yesteryear.

Sure. Okay. But not really.

Even if the violence is less overt and the rhetoric less enflamed (a compelling argument can be made that the well-meaning peacemakers have their heads naively stuck in the sand on this point), a real divide separates society in a way that didn’t exist in the past, including the Civil War. Sadly, while the current separation is real, rebellion against God is something both sides have in common. In a nutshell, the separation falls out between those who adhere to a Lockian social contract and those who view the authority of the polis as subservient to what Jurgen Habermas coined as the public sphere.

To be clear, the binary doesn’t really hold; our social imaginary is so shaped by both that we tend to unknowingly swing contradictorily between the two competing theories depending on what we want to achieve at any given moment. And that’s ultimately the rub: While competing on paper (and in real life), they both ultimately place the locus of authority in humanity.

For most people, social contract theory is likely hitched to Rousseau. That’s not necessarily an incorrect perspective (the man did write a book titled The Social Contract which has exerted great influence over our society), but John Locke’s formulation played a larger role in the construction of this country. Working out a Venn diagram of Lockian and Rousseauian social contracts would be interesting, but the agreements and disagreements are largely immaterial to this article. I will point out that doing so – working out a Venn diagram – would reveal that Rousseau’s social contract theory is somewhat of an evolutionary bridge from classical liberalism to the public sphere (unlike Locke, Rousseau had the luxury of learning from and interacting with Hume).

For John Locke, “To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”[1] A few paragraphs later, Locke illuminates exactly what the law of Nature is. “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law [emphasis added].”[2] In other words, Locke taught that human reason is the authority upon which society is built.

As a brief, yet important aside, this comports with the opening of his short yet influential book where he writes, in the very first paragraph, “It having been shown in the foregoing discourse: Firstly. That Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, nor dominion over the world, as is pretended.”[3]

Yes, John Locke really wrote that (look it up) and really believed it. In fact, his entire political theory – you know, the political theory upon which the founders of this country built the United States of America – is based on that flat-out contradiction of the Bible. Hold on to that, though.

For Locke, the polis (society) is mutually agreed upon as a means to protect property. In Locke’s system, government exists solely to protect property (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – happiness being defined as the ability to use your property in ways in which you find pleasure). And that agreement is mediated, defined, and, more importantly, authorized via Nature’s law – human reason.

Obviously, there’s much more to that, and I encourage you to read The Second Treatise of Government.[4] However, for the purposes of this article,, I believe that I have sufficiently revealed the bare foundational political theory for the one side in our current “civil war.”   

On the other hand, David Hume wisely (I believe) saw through the seeming cleanness and simplicity of Locke’s social contract theory and understood that it was, in a word, crap. Hume countered that there was never a point where anyone’s forebears got together and said, “Hey, let’s form a society for our mutual benefit.” The entire history of the world is painted by conflict, and societies emerge from competing visions of how to live and whom should be master. As Dostoevsky pointed out in Notes From Underground, there has never been a moment in history when a collective mass of humanity left to their own devices (translation – reason) has done the right/ethical thing or really worried about the benefit of the masses. Our Crystal Palaces are nothing more than our deceitful attempt to convince ourselves otherwise, Dostoevsky believed. Even those moments of seeming agreement only appears to be agreement from the perspective of those doing the agreeing; there have always been large groups who have lacked the power and resources to jostle for position in the so-called mutual agreements. And this brings us to Habermas and the public sphere.

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas laid out the argument that as post-Enlightenment society evolved, the notion of public opinion became the authority. Michael Warner worked this theory out further in The Letters of the Republic. Starting with growing literacy rates and the burgeoning publishing industry, people who had never met began to be able to participate in shaping the public sphere. The everyman began to have a say in how society is shaped, including its laws and ethics. Fast forward to 2021, and the existence of social media has given the public sphere superpowers. All this in Habermas’ theory adds up to the fact that any authority, political, ecclesial, familial, or otherwise, is now answerable to an outside authority. And that outside authority is public opinion as worked out and managed within the public sphere.

If this sounds similar to Locke’s Nature’s law, it’s because, as I’ve already stated, both theories share the same heart – the locus of authority is ultimately humanity. There is an important difference, though; Locke (and those somewhere on the scale of traditional libertarianism) would (because he did) argue that society and its ruling structures are governed by immutable rules that human reason reveals – the unwavering rule that private property is to be protected, for example. When public opinion is the authority, though, there are no immutable rules. If the public sphere decides that redistributing goods is what we want, then that’s what the government is to do.

Another important aside – that last example is not Marxism. We have the tendency to assume that because the ethics look the same, it must be the same thing. Marx worked out his theory in conversation with Hegel (and Kant and Hume and Locke and so on and so forth). To reduce it to what I believe is a helpful (possible over)simplification, Marxism and classical liberalism (of today) are two sides of the same Hegelian coin. What’s currently happening according to theories of the public sphere is a rebellion against classical liberalism’s interpretation of Hegel.[5] For example, just because a Congresswoman wants to redistribute your wealth, that doesn’t make her a Marxist. Because she’s not. This is one of the things critical theory (as well as poststructuralism) would reveal if people would actually take the time to learn the stuff, but Tucker Carlson and company realize that keeping their followers misinformed and confused is the best way to get what they want – power. Ironically, Carlson and company utilize a perversion of critical theory to condemn critical theory (look up the connection between Paul Gottfried and Herbert Marcuse). A lot of the talking points Christian Nationalists use to condemn critical theory (or CRT) are steeped in … wait for it … critical theory. Again, though, this is an aside and only tangentially related to my thesis.

Interestingly, just this morning I read an article about how the House GOP is discussing whether to punish members who voted for the infrastructure bill. Undoubtedly, the Republicans who voted for it argue that they used their reason and concluded that the bill, even if flawed, rests enough in the balance of their role as prescribed by classical liberalism to justify voting for it. The House GOP, of course, is not operating from a position within classical liberalism on this point. They’re claiming that the members who voted for the bill failed to adhere to their place and responsibility dictated to them by the public sphere of GOP voters. And there is no way to find a compromise between those two positions. The fracturing of our society is too philosophically profound to find compromise.

Amusingly if real consequences weren’t at stake, this also helps explain the cognitive dissonance in hearing rabid Trump supporters boo Donald Trump whenever he dares praise the COVID vaccine (a mistake I doubt he’ll make again). At this point, Donald Trump is a symbol, and symbols aren’t allowed to contradict the authority of the public sphere.   

In conclusion, and what I really want to bring out, while the core of the debate shares the same idolatrous elevation of human autonomy (as a group or individually, doesn’t matter, it’s the same rebellion) the argument oddly comes down to authority. Does human reason provide immutable laws or not? Or rather, should society be constructed by opinions wrought by the subjective (and changing) experiences and expressions of the public sphere?

The answers for those reading this who claim to be a Christian should be, “That’s the wrong question.”  Our task, then, is determining what the right question is. I’ll give a hint: It involves complete submission to God’s total authority and a rejection of the notion that we are autonomous beings.

My objective with this article is to provoke thought by illuminating how Christians should be wary, at the least, of seeing the Kingdom, even partially, within one of the sides. I do so knowing that my attempted simplification of complex political and social theories comes with the risk of oversimplifying in ways that construct strawmen or, I guess worse, simply lead to inadvertently misleading readers who are unfamiliar with social contract theories and/or social theories of the public sphere. It’s worth the risk, I believe, because our ability to be God-honoring witnesses to the Resurrection is at stake. It’s past time for God’s people placed in America to begin counting the cost of being illegal aliens here and stop living as if the here and now is what’s ultimate.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004 originally published in 1690), 3.

[2] Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, 4.

[3] Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, 1.

[4] For the life of me, I do not understand how people can claim that America’s form of government is the best (that classical liberalism is numero uno) if they’ve never read the foundational theory as laid out by John Locke in his book.

[5] Go back to the fall of the Soviet Union and note all the “end of history” language used by Western conservatives. Following Hegel, they believed that the inevitability of human progress ended in the “right” side of history winning. Now, go back and (re)acquaint yourself with Marx’s language/philosophy about history’s progress. If you stare long enough, you’ll have trouble determining which one is which.

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