A brief comment on sin and political power

Political Philosophy Politics Theology / Biblical Studies

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What, if anything, should the idea of sin do to our political vision?

Here’s another short post on religion and politics (even shorter than the last one), and it won’t be the last in the short term (I’m chipping away at a longer post on classical liberalism and welfare). A friend of mine commented recently that one of the reason’s she’s not a libertarian is that she believes that human beings are sinners. Another person quickly replied that the reason that he is a libertarian is that he believes that people are sinners. Both of these friends are evangelical Christians.

I think the first to speak in this instance was correct. There may be other reasons not to be a libertarian, granted, but one of the reasons is that human beings have this tendency to do the wrong thing; to be selfish, to not consider the needs of others, to be more concerned about our own rights than the rights of others and so on. If we lived in a libertarian society then, I strongly suspect that the plight of the less well-off would be much worse, among other things.

But it’s important not to make the opposite error: The error of thinking that since individual human beings are so messed up, what we really need is a group of these human beings in control with all the power, making sure all the areas of our life where we could go wrong are regulated. If one human being is a sinner, how is that problem solved if we put a bunch of sinners together and give them all the power? Just as individuals can go wrong by neglecting their responsibilities towards others in this thing called society that they want to have the benefit of belonging to, so those in power can go equally wrong. Their ideas about what is ultimately good for us, about how the goods of society are best spent, about what values should be enshrined in law, about what causes we should support, etc, are surely susceptible to error if each of those in the ruling party is as bad as the rest of us, and the idea of a group of sinners like us having the ability to force everyone to support those ideas and submit to them – all of them – is deeply dystopian in my view.

This is why I think that if the Christian idea of sin should push us in any direction politically, it should push us away from either of these extremes: From libertarianism at one end and socialism or any form of totalitarianism at the other. I think the classical liberal model does a good job of this.

What say you?

Glenn Peoples

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Brandon Barr November 10, 2012, 3:22 pm

    I agree. Thanks for writing this post and the last one on welfare. As an American, and an Evangelical, I’m looking forward to your focus on politics. I feel like the American Republican/conservative (which I identify as) is loosing the battle in our country because of the hyper-rhetoric (which both sides use), and the lack of compassionate answers to problems like Welfare and illegal immigration.

    And in the area of abortion and same-sex marriage, we need to do a better job of compassionately explaining our positions against these movements. (It doesn’t help of course when a tiny percent of militant sign holding folks end up as our image to the world).

    It’s like our country needs to have a series of national debates/discussions on these topics. Instead, all we ever get is 5 min mini debates on news channels (and even the best apologist can’t make a good case in that short of time)

  • Julie November 10, 2012, 3:31 pm

    Interesting… no other comment for now, but interested in other people’s comments

  • Glenn November 10, 2012, 4:01 pm

    Brandon – I know what you mean by the word “politics,” and I agree with you about the need to have these conversations too. I prefer not to say that I’m talking “politics” just because of the baggage that goes with that (namely, party politics… which I really don’t like, as well as the impression that I’m talking about specific political issues). But yes, before people think about voting or discussing specific policies, they need to have these bigger discussions about what is best called political philosophy. What should our approach to social structure, politics, government be in general? What are the fundamental principles? What are these things called rights? What are people like. and how much power should anyone have, etc. What’s the big picture? Then, I think, people have the “right” to narrow down on specific policy issues.

  • Brandon Barr November 10, 2012, 5:12 pm

    Glenn, you’re right. Before our societies can really get at the particulars, we need to understand the underlying foundations. But how do we get facebook/entertainment culture/average Joe’s to engage!!? 🙂

  • Brandon Barr November 10, 2012, 6:28 pm

    I know, buy a major TV network and have two hour long segments with debates and discussions. No Glenn Beck types, all Glenn Peoples types 😉

    It’ll be called “The Deepen Our Lives Network”.

  • bethyada November 10, 2012, 9:49 pm

    True, though libertarians may dispute with you about who they are. Some may be anarchists, others more minarchists with ideology akin to classical liberalism. I favour small government as well; because men are fallen. Given that probably far more people have died at the hands of government than have died at the hand of bandits throughout history, restricting leaders seems more essential than restricting citizens.

    I am not certain about how you see society and the poor in a more libertarian society. I think liberty is much more conducive to community the the current situation as I have written about here.

  • Jared November 20, 2012, 7:51 am

    Glenn,

    I agree totally! It is as if you have voiced out loud what I have already been thinking for some time. In fact, I can cut this post short a little by just saying “Ditto what Brandon Barr said above.” I am an American and a Christian, and used to really be into politics. Years ago I would have considered myself a “conservative,” but now I’m not so sure, mainly because of the extremism and hyperbole used on both sides. I’ve since gotten turned off by politics in general, and now am guilty of not always being engaged with it as much as I ought to be.

    I’m not an expert on all aspects of each of the various flavors of Libertarianism, but the Libertarians I have heard tend to be heavily influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. She was someone who insisted that selfishness is actually a virtue and altruism is a vice, and that self-sacrifice is a disgusting concept. So when you speak of people being “selfish, to not consider the needs of others, to be more concerned about our own rights than the rights of others,” she would say “And? What’s wrong with that?” To her, that’s how people ought to behave! This is, of course, grossly antithetical to Christianity, and why I recoil at the contemporary “conservative” movement’s tendencies to endorse such ideas. Your balanced approach is much closer to the way I view things.

    Another problem with the extremes is that they are both unrealistically idealistic. It really is no use to think that we can create some kind of “set it and forget it” Utopian state where government runs as efficient as clockwork and we can just let it run by itself with no struggle and discord. The system that seems to work best is something like the American system where the sinners who run the government are held in check by the sinners who are the governed, and a balance of power is achieved. The goal then being to limit or reduce tyranny, not necessarily to produce some ideal, perfect state of governance.

  • Terry November 20, 2012, 11:28 pm

    I think the debate is fundamentally flawed because politics is likewise. With Christ there is hope and the santification that improves us in this real world, without there is just mess despite best intentions. This world is fallen and history shows that despite the odd glimmer of light, we never amount to much on our own as we stagger about in the gloom. The mess that is the modern world with all its disasters is as good as it gets this side of the grave. I like Liberterian views but am realistic enough to see the danger in them when we are so selfish. Governments are a large part of the trouble – granting themselves the power to be corrupt and to corrupt. What passes for govt here is largely Godless and does not represent me. They create a dependant class that undermines the value of work and a man’s responsibility to his family.

    The creation that I’m part of groans for the new heaven and earth. Can’t you feel that – the hint of something and someone wonderful just out of reach in this life but oh so close we hold to the promise of the resrved place?

  • Jonathan November 30, 2012, 5:51 am

    Great post, Glenn.

    In this last election here stateside, it became glaringly apparent to me that ‘extremes’ seem to the be the prevailing norm in politics and economic thought. I don’t feel that this bodes well for the nation as a whole. There is even a move here in my home state of Texas to secede from the United States. That is an extreme reaction in my book.

    There surely can be some sort of middle ground between the two dominant polarities at present in American politics. I have yet to see it expressed here in the states in any substantial way.

    Looking forward to your posts.

  • Jared December 5, 2012, 6:45 am

    Jonathan,

    Secession? Wow! I hadn’t heard about this. Yes, this really is getting out of hand.

    Didn’t we try that once about a century and a half ago? That went well, didn’t it?

  • David December 5, 2012, 9:18 am

    I have always argued that Libertarianism would work great if men and women were angels, but they are not, so you need government to regulate and protect the unwary from scoundrels. In a libertarian world, you don’t know that the food or product you buy is harmful due purposeful calculation until you are dead, e.g., cost to fix defect calculated by Company bean counters to be less than probable cost of litigation over death and mutilation if defect is discovered. So, your family has a wrongful death claim in Court, as the libertarians argue is the means for regulation, you are dead.

    There are libertarians in the U.S., professors in fact, who claim that bribery should not be illegal. In other words, if you have the money, you have the power, and should be able to pay directly for political favors. See e.g., Murray Rothbard, a saint of Libertarianism, on the ethics of bribery:
    http://mises.org/daily/2578

  • RobertH December 27, 2012, 3:21 am

    The libertarianism I know of and subscribe to IS classical liberalism. I am not sure what kind of “libertarianism” you have in NZ but here in the US the best of libertarianism can be found at lewrockwell’s website.

    Why stop at giving only a limited number of sinners power? It seems obvious that giving a few people all the power would be terrible but why not a few? I’d like to hear you defend that.

  • Glenn December 29, 2012, 10:39 pm

    “The libertarianism I know of and subscribe to IS classical liberalism.”

    Yes, a number of people aren’t aware of any distinction between the two, due to the features they share in common. But the philosophical basis in each case is fundamentally different.

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