Response to David Harsanyi’s “Rand Paul is Right”

Note: I don’t use ‘liberal’ to mean ‘leftist’ or ‘progressive’, but rather liberal in the classic sense.

David Harsanyi wrote this for The Federalist, encouraging Rand Paul’s outreach to social conservatives.

Harsanyi responds to Father Thomas J. Reese and myself in this article, which has a familiar thesis: you can be totally committed to political philosophies that have no ethical overlap with your faith, and simultaneously totally committed to that faith. This is possible because, for Harsanyi, politics aren’t about morality:

For progressives, politics is not just a difference of opinion, but a great battle between decency and unfettered greed. So the conflation of choice and coercion is often aimed at your morality. You may claim to care about the underprivileged, but your votes say otherwise. To even suggest that a fiscally conservative outlook might be compatible with faith is hypocrisy.

What he indicates here is that for some, Fr. Reese evidently among them, the shape and action of states manifestly conflicts with Christian ethics, which inspires a Christian ethical corrective attempt. But Harsanyi isn’t pleased with this, because for him the two ‘spheres’ — the moral and the political — are necessarily separate but compatible. So the Christians who make the objections are wrong on a couple of counts: firstly wrong about what their faith compels (though he’s not clear on this) and secondly wrong about how those directives should be carried out.

Harsanyi’s emphasis is on compatibility. You know, like how good friends are compatible: I’m a wholly different person than my best friend Sarah, and Sarah is a wholly different person than I, but we can create together some happy circumstance. This is how Harsanyi, of a piece with that good ol’ fashioned liberal tradition, sees faith and politics: wholly different endeavors that can be made to create a happy circumstance. What’s wrong with this picture?

1.) How do we know whether or not the circumstance created when faith and politics are made compatible is happy? Which is to say: when we take an ideology that is not based in Christianity and act on its directives in one space and the directives of Christianity in some other space, how do we know the outcome is good? A Christian would need to evaluate that outcome — that is, the set of social and political circumstances created thereby — by the judgments of Christianity! But if Christianity is our total evaluative tool for morality, why on earth does it not apply to politics?

2.) We know it doesn’t apply, because if Christian ethics were the ethics ruling the tenets of the other ideology (in this case libertarianism) no case would have to be made for compatibility. My best friend and I are compatible because we’re different entities that work well together. But I am not ‘compatible’ with myself — I just am. If one’s political theory is just an extension of the ethics of Christianity, it doesn’t need to be made compatible — it’s already of a piece with the religion itself. So we immediately know when we’re dealing with compatibility that we’re dealing with the argument that some ideologies, ethics and all, should not be subject to the judgment of Christianity.

3.) This leaves open the question: what other judgment is there? What judgments operate within the ideology itself, to create its ethics? What is the authority that underwrites those ethics, and if it isn’t Christian in origin, why should Christians even begin to respond to it, needless to say allow it to displace God? Not to be the person who goes around shouting idolatry and such, but — idolatry.

4.) Harsanyi falls victim to the usual liberal tendency of thinking all ‘faiths’ are the same, that is, that their ethical requirements and expectations can basically be treated as a whole category. But religions aren’t content-neutral. Some religions may not object to a compatible-esque approach to politics, but Christianity isn’t one of them. There can be no space in Christianity that is not dominated by God, because, as John Milbank writes:

“…if the whole concrete life of humanity is always imbued with grace, then it is surely not possible to separate political and social concerns from the ‘spiritual’ concerns of salvation.”

He says a whole lot more on this same note, but in the spirit of summing up, that’s a good bite. And Father John Huges drives it home:

“We cannot be indifferent towards the ends of our labor; our work, and indeed our entire economy, stand under judgement. Everyone, at every level, is responsible for these things, and cannot evade accountability for them: workers, employers, managers, traders, consumers, share-holders, legislators; however much the structures of our particular society may lead us to feel bereft of this responsibility in the face of implacable systems and ‘necessary’ courses of action…All our economic relations are also symbolic-cultural, and, as such, they can either point towards God, human flourishing, ‘wealth’ in the Ruskinian sense, or they will point toward ‘illth’, violence and death.”

What Harsanyi and his ilk like to suggest is that there are aspects of our states and economies that are more or less natural and immovable, that occur because they do, and that we’re not responsible for shaping or creating them. In this sense they invoke ‘freedom’ of those institutions, that is, leaving them ‘free’ from ‘state intervention’ — this is the realm of the free market, free choice, and so on. Christianity proposes another vision that is neither alternative nor potential handmaid in the ‘compatible’ sense, but a radical ontological turn: states are gifts from God that can serve as remedial communities during our journey on earth, and since we participate in their shaping with God, we can either make them good or bad. But the goodness must be evaluated by God’s standard — there is no other — and the ethics we as Christians employ in our political orientation must be of that same standard, not plucked from some place less real.

Folks like Harsanyi think in spheres. Christians can’t. All of life is touched by gift and grace — this is what gives life its awesome intensity. But it also dissolves imagined barriers between the realm where we’d like to be pious — say, sitting in church on Sunday — and the realms where we’d like to evade the eye of God and do wrong — say, in the construction or non-construction of aid for the poor.

None of this is to say that there aren’t genuine and legitimate conservative Christian political theories out there; there are, and I like to engage with them. But to be all those things simultaneously — genuine, legitimate, conservative, Christian — they can’t take their direction from Harsanyi and imagine Christianity as a sort of useful therapeutic product for use in sections of life where it seems serviceable. (This isn’t to say that progressive Christian politics are any less guilty of this — this is a liberal tendency, not a specifically conservative one.)