On Political Typologies and Trying to Understand the Politics of American Christians

A couple of days ago, I took the Political Compass test, something which I have done from time to time over the last few years. While my results were much as they were on previous occasions that I took the test, the test and my growing dissatisfaction with it gave me reason to reflect upon many of the assumptions that inform the commensuration of political positions, reducing each position a fixed point within a common set of metrics, in this case a dual-axis model.

What such a model distorts is the nature of political positions as relative positions in a particular and situated conversation, rather than absolute and fixed positions on a spectrum or compass. Political positions are seldom straightforward applications of an overarching political philosophy to a pliant reality, but a prudential, situational, and hermeneutical conversation between principles and ends and the nature, identity, and history of the social and cultural order with which we must engage, a patient conversation from which tentative proposals for measures apt for the achievement of those ends can be suggested and pursued.

In articulating such a position, I may be betraying a characteristically British and especially Anglican ‘contemplative pragmatism’ (to borrow an expression from Rowan Williams), a stance that may not be shared in a country like America, which historically has generally been more hospitable to ideologically driven politics, and lacked the sort of fondness for the via media and incrementalism that British political sensibilities can encourage. Nevertheless, I believe that a deeper appreciation of the contextual character of political discourse and thought can give us a fruitful pause before jumping to conclusions about the motivations of those other Christians who espouse politics that bewilder or trouble us.

A related problem with the Political Compass typology is that it confuses questions of ends, means, and agencies in an obfuscating manner. A commitment to a certain set of social or political ends does not generally commit you to the support of a particular set of means for the achievement of those ends, nor does it commit you to investing certain agencies with the authority with which to pursue them. Unfortunately, the questions that arise in such areas are typically elided, in a manner that leads people to presume that the failure to achieve a shared commitment to a particular set of means or the empowering and investment of responsibility in a particular agency betokens a lack of common ends (for instance, a wariness about many social welfare programmes can genuinely coexist, and even be prompted by, a deep concern about the social condition of the poor and a desire to achieve a more just society). There are many tools by which certain political ends might be achieved and the tool or agency that might be suitable in one context might not be so apt or available in another.

Conversely, common support for particular political means and empowered agencies can frequently mask deep divergences in underlying philosophies and desired ends, in a manner that renders us forgetful of the need to interrogate the philosophies of those with whom we share political alliances. Even alien philosophical genotypes – the objects of more probing political taxonomies – can produce the mistaken mutual recognition occasioned by temporarily similar phenotypes.

Finally, politics and its affiliations tend to be less about some rarefied calculus or abstract structural system of societal organization than such typologies suggest and more about profoundly human and personal realities, things such as love, trust, sovereignty, rootedness, identity, belonging, duty, and sacrifice (something that thinkers such as Paul Kahn have emphasized against the assumptions of much liberal political theory). Rather than being about the optimal calibration of the dials controlling the variables in a vast social machinery, politics is chiefly about symbols and persons, rituals and identities, boundaries and stories. One’s political affiliations will thus be powerfully informed by the development of a political and social imaginary, something that runs much deeper and stronger than policy commitments or mere abstract political theory can. If this is indeed the case, understanding the politics of another person or group, especially from another culture, requires a far more powerful and attentive engagement of a sympathetic imagination than typically envisaged.

All of these concerns are in the forefront of my mind when trying to understand the political thought of my American brothers and sisters, thought forged within traditions that have arisen from a very different history and been formed by contrasting political sensibilities. At Matthew Lee Anderson’s invitation, and taking up Steve Holmes’ challenge, I have posted a guest piece over on Mere Orthodoxy, in which I try to fumble my way towards a better understanding of the political thinking of American Christians, especially those on the right.

I am not without views, yet politics is an area where I feel keenly the scale of my ignorance, my insufficiency to hold opinions with great firmness, and where I occasionally feel a little intimidated by the assurance of so many others around me who seem to have made their minds up on every conceivable political issue. While I listen to many other people’s thoughts, my reticence to speak to this area means that, for the most part, I steer clear of the topic on my blog and elsewhere. However, as I think that it is important to venture out from cleaving to the shoreline in our uncertainty and to test our mettle and gain insight on the open waters of debate, I hope that those who read this blog will understand and appreciate the starting of a conversation on this subject.

My piece is a quest for understanding, exploring certain of my intuitions about the difference between American and British politics, which may or may not be on target. Most of all, it is an invitation to the sort of conversation that might yield both mutual understanding and greater self-awareness. My primary goal here is to learn from those who have a very different perspective on matters to my own. A transatlantic conversation on the nature of Christian politics and wise political judgment in our contrasting contexts is one, I believe, that is well worth having, holding the potential to alert us all to our particular blindspots, protect our political reasoning from co-option by national partisanships, and encourage a firmer sense of the forces that inform our political sensibilities.

Do take a look and respond!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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11 Responses to On Political Typologies and Trying to Understand the Politics of American Christians

  1. John H says:

    “Rather than being about the optimal calibration of the dials controlling the variables in a vast social machinery, politics is chiefly about symbols and persons, rituals and identities, boundaries and stories.”

    Yes! That’s why the obsession in recent years with fact-checking and “evidence-based policy-making” concerns me. When politicians make factual claims, then by all means make them back those claims up, but overall the constant focus on fact-checking encourages (and reflects) a narrowly technical approach to politics.

    • Rowan Williams has some interesting observations along these lines in his recent Faith in the Public Square book. He remarks at one point: ‘I’m suggesting that secularism in its neat distillation is inseparable from functionalism; and if so it will generate a social practice that is dominated by instrumental or managerial considerations, since the perspectives that would allow you to evaluate outcomes in other terms are all confined to the private and particular sphere.’

  2. Paul D Baxter says:

    One compelling thesis about american politics is that of George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics, which I highly commend. Lakoff attempted to survey the way that people of the left and right in America talk past each other and concluded that each is using a different sort of mental schema, each with their own sets of key words, symbols, and thought patterns. He boiled this down to those on the right viewing politics as a “tough” father, stressing rules and self-reliance, while those on the left view things more along the lines of “nurturing mother”, concerned with kindness, fairness, and generosity. Or something approximating that. Unfortunately the last section of the book goes along the lines of “now that I understand the right better, let me tell you how I despise them even more than before.” Even so I thought the book was worthwhile, though I have no idea to what extent it might apply in any other political contexts.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul. Yes, I have read some of Lakoff’s work. I think that such an attempt to get behind the words to the underlying metaphors and symbols can be profoundly helpful and illuminating. Jonathan Haidt’s ‘moral foundations theory’ is also a useful conversation-starting – but, I believe, quite flawed – attempt to get to the roots of the differences in liberal and conservative sensibilities.

      The mother/father distinction strikes me as having something to it, but I suspect that, like Haidt, it is rather too simplistic. For one, I wonder whether it doesn’t suggest a closer relationship between the two sensibilities than there actually is: I suspect that they are more alien to each other at various points than might be assumed.

      I also don’t know how Lakoff approaches this, but I think that these value questions need to be brought into conversation with the respective forms of community in which those who espouse and practice them function and from which those values are often derived. The idea that there is one form of politics that is categorically ‘better’ than the other strikes me as unhelpful: rather, the question must be how the different forms of politics work in different contexts. For instance, the sort of politics required in a deprived and socially fractured inner-city context may be radically different from that which is healthy in a small town with a strong community.

  3. Arlan says:

    For me the troubling thing about American Christian politics is the lack of appreciation for the sovereignty of God, so that both sides are attempting to construct a dues ex machina. Correspondingly, both right and left are employing functionalist critiques.

    In the terms of the Right: suppose that there were no hurricanes or school shootings or whatnot, regardless of the moral conduct of the citizens of the USA. Suppose in fact that everyone lived in an experience of bliss – again, without changing their behavior (at least on political trigger issues). Would God then be pleased? If the wrath of God is only expressed in material misfortune, would anything then be right as long as everyone felt good about it?

    It’s same challenge to the Left, expressed in different terms. If the USA succeeded in being so wealthy that there was no poverty at all, no hunger, no want of any kind, no jealousy and no terrorism – would we then have a good society? Would satiating insatiable greed please God?

    I am thinking of the proverb about the dog who chases cars: what will he do with the car once he’s caught it? Of course we will never have this problem, and so both sides can continue on loudly declaring that bad things are happening because someone else is doing something that they don’t like. All of this horror and moral injustice that we are trying to stop on God’s behalf suggests that we greatly misunderstand what God himself is doing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Arlan. I think that there is a definite danger for all parties to operate as if God’s primary purpose was to underwrite their particular understanding of the American project. This assumption can lead to an inattention to the ways in which Christ might call us to follow him in ways that run counter to the American vocation, as the success of that vocation, as you observe, is all too readily confounded with divine pleasure and favour.

  4. Thursday says:

    Have you heard of James Kalb? He’s an incredible thinker and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. I’m including a whole whackload of links, but they are all a joy to read. Particularly apropos is his article on the American order below.


    The Tyranny of Liberalism:

    Understanding Conservatism and Tradition:

    PC and the Crisis of Liberalism:

    Liberalism and Its Meaning For Christians:

    Is Social Conservatism Necessary?

    Liberal Tolerance:

    Traditionalism and the American Order

    Vindicating Stereotypes and Discrimination

    Radical Traditionalism and the New World Order

    Liberalism Tradition and the Church

    Liberalism: What and Why?

    Conservatism FAQ:

    Anti-Inclusiveness FAQ

    Sexual Morality FAQ

    Questions and Answers on the Establishment of Religion


    Click to access awakening.pdf

  5. Thursday says:

    The Anglo-American right are really more classical/right wing liberals/libertarians than they are traditionalists/conservatives. Which means they can be pretty deaf to the ways in which the constant churn of capitalism destroys traditional community (“creative destruction”), thus setting up the need for state intervention. Of course, the purported cure (more technocratic bureaucracy, please) is even worse than the disease, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is the free market that set the whole weary process in motion.

    Anglosphere politics, moreso in the US but also in the UK, is made weird by the fact that because of the overwhelming strength of the left in the West, right wing liberals/libertarians and trad conservatives tend find themselves working together in the same political party even though they tend not to actually have all that much in common. The resulting “fusiionism” isn’t really coherent, though both sides tend to support decentralization, I suppose. And it results in really bizarre things like socially conservative Christians uncritically cheerleading for an economic system that seems to reduce everything to a commodity or a personal preference.

    (BTW I sent you a whole whackload of links to the American thinker James Kalb. Check your spam filter. He really is a joy to read. You also might want to check out George Grant. His English Speaking Justice is a nice, short read. And of course Edmund Burke is absolutely essential.)

  6. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

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