When it comes to social justice, how should the church relate to the modern, liberal nation state?
For my class on Christian Ethics, we read an essay on virtue ethics and social justice by Elizabeth Phillips who says that from her perspective, while Christian virtue ethicists may have some commonalities with communitarian critiques of liberalism, they will not agree with communitarians who seek to implement their vision of justice within the modern, liberal nation state.
Okay, the liberal-communitarian debate is a bit passé these days, but the way Phillips frames the discussion is still instructive. Communitarians stress the importance of tradition and social context for moral and political thought, argue for an understanding of human persons as social creatures, and highlight the value of communal relationships. Hence, communitarians criticize the hyper-individualism of liberalism, its tendency to focus on procedural questions about justice rather than substantive visions of the good, and its quest for a universal theory of justice that can be applied in all times and places. Phillips claims that Christian virtue ethicists make similar criticisms of liberal ethical theories.
However, when communitarians want to go further and advance communitarian proposals as a contribution to the politics of the modern, liberal nation state, Phillips thinks the Christian virtue ethicist will demur. The modern nation state is decidedly not the community that virtue ethicists are thinking of when they look for a community and a tradition that can nurture and sustain the distinctive virtues of Christian faith and practice. In fact, virtue ethicists are wary of the totalitarian dangers in viewing the modern nation state in such a fashion. The communities that can shape and sustain the virtues in the modern world will be, according to Phillips, small and local.
In a response to Phillips’s essay, Miguel De La Torre, a liberation theologian, disagrees with virtue ethics on precisely this point. A liberationist ethics not only shares the communitarian critique of liberalism, but also wants to implement a communitarian vision of justice within the modern state. De La Torre writes: “Here then is the fundamental difference between the virtue ethics Phillips advocates and liberationist thought. Liberative ethics does offer a communitarian theory of justice rooted in the lives of the disenfranchised to be implemented within the modern state.”
These two approaches to the question of how the church should relate to the modern liberal nation state shed some light on The Episcopal Church’s rather flailing approach to social teaching. While both approaches I think can be defended, the mish-mash that we get in current offerings from church leaders on social issues is both confused and confusing.
In previous posts I have already indicated my preference for a virtue ethics approach to this question and for the distinctive type of politics that flows from such a vision, so I won’t repeat myself. I will simply pose some questions and challenges to the folks who, like De La Torre, want to implement a Christian social agenda within the modern, liberal nation state. I suspect part of the difficulty is for people these days to even imagine an alternative form of politics that is not about the church playing the role of advisor to the nation state. Nonetheless, I raise some issues in the hopes of bringing a little clarity to our church’s social thought.
First, I wonder if folks who want to implement a liberative theory of justice within the modern nation state are aware of the irony of their routinely criticizing the failures of Christendom as an approach to church and state, while seeming to offer another version of Christendom (albeit in a different key).
Second, if the church was corrupted and coopted in earlier versions of Christendom, why don’t they think it will happen this time?
Third, can the massive institutions of the modern nation state really form and sustain the types of communities of justice that liberation theologians envision?
Fourth, to the people who are offering advice to the nation state, how’s that working for you? Is anybody paying attention?
I raise these questions because I think the various statements we hear from church leaders on social issues are confused and confusing. At least, they are to me. Is the way of love a way for Christian disciples to live out the politics of Jesus a la John Howard Yoder? Or is it an attempt to shape the laws and policies of the modern nation state?
What do you think?