Review: Political Visions and Illusions, by David Koyzis

Political Visions and Illusions

David Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP Academic, 2003).

All humans long for redemption. We cannot escape the feeling that the world is not as it should be, and things need to be set right. Christians find the answer in Jesus Christ, whose coming kingdom will one day bring an end to all sin and injustice. Unbelievers, on the other hand, tend to locate redemption within the unfolding of human history. The idea that salvation can be achieved through earthly means has given rise to the numerous political ideologies that David Koyzis helpfully examines in Political Visions and Illusions. Many Christians have unwittingly bought into these ideologies, failing to see the ways in which they run counter to the biblical worldview. Other Christians have given up on political engagement altogether, often in the name of the “spiritual” nature of the church’s mission. Koyzis rejects both these approaches and proposes a uniquely Christian way of engaging the public sphere, avoiding the pitfalls of the various secular ideologies. His goal is not to offer yet another path to redemption through human effort, but rather to show how Christians, who live in light of the unique redemptive work of Christ, ought to think and act differently in political life.

Koyzis makes the claim that all ideologies are essentially forms of idolatry, elevating some aspect of creation to the level of ultimate significance. This generally entails the demonization of some other aspect of creation, leading Koyzis to conclude that political ideologies are really just modern versions of the ancient heresy of gnosticism. Christians have traditionally affirmed that sin is an alien intruder in God’s good creation, but Christ has entered into creation to redeem it. By contrast, gnostics find the source of both evil and salvation within the structure of creation itself. Throughout the course of the book, Koyzis examines the various ways in which modern political ideologies fall prey to this gnostic error. He singles out five such ideologies for critique: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism.

In my opinion, Koyzis’s chapter on liberalism alone is worth the price of the book. He defines liberalism essentially as the elevation of individual autonomy; it is not merely the opposite of conservatism. In fact, he argues that in our North American context, both those on the Left and those on the Right are liberals in their own way. This is due to some of the internal tensions within liberal ideology, which Koyzis describes in five historical stages: 1) the Hobbesian commonwealth, in which personal freedoms are yielded to the sovereign for the sake of protection from the “state of nature” (our primordial, brutish, pre-political condition); 2) the night watchman state (i.e. the classical liberalism to which many modern conservatives subscribe), resting on John Locke’s social contract theory and Adam Smith’s capitalist economics, in which individual rights extend to include the right to private property; 3) the regulatory state, in which the monopolies of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America were curbed by increasing government intervention and antitrust laws; 4) the equal opportunity state, exemplified in Keynesian economics and Roosevelt’s New Deal, in which the state lends a “helping hand” to counterbalance market vicissitudes and extend opportunities to the socially disadvantaged; and 5) the choice enhancement state, in which radical individual autonomy is shielded from negative consequences by means of government subsidy. Each stage in its own way seeks to uphold the sovereignty of individual choice. However, Koyzis points out that there are numerous problems with liberalism so understood. First, it assumes that goods are determined solely by the individual; there is no concept of a common good, and the state therefore has no authority beyond the dictates of the aggregate wills of its citizens. Second, it fails to account for the broader social dimensions that shape and are shaped by the individual’s choices (no man is an island). And third, it assumes that the state is capable of acting from a position of benign neutrality, as a “spiritually vacant state.” To return to Koyzis’s basic thesis, liberalism falls prey to the gnostic error by locating evil in external authority and locating salvation in the autonomous will of the individual. In short, liberalism makes an idol out of private voluntary consent.

The next ideology that Koyzis critiques is conservatism, which is in some ways the least “ideological” of those surveyed in the book. Rather, conservatism tends to feed off other ideologies, seeking to preserve or recover whichever traditions are present in a given social order. This makes “conservative” a relative term: a conservative today would have been a revolutionary in America’s founding years. But what unites all conservatives is a general aversion to radical social change, preferring instead the tried-and-true methods of the past. Conservatives tend to reject utopianisms of all stripes; they believe that if change is ever to succeed, it must be incremental and pragmatic. But this leaves us with the obvious question, exactly which traditions are worth preserving or recovering? What conservatism lacks is a transcendent standard by which to evaluate traditions, especially in regard to the role of the state. Moreover, conservatives may indulge in a sort of “reverse utopianism,” seeing the past through rose-colored glasses. One might say that the gnostic error of conservatives is to locate evil in the differentiation and development of society (which is actually a creational good; see below), and to locate salvation in the supposed wisdom of the static past. Overall, Koyzis is sympathetic to the conservative instinct, if not conservative ideology. And yet he also desires to wed this instinct with a cautious openness to reform; conserving and progressing do not have to be mutually exclusive. As Koyzis puts it, conservatives might be able to “apply the brakes,” but they cannot step on the gas or steer the vehicle.

Koyzis then moves to nationalism, a particular temptation within American evangelical churches. He acknowledges the difficulty in defining precisely what a nation is (after all, it is a relatively modern phenomenon), but common features seem to be a community’s self-awareness as a nation and an aspiration to self-government. To its credit, nationalism gives greater weight to the role of community than does either liberalism or conservatism. But the very idea of “nation” is necessarily exclusionary; it turns citizens into “insiders” and non-citizens into “outsiders.” Sometimes nationalism can take on overtly religious dimensions, as seen in a nation’s anthems, parades, holidays, etc. Further, nationalism is inherently idolatrous insofar as it elevates the nation to the level of ultimate loyalty and significance. Returning to Koyzis’s thesis, one can say that the gnostic error of nationalism is very similar to that of liberalism, except that it expands the sovereignty of the individual will to that of the nation, over against all authorities or perceived threats beyond the nation’s boundaries (and sometimes excluded groups within its boundaries). For the nationalist, the greatest evil is foreign rule. This tends to create a double standard of justice for citizens and non-citizens. It also tends to eclipse loyalties to intermediary institutions between the individual and the state (such as the church, the family, the labor union, etc.). None of this is meant to imply that there is no legitimate place for patriotic loyalty; it only means that such loyalty ought to be relativized.

The next ideology examined is democracy. Koyzis begins by distinguishing democracy as structure from democracy as creed. As a structure, democracy is merely the means by which citizens can participate in the political process and allow all voices to be heard with equal weight—in this sense, it is a creational good. But as a creed, democracy takes a turn for the worse, degenerating into a form of bare majoritarianism or “mob rule.” Democratic ideology has affinities with the gnostic errors of both liberalism and nationalism: it ascribes ontological ultimacy to the popular will, and it demonizes any authority over which the subject does not believe himself to have direct input. And like nationalism, it also tends to obscure the pluriformity of interests within a body politic (majority vs. minorities, local vs. federal, etc.), all in the name of some nebulous entity known as “the people.” Without proper limits, this kind of democracy becomes indistinguishable from totalitarianism, extending into nonstate institutions like the workplace, the school, and the family. Further, most people have neither the time nor the expertise to assume all the responsibilities involved in self-government. Repeating an argument as old as Plato’s Republic, Koyzis says that healthy government requires professionally trained leaders who know better than the people what is in the people’s own interests. What people think they want is not always the same as what is truly good for them, and for this reason democracy can easily devolve into a collective form of instant gratification. What healthy democracy needs, says Koyzis, is representatives who can function as competent trustees rather than as mere delegates slavishly following the will of the people.

The final ideology surveyed is socialism. Although there are several variations, the common idea behind them all is communal ownership of a society’s means of production and equal distribution of wealth. It can be said that the gnostic error of socialism is to locate evil in society’s division of labor, and to locate salvation in economic equality. In its strongest forms, it is the most utopian ideology. Karl Marx, for example, taught that the proletariat revolution would lead to a radical transformation of human nature itself through the emergence of a classless society. Take away economic inequalities, so the reasoning goes, and you take away the root cause of all vice. Unfortunately, history has tended to prove otherwise. Wherever communism has been tried, it has been unable to create a classless society; quite the contrary, it has tended to concentrate power and resources in the hands of the elite members of the party establishment. As Koyzis describes it, “Rule of the people inevitably becomes rule of the proletariat, which further narrows to become rule of a party on behalf of the proletariat” (163). Now it should be acknowledged that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of communal ownership, a point which Koyzis stresses (Christians need look only as far as the early church in the book of Acts). But the danger lies in uncompromisingly totalizing such a principle and extending it to the highest levels of society, which invariably results in injustice. Nevertheless, Koyzis agrees with the socialist critique that a completely unfettered free market is also prone to injustice. The state does have a responsibility to enforce certain normative limits on the market, to protect public spaces, and to provide at least a minimal level of social safety nets. But the state is not a surrogate savior, and we should not expect any amount of economic regulation or redistribution to alter human nature.

So what should be the Christian response to such ideologies? Koyzis favors neither total condemnation nor total affirmation, but rather recognizing their genuine creational underpinnings within the context of the biblical worldview. After all, if idolatry is defined as ascribing ontological ultimacy to created goods, then we should still expect to see elements of the good (however distorted) within each ideology. Thus Koyzis finds the key to Christian political engagement within the normative creation order—not in the sense of mere repristination (it’s not about winding the clock back to untamed Eden), but rather in the cultivation and differentiation of creational structures. Politics so defined is not some unfortunate product of the fall or merely a necessary evil (contrary to much Lutheran political thought); it serves a positive purpose in God’s original design for the universe.

A further aspect of Christian political engagement is an appreciation of pluralism, a term which Koyzis uses in three senses. First, there is pluralism in the sense of spiritual or directional diversity—the empirical reality of religious differences within society. Given that politcs is only capable of achieving penultimate justice rather than God’s final justice, this type of pluralism must be tolerated, even if it is not the ideal. We might wish that all unbelievers would bow the knee to Christ, but we cannot compel them to do so by force of arms (consider Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13). The second type is cultural pluralism—the natural tendency of humans to develop their own unique customs, languages, and practices as they disperse geographically. Since this type of pluralism would have emerged even if there had been no fall, we can call it a creational good that ought to be protected. However, Koyzis is chiefly concerned with the third type of pluralism, which he labels societal pluriformity or structural pluralism. This means that all human activity can be divided into various institutional spheres (the family, the church, the state, etc.), each of which has its own norms and limits. We can pretty intuitively tell the difference between a family and a business corporation, for instance. And yet non-Christian political ideologies tend to flatten these differences by elevating one element of society over the others. For example, the liberal deifies the individual at the expense of other authorities, while the nationalist deifies the state at the expense of individual rights. By contrast, the Christian doctrine of the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) helps us to understand and respect the creational integrity of each sphere of life. True, God did not create the world with schools, dance troupes, and labor unions, but he did embed in creation the potential for us to develop such institutions through the historical process of societal differentiation. The concept is a bit difficult to grasp at first, but it is absolutely essential for healthy political engagement.

Building on the idea of structural pluralism, Koyzis proceeds to examine two particular Christian traditions that offer nonideological approaches to politics: Catholic social teaching and neo-Calvinism. The former began with Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), whose teachings on the state’s relationship to nonstate communities laid the groundwork for one of the greatest contributions to modern Christian political thought: the principle of subsidiarity. Stated simply, subsidiarity means that tasks should whenever possible be fulfilled at the lowest level of a social hierarchy, and higher levels should intervene and provide assistance (subsidium) only as a last resort. For example, the federal government should not step in and provide direct material assistance to those in need if churches and private charities are capable of meeting this need.

Neo-Calvinism (a favorite topic of this blog), which began in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century with Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck, offers a very similar approach to political engagement. One of the core principles of neo-Calvinism is sphere sovereignty (Koyzis prefers the term differentiated responsibility), which views the authority of each social institution as deriving directly from God himself. Koyzis tends to favor sphere sovereignty over subsidiarity, since the former locates authority not in a fixed ontological hierarchy but rather in office, which varies according to institutional context. Koyzis gives the example of a student and teacher: the teacher has authority over the student in the classroom, but supposing that that same student were also a policeman and pulled the teacher over for speeding after school, the offices and institutional context have changed. Sphere sovereignty accounts for this dynamic better than does subsidiarity, although both traditions are at an advantage over the ideologies in avoiding the dangers of political reductionism.

Koyzis concludes by reflecting on the nature of the state’s task, which has been variously defined in terms of power, authority, and justice. He does not attempt to arrive at an objective, universally acceptable definition of justice. In fact, he argues, such an attempt is impossible, due to the irreducible pretheoretical commitments (worldviews) that every person holds—much to the chagrin of proponents of natural law. But given a Christian understanding of creational norms and differentiated responsibility, we can say that a state’s task is to adjudicate the pluriform interests of society (the family, the school, the market, etc.) in a balanced and consistent way. Given the reality of sin, this task will never solve all of life’s problems. Life is complex, and ideologies generally attempt to make things simpler than they really are. But a Christian view of politics enables us to work toward penultimate justice, even as we await God’s final justice.

By way of evaluation, I would say that Political Visions and Illusions is essential reading for Christian political engagement. I think it would be ideally suited as an introductory political science textbook in Christian colleges. But I would also warn the reader that its content is very dense. The concepts described take a long time to digest, and many parts of the book may require a second reading to understand fully. Further, there are many concrete political issues that are left untreated (for example, how is a Christian to think about the minimum wage or immigration reform?). But Koyzis can hardly be faulted for that. The book is large enough as it is (281 pages), and his goal is rather to provide the theoretical foundations upon which we can develop such concrete policies and actions. In that goal, I believe he has succeeded.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


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