So Much Depends
During election season, I try to just bite my lip and shut up.
I get the sense these days that it is more important to be “for” or “against” than to engage in a critical discussion. But frankly, I think the picture has become far too complex for an up down vote. That, coupled with the fact that I’ve probably been infected by European socialism (interesting, I’ve been disqualified here for a supposed American bias) makes me think that during election season I’m better off just shutting up. But the intensity of this particular race, the historical moment in which we live, and my recent reflections on the intersection of Christian faith and culture have all helped to me to crystallize my political philosophy a bit. I think I’m going to risk trying to express it.
So in the next couple of posts beween now and election day, I would like to throw a couple of thoughts out there in the hopes that some of my readers will take the bait and engage me in conversation. All opinions are welcome!
This first post will explain a fundamental difference between Christian and Secular views of personhood that I think runs like a thread through the major issues highlighted in next week’s election. Then with that in mind, I’ll discuss in turn the three issues that have determined my vote: economic policy, foreign policy and social policy. I think you’ll see that The Thread doesn’t run continuously through any of the platforms available. This just reaffirms what scripture continually tells us, “the world is complicated; when certainty fails, you have to exercise wisdom.” Lord knows we all need wisdom this time around.
So what does the Christian view of personhood have to do with this year’s election? For me it comes down to how we assign value.
Let me illustrate with poet William Carlos Williams’ famous wordplay: “So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.” In 1923 Williams published a seemingly innocuous poem, “A Red Wheelbarrow”, and rocked our understanding of the purpose and meaning of poetry. Here it is in all it’s glory:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
For Williams and others of his generation, the object has a value completely of its own. Red, glazed with rain, surrounded by white chickens … the scene is meaningful and complete without any outside interference. A wheelbarrow doesn’t require anything else to give it importance or meaning apart from its own existence. In fact, the poem was criticized because in mentioning “dependence” Williams suggested that the wheelbarrow’s meaning was based in part on its functional relationship to other objects.
All of this thrilling word play and philosophy wasn’t just a statement about objects, it was a statement about all of reality, including personal identity. This view has grown into a core belief of the modern secular Western world: a person determines their own identity and value independent of all other sources of meaning.
The Christian worldview is radically different on this point. Judeo-Christian theology assigns dignity to persons based on their relationship to their Creator and His intentions for them, intentions revealed in scripture and through relationship with other persons. Williams was right in part. So much depends … and it depends because the wheelbarrow was designed to be gripped, lifted and pushed in order to move the things that depend upon it. Persons are no different. We are unique in our shape and design but our meaning comes not from our substance as we alone perceive it, but from the one who designed us.
All of this is to say: Christian value judgements about persons and societies – about economics, about the identity and behavior of nations, and about social goods and ills – are to be made first by an appeal to God’s assigned meaning and only in that framework by an expression of personal liberty or national interest.
I think many Christians on both continents often abandon adherence to this central truth in our politics and in our personal philosophy because it is increasingly unpragmatic, unpopular, uncomfortable, and frankly more than a little odd. We are in that sense more American/European than we are Christian. As our societies drift closer and closer to “red wheelbarrow” thinking, we will find it harder to escape this stark, fundamental difference.
This suggests a number of conclusions that play themselves out in each of the topics I’ll be addressing.
- Personal liberty outside of the context of divinely assigned value very quickly becomes an idol. I hope to demonstrate how this idolatry can be seen in clear opposition to biblical teaching in dominant views of American economic, international and social policies.
- As personal liberty becomes America’s dominant ideology, we cannot expect that our elected representatives will consistently choose our “ridiculous” Christian approach over the “common sense” of the majority of their constituents. Increasingly, there may be no “Christian” vote, only a wise one.
- American Christians would be well served by readopting or reaffirming an understanding (perhaps more common among evangelicals in Europe’s thoroughly post-Chrisian societies) that the Kingdom of God must be the guarantor of its own worldview regardless of national politics even while exercising wisdom within that context.
So onward … Economics, Foreign Policy, and Social Issues.