Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies
David T. Koyzis
InterVarsity Press, 256 pages, $18

David Koyzis's new book is about ideologies. And I know ideologies. I spent my teen years in Barry Goldwater's Arizona. Senator Goldwater's most famous statement (uttered near the end of his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention) demonstrates the very nature of ideology: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Ideologies, says Koyzis, take some good thing from God's creation and elevate it out of its natural order, often treating it as a source of salvation and a kind of substitute god. The language of ultimacy in Goldwater's great punch line illustrates Koyzis's point about elevating something God called "very good" out of its place. Does anything other than God deserve our "extremism"?

Koyzis, who teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, draws on the work of economist Bob Goudzewaard to argue that ideologies are actually idolatries. Think about the great ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, democracy, socialism, nationalism. Each elevates some particular good thing and seeks from it some kind of social salvation. Liberalism worships the freedom of the individual. Conservatism venerates history as a source of norms. Democracy confuses the will of people with the voice of God. Nationalism sacrifices all to the political or ethnic community. Socialism reveres common ownership.

Ideologies go beyond inventing false gods: they distort God's good creation to invent their own devils and their own eschatologies. Marxists, for example, see foundational evil in the division of labor. And their new earth is the classless society.

Ideologies also distort our view of creation: This is captured in a telling piece dialogue from the 1985 movie, White Nights. In the film, Raymond Greenwood, an African American entertainer who has defected to the Soviet Union, tells a Russian official that he wants to produce West Side Story.

"I saw it years ago in America," replies Colonel Chaiko. "With the original cast. Years ago. Marvelous.  A very accurate picture of the race conflict in America. You should perform it in Moscow."

The worth of an artistic production for this Russian official is its ideological message. West Side Story is indeed framed by the not very newsworthy fact that America has a perennial race problem. But the musical's value resides in its many merits, including artistic excellence in poetry, choreography, and composition; a compelling vision of all-conquering love; and (in "Gee, Officer Krupke") its burlesque of therapeutic solutions to gang violence. Sadly, it is in the nature of ideology to reduce art to propaganda.

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Ideology also replaces principles with goals. One particularly egregious form of nationalism, the National Socialism of the Third Reich, sacrificed principles of freedom, equality, and justice in the horrific, genocidal pursuit of racial purity. Likewise, South African apartheid, justified all manner of violence in the service of maintaining the systemic privileges of Afrikaners. Both nationalisms were given a Christian gloss by its theologians, offering us in retrospect a clear view of the idolatry embedded in these ideologies.

The benefits of ideology

Though ideologies have brought disaster, they have also brought us blessing. Koyzis writes, "The key to approaching properly the ideologies lies in an initial effort to understand their appeal, and hence their legitimate creational underpinnings.  It makes no sense to assume that they have got something wrong unless we have first grasped what they have got right." And usually, what the ideologies have got wrong is a clue to what they have got right.

Take liberalism as a case in point: All varieties of liberalism (including much of American conservatism) adhere to a creed of individual autonomy, as long as such autonomy does not impinge on the freedom of others. Classical liberalism is right on the mark in its assertion "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But, as Koyzis points out, liberalism's inordinate emphasis on freedom is paradoxical and has often resulted in restricted freedoms. The liberal political project that inspired the America Revolution was primarily about defending the natural rights of human beings. But as liberal politics evolved, it spawned the regulatory state, the equal opportunity state, and most recently what Koyzis dubs "the choice-enhancement state." In this current stage, there is no longer any agreed-on summum bonum or vision of the commonweal. There is merely the commitment to enhance every individual's freedom to choose, regardless of the results of the particular choice. These recent forms of liberalism in their own ways leave behind laissez-faire and ironically curtail liberty.

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The individualistic rhetoric of abortion rights is an illustration of choice-enhancement liberalism. It is devoid of argument based on the common good or any reflection on the meaning and nature of human reproduction. And in an ironic twist, the abortion-rights ethos has shrunk the vision of many women who might otherwise choose a more demanding (and ultimately more rewarding) path.

The answer to liberalism's faults, however, is not to deny freedom. It is to affirm freedoms in balance with responsibilities. Likewise, the answer to nationalism's faults is not to deny the importance of community. It is to strike the balance between the rights of various communities (family, church, city, nation). Nor is the answer to socialism to deny the importance of shared ownership and shared responsibilities. It is to circumscribe shared ownership to the spheres where it is most appropriate (such as public utilities and the common defense), while reserving private ownership to its proper sphere.

Setting limits

In the wake of the twentieth century's ideological distortions, Koyzis seeks a politics beyond ideology. Ideologies are all-encompassing. Marxism and capitalism make all of life look like economics. Nationalism treats everything as a form of loyalty or disloyalty to one's tribe. Liberalism resolves every problem by maximizing individual autonomy. Koyzis wants to counter the totalizing effect of ideologies by putting limits on our political life.

The first step in setting limits is to recognize that the state is only one part of human life. We form and participate in many interwoven webs of human endeavor. I am part of a marriage, an extended family, a church, a business, a professional society, and several alumni associations (who keep telephoning at the dinner hour). In the past, I have been part of a parent-teacher organization, a racquet club, a musicians' guild, and a writers' circle. Each of these organizations—some political, some natural, some voluntary—has certain activities that are proper to its nature. And by reserving to each sphere the activity proper to it, we limit the power of the other spheres.

The education of children has been a key area of concern for Christians. To which sphere does this belong? To the state? To the church? To the family? To some voluntary association? Christians have their differences on this matter, but nearly all would agree that it is not a responsibility that should be tacitly ceded to the state. Parents and church communities have prior rights over the education of children, even when it is carried on in state-operated schools when the state-run schools overstep their bounds (teaching, for example, sexual values that run contrary to family or church  values).

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Koyzis mines two sources of Christian political thought to develop an anti-ideological politics. He did his graduate work at Toronto's Institute of Christian Studies (where he studied Dutch Calvinist political philosophy) and at the University of Notre Dame (where he imbibed Catholic social thought). Both traditions strongly insist on limiting the state to its proper sphere of activity.

The Catholic version is called "the principle of subsidiarity." It ranks our institutions in a hierarchy, and it calls for any given responsibility to be exercised a the lowest possible level. Only when a lower level abdicates or consistently botches a responsibility is it to be taken up by a higher level. Thus providing food and clothing belongs properly to the family—the lowest, smallest social unit in society. Only if the family neglects its responsibilities are church, state, and other agencies to interfere.

The Dutch Calvinist version of this theory is called "sphere sovereignty"—though Koyzis prefers the term "differentiated responsibility." Sphere sovereignty does not order our human networks in a hierarchy. It sees them all relating directly to God's will in the specific area to which he has assigned them. This places the responsibility for each sphere directly on those responsible. Koyzis writes: "A healthy society, one characterized by what the Bible calls shalom, is one in which the various spheres of human activity develop in balanced, proportionate fashion."

The key, in any case, is to limit government. Though many conservative Christians turn to Romans 13 to argue that government's only legitimate role is to restrain evil, Koyzis would remind us that much of the Old Testament reflects a broader understanding of government's calling to execute justice and foster well-being.

But back to Barry Goldwater. In 1964, he voted against President Johnson's momentous Civil Rights Act. He argued that although he had been a strong and early advocate of civil rights (true), he could not countenance this federal law because it violated the rights of individuals to voluntary association and of the rights of the states to regulate public accommodation and labor (a tendentious argument). This argument was a form of subsidiarity thinking, but it ignored the corollary: when a lower unit of government fails persistently in its duty, a higher level must intervene.

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Barry Goldwater very likely did not believe his own argument against the Civil Rights Act and later came to rue his decision. But he was running for president, and (figuratively speaking) he made a pact with the devil in order to pick up the votes of southern white Democrats who were opposed to Johnson's activism.

The results of the Civil Rights Act have been enormously positive. But the Law of Unintended Consequences brought problems that neither side could have foreseen in 1964. For example, faith-based organizations that use government funds for social work are fighting for their right to "discriminate" in terms of religion, that is, to employ workers who share their convictions.

Liberal attempts to regulate, restrict or change the character of these faith-based organizations is ultimately self-defeating. Their very effectiveness depends on their remaining independent of the regulatory state. Their grassroots nature and faith-based character is an embodiment of sphere sovereignty in action. To the Christian political theorist, these fruitful grassroots efforts provide a model for a politics beyond ideology. To the poor, they are a blessing.

Related Elsewhere

Political Visions & Illusions by David Koyzis is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. See also our extended interview with Koyzis.

Political Visions & Illusions is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

InterVarsity Press has more information on the book, including excerpts of the preface and introduction.

Koyzis runs a weblog called "Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist."

Redeemer University College's website has both professional and personal pages for Koyzis.

Earlier Editor's Bookshelf selections can be found here.

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns: