Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I am neither left nor right: where I stand politically

Christians and partisanship
In the comments of a recent post, I claimed that I was a Christian "who was neither left nor right".

As a result, a friend wrote to me expressing concern that I was perhaps being disingenuous about my loyalties considering various experiences and conversations we'd shared in which I'd been critical of one "side" of Australian politics and supportive of the other. My friend encouraged me to be upfront about where I am coming from politically and so I thought I would take the opportunity to do so, if for no other reason than to give a little more context for any comments I might make on policy or party-political issues from time to time.

When I said that I was a Christian who was neither left nor right, I meant it. I didn't mean that I have no political opinions or am apolitical, but that I generally try to be non-partisan for what I believe are good theological reasons.

As a disciple of Jesus, my political allegiance is to him alone. He has received all authority in heaven and on earth from the Father and so all political authorities that remain in this present age have been put on notice. What authority they have is derivative from his and is strictly temporary. Their jurisdiction is similarly limited. And Christians may not place in them anything other than small and provisional hopes, nor expect of them anything other than partial victories and defeats in a world marred by sin and indeed should expect them sometimes to resemble the powers and principalities arranged against God. So any identification by a Christian with a political cause will be under these caveats.
Or, to put this another way, it may come as no surprise that I broadly agree with my PhD supervisor Oliver O'Donovan. For a decent summary of some of his key ideas, see this essay by Andrew Errington, which is Andrew's work but draws upon O'Donovan fairly extensively.

Neither right nor left
I reject being straightforwardly labelled as "left" or "right" for two reasons, one philosophical and one theological. First, I don't think that the spectrums of left/right or conservative/progressive are particularly useful conceptual tools for discussing a political field that has more than one dimension. At best they are a commonly-accepted shorthand, but they often obscure as much as they reveal. The two-party system that dominates politics in Australia, the US and the UK (the three arenas with which I am most familiar) generally simplifies all issues to two positions. Sometimes these two positions are actually very close to one another, but this is hidden by constant focus on their slight distinctions. This represents a (perhaps partially inevitable) dumbing down of political discourse and debate and is not helped by mainstream media sources that are more interested in profit than accuracy or nuance.

But more importantly, speaking theologically and ethically, none of the parties of which I'm aware manifestly represents the cause of the gospel. Each holds positions and priorities that as a Christian I find disappointing, disturbing or repulsive. Furthermore, neither the agenda of the "left" nor the "right" can be entirely adopted or entirely demonised by thoughtful followers of a crucified and risen king. Both contain worthwhile attempts to defend aspects of the good creation. In a world of complex goods, there will rarely be policies that are unambiguous expressions of justice, truth and the common good. By the same token, the parasitic nature of evil means that even the worst policies will lay claim to some good thing, even if, in seeking to defend it, they trample other (and perhaps more important) goods. When the complexity of the moral and political field is combined with human sinfulness and the impossibility of any leader (other than Jesus) being the Messiah,* then no party or "side" can claim the obvious, exclusive, permanent or total commitment of Christians.
*Indeed, some of my longer blog pieces have been critiquing implicit messianism, whether associated with leaders or nations. Here is one example and here is another.

Consequently, voting is only ever possible while holding one's nose. I've rarely voted with much confidence and never without some degree of regret, often quite deep. And remember, voting is only the tip of the iceberg when considering what makes for a healthy political authority. But if and when you do vote, it ought to be done thoughtfully and out of concern for neighbour.

Politics and love
Indeed, all Christian political activity (which may begin with voting, but is not at all limited to it) is a response to the royal law of love - love for God and neighbour. This is also what prevents political apathy or disengagement, or a total retreat into cynicism. To write off the political authorities as irrelevant, uselessly corrupt or ubiquitously anti-Christ frequently means to abandon one's neighbour to the strongest or sneakiest bully. Of course, political engagement is neither the start nor the end of the love command, and it is a task that falls on the church community as a body, in which different members may play different roles. It is not the case that every member needs to be equally well informed or passionate about every political matter.

A significant part of Christian political responsibility will be warning political authorities when they are overstepping their jurisdiction, or when they are neglecting to protect the vulnerable and uphold justice. And so part of this task is unavoidably critical. But it is also important to seek ways forward, to offer creative suggestions, to pursue the best that it is currently possible to achieve, to engage in the often messy and always imperfectible pursuit of justice. And so it may be the case that some Christians will be called into seeking elected office, into partial and provisional loyalty to a party or cause for the sake of the common good. Being a Christian ruler is not necessarily oxymoronic.

My recent political activity
On my blog I have made positive comments about a variety of political parties and individuals and not all on one "side". I have supported particular campaigns by various groups who in some cases identify as either "progressive" or "conservative", but this doesn't mean I endorse everything they do.

I don't think that I have ever campaigned on my blog for a particular party or individual, but even if I have (or do so in future), this would represent a provisional and highly fallible position based on my evaluation of current needs and opportunities.

I am not claiming to be a swinging voter (though I have voted for various parties at various times) nor to be a centrist (though, like the "left" and "right", it has some good points). I am not saying that I have no preferences or sit on the fence.

At different times I have written to MPs, councillors, government and shadow ministers and prime ministers of many parties (in a number of countries) seeking to put forward particular policies, offer praise and humbly present criticism. Always I have promised to pray for them and I try to keep that promise.

At times I have expressed frustration at how common it is in some circles to assume that Christian discipleship entails partisan political conservatism (though I am just as frustrated by the opposite assumption, it is simply a little less prominent at this point in history). I have argued against the idea that most issues have a single and obvious Christian position; I think that it is possible for biblical Christians of goodwill and honesty to disagree on the policies that will best uphold and pursue justice. I reject the assumption that only certain issues are "Christian", or that there are a small range of issues (generally to do with sexuality) on which Christians ought primarily or exclusively to base their voting and other political activity. And, perhaps quite obviously, I believe that there are some issues (such as ecology) that Christians have generally not paid enough attention to.

So if you had me pegged, pigeonholed or stereotyped, I hope that this helps to clarify where I do (and don't!) stand politically. I am not trying to hide anything; I am sorry if I have not always been sufficiently clear on these matters.
UPDATE: a slightly modified version of this post has been included on the CPX site as part of their election coverage.


Mike W said...

aha, that is just what a sneaky.....would say!

Thanks Byron.
Even within a two party system there are numerous opinions and angles within each party. Sometimes we think and act as though every politician agrees with every policy of their party when that simply isn't the case.

Sam Norton said...

I always enjoy it when I read one of your posts that I can agree with without restraint ;-)

(which is most of them I should add)

Michael Canaris said...

Rather tangentially, at times I wonder whether our parties and factions in effect form affinitive networks of fealty amongst power-brokers; wherefore something akin to mediaeval JWT or idealised codes of chivalry may be apposite in a domestic context.

byron smith said...

Mike - Good point about diversity within parties.

Sam - Thanks, and given a few differences here and there (I'm still trying to find something really positive to say about Palin!), I'm glad we share the far more important common ground I've covered above.

Michael - Interesting suggestion, though what is JWT? Just war theory? Can you explain what you mean in a little more detail?

Michael Canaris said...

--Michael - Interesting suggestion, though what is JWT? Just war theory?--
Yes. Broadly speaking, the analogy I had in mind was with how initial development of said theory was occasioned by the chaotic state of immediate post-Roman polities in the West, with people such as St. Isidore of Seville incorporating the resultant Germanic kingdoms into their understanding of the ius gentium.

michael jensen said...

But Byron - while I agree with your analysis here, it is simply the case that you personally swing more left than right. This description is only a shorthand of course - and you may complain that it is not fine-grained enough. But ... it's true, isn't it? :-)

Michael Canaris said...

While we may well draw such inferences, is it prudent for Byron to explicitly state them? Quite frankly, I'd rather he remains a bit delphic at times.

Andrew said...

Thanks Byron - perhaps now you can be 'moving forward' from here, and your readers can be assured that they can 'trust you with the economy' of your words...(said tongue in cheek!)

Highanddry said...

@ Michael Jensen

What I hear Byron saying is that he swings towards Jesus. If you happen to believe that is to the left, it may say something about Byron, but it definitely says something about you. :)

Anonymous said...

A very useful summary of a way (and before you box me, perhaps not the only way) of approaching politics as a Christian.

We read an interesting book along similar lines in a reading group here in VN a while ago. Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas. While he was more focused on our corporate identity as the body rather than individuals, he makes many similar points about avoiding what he calls Constantianism (the allegiance of the church to the state in order to further the church's agenda to change society to become more Cn by means of state legislation etc). Our role is instead to concentrate on being the church as aliens in this world, citizens of heaven, waiting for our king to return from there to us here on earth (not us eventually escaping earth to some other heaven - but that is a tangent for another day). This does not by any means imply disengagement from the world and from politics but that we approach them not to make Cn government but to shape society and community through the gospel in all its fullness.
Worth a read but very US-centric, and since it was written in the late 80s/early 90s it doesn't engage with post-modernism all that well.


Michael Canaris said...


--What I hear Byron saying is that he swings towards Jesus.--

On the contrary, I see him scrupulously attempting to avoid such impudent arrogance.

Highanddry said...

@ Michael Canaris

Ouch! No offense intended. I was merely reflecting on Byron's helpful summation: "But more importantly, speaking theologically and ethically, none of the parties of which I'm aware manifestly represents the cause of the gospel. Each hold positions and priorities that as a Christian I find disappointing, disturbing or repulsive. Furthermore, neither the agenda of the "left" nor the "right" can be entirely adopted or entirely demonised by thoughtful followers of a crucified and risen king. Both contain worthwhile attempts to defend aspects of the good creation." Which I would affirm as his commitment to a deeper loyalty (i.e. Christ as Lord) over partisan politics. Michael Jensen is suggesting that, be that as it may, Byron is still left leaning, which I am suggesting may not necessarily be the case.

If I have erred in my reading of his confession mea culpa.

byron smith said...

Andrew - The fact that it took me a few seconds to get what you were on about shows how blissfully disconnected from the day-to-day sound bites of the current campaign I am here in the UK.

Highanddry - Don't assume you know what Michael's own politics are.

Michael, Michael and Highanddry (Phil) - Phil is correct to note that above all I would like to swing most to Jesus, wherever that happens to take me. Michael C is right to say that I make no claims to be doing so perfectly or in the manner that all Christians must follow. MPJ is correct to note that it is true enough and plain to see that by writing a fair bit about ecological issues, I am bound to be read as "left-leaning" by "pragmatists" like MPJ (said with a wink).

Yet the very framing of ecological issues as belonging to a small interest group on the left called "environmentalists" is itself part of the tragedy (as an upcoming post will argue, stay tuned). This is one of the many failures of the left-right distinction, as can be observed by noting that Teddy Roosevelt founded the US National Park system, Nixon established the EPA, and Bush senior re-established the Clean Air Act and signed the Montreal Protocol (called by Kofi Annan in 2003 "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date"). That was back when being conservative meant that you tried to conserve things worth conserving. But that is yet another story (or post) for another day.

byron smith said...

@Stef - Yes, Hauerwas is indeed another perspective on Christian politics to O'Donovan. They share much in common, though O'D would criticise SH's account of Christendom as too simplistic. The Christian emperor, whose self-understanding is chastised and disciplined by the gospel, is a genuine historical possibility and the history of western europe doesn't need to be read as a more or less unmitigated failure on that front.

Highanddry said...

I apologise once more to Michael and anyone else who I may have offended.

My attempt at shorthand blog humour has gone horribly.

In my original post I was trying (to use humour) to suggest that while you had articulated your belief Byron that you are not "left" or "right" but seek to be faithful to Christ's Lordship, Michael was still wanting to put you on the left. Hence, your Jesus is to the left of Michael's Jesus. Not having spent much time at Michael's blog I did assume that much.

Sheepish retreat...

byron smith said...

No retreat necessary (ovine or otherwise)! I was with you in your initial comment and thought that "swinging to Jesus" was a nice phrase which brought a smile.

My very small point was that Michael J might see himself as further to the "left" than he perceives me to be and could have been calling me out for being so wimpy as not to admit as much.

byron smith said...

I might add that although I've (thankfully) been spared much of the daily morass that passes for an election campaign, what I have seen from both major parties has been thoroughly disheartening: precisely the personality-driven, negative, policy-light appeals to self-interest and fear that destroy genuine political deliberation. Both parties are spineless, the media complicit and the culture apathetic (we get the leaders we deserve). It is times like this that we see the downside of compulsory voting combined with a (largely) two party system: neither side needs to win, they just have to make the other side lose. Pointless and depressing. I could multiply examples (and offer a few rays of hope), but it's late and I'm already feeling depressed enough.

michael jensen said...

There are some interesting 'Green Tories' in the UK, too...

Me to the left of you, Byron?? (splutters into breakfast cereal!)

byron smith said...

At least someone knows how to make a positive ad. The Greens wish they'd thought of it, given that ABC now has the copyright and won't release it. Whatever you think about the specific issues raised, and even though it lacks any policy details, at least it is (a) not appealing to selfishness and (b) not an attack ad and (c) more about issues than personalities.

byron smith said...

Information is Beautiful: Left vs Right. This infographic is both a very helpful summary of common assumptions and illustrates the frustrations and limitations of this kind of right/left thinking that assumes so many easy dichotomies.

byron smith said...

MWH: A more detailed discussion of why left and right are outdated, confusing and simplistic.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Religios people are more likely to be left-leaning according to a new think-tank report. I wonder whether the same result would be found in Oz or not.

Protoprotestant said...

It certainly wouldn't be the case in the United States. Most here are far to the Right.

I share the author's frustration with labels and tying down the range of arguments and issues to a narrow packaged spectrum.

On some issues I'm far beyond the mainstream 'left' and in terms of personal conduct/Christian living I might be considered far to the 'right'...and yet unlike Right-oriented Constantinians I am not keen on nor believe it appropriate to coerce others to conduct themselves in the same way.

I long to lead a quiet and peaceable life, minding my own business and yet at the same time being a martyr-witness to the truth of the Gospel and the reality of the Kingdom.