I recently read a great blog piece from Rev. John Rasmussen, a Lutheran pastor writing for a blog called “The Beggars Blog.” I would highly recommend you navigate over there and read what he has to say. Rev. Rasmussen uses the term “political homelessness” – a state in which a person can find himself or herself when their convictions as a Christian place them at odds with politics as usual. The idea of political homelessness no doubt describes the situation of many in the United States, particularly Christians who are trying to live their lives according to their faith while simultaneously participating in the political process.
Admittedly I have had similar musings about this topic in recent years. Caught between loyalty to a particular political cause and my convictions as a Catholic Christian, I am frequently the object of accusations of being “too conservative” or “too liberal” – depending upon the issue at hand. I find myself asking, “Is it possible that people unknowingly see their political parties and associations as ‘golden calves’ to be worshiped?” It certainly feels that way at times.
Should we conclude, then, that the political process itself is evil, and as such, to be avoided? Certainly not. After all, the object of politics should be the more just functioning of society. But what do we mean when we say “just society?” In a post-modern world many seem to appeal to justice, while at the same time seem to misunderstand what justice even means.
Classically understood, justice is the virtue by which a person renders to each one his due with a constant and perpetual will.1 This implies an important, but often overlooked fact: if the act of justice is to give each person that which is due to him, then it seems that justice is preceded by the act whereby something becomes a person’s due. In other words, if each man always and everywhere possessed that which is due to him then the world would be perfectly just. The necessity for bringing about justice implies that there is a need to restore something that is missing. So justice can be envisioned as the virtue, that is, the firm habit of a person’s soul, which allows him or her to recognize that another does not have what is due to them, and likewise move to correct that privation by providing it to them.
It can be easy to envision this between individuals. If an employer hires a person do complete a job, then that person undergoes an act (work) that affords him compensation for his work. The employer, by paying the employee, thereby acts justly because the employee has been given that which is due to him. But is there more to justice than this?
Justice can be said of in three ways, as shown above: (1) Between individual persons (iustitia commutativa, or commutative justice) – and this we have discussed above; (2) between an individual person and the social whole (iustitia legalis, or legal justice); or (3) between the social whole and an individual person (iustitia distributiva, or distributive justice).
Politics deals with distributive justice because its end is (at least in part) to enable the social whole (a nation, state, etc.) to give to the individuals who make up that whole that which is due to them. One of the proper ends of government, therefore, is to help bring about the common good by harmonizing the different interests of all of its citizens. Of course, we know that this is much easier said than done.
In the United States, we live in a representative republic – we elect our leaders to represent our interests in the sphere of the social whole. Part of the reality of our representative system of government is that by design it fosters a two-party system because it forces particular parties to achieve a majority in order to govern.
On the whole the United States has had a reasonably stable and effective system of government throughout its history; that is, until recent years. Hyper-polarization has forced people to see questions of public concern through an either/or lens. The message is: Either you are for immigration or against it. Either you are for funding education or you are against it. During periods like these, the two-party system tends to exaggerate divisions among people. In reality they are usually false dichotomies.
What of the common good? What is a Christian to do when the political party to which he or she belongs represents some of their values, but in other cases seems to be in opposition to them? I do not claim to have an easy answer to this difficult question. However there are a few principles to guide us.
First: I would propose that citizens insist against divisive politics. Call your representatives in Congress and speak with their staff members. If they do not listen, then each person has a responsibility to vote for an individual who has the common good in mind. Josef Pieper, in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues says this:
A rash, brash person, motivated by emotion or craving for power, would ipso facto be excluded from running for office, as manifestly unfit to realize the justice of rulers, iustitia distributiva. For exercising this justice means, on the one hand, taking the common good into consideration and, on the other, respecting at the same time the dignity of the individual and giving him what is due (Page 92).
Second: political parties are the reality of the American political system. Thus only participate in a political party or association to the degree in which it has the common good in mind. This can be difficult to discern, of course. But political parties are made up of individuals, so each individual has a responsibility to seek justice in their own individual lives. Oppose those policies which are contrary to justice and do not allow others to intimidate you for standing up for that which is just.
Third: Pray. I mean it. Really pray for your elected officials that they may be better ministers of the common good. Even if you did not vote for a particular elected official, it is important that we pray for their success in bringing about the common good because the social whole depends upon it.
At the end of the day, we all ought to follow the advice of the prophet Micah:
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8, RSV-CE).
(1) ST II-II, q58, a1, resp.