Here’s my talk with Canadian political theologian David Koyzis about his 2019 book Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies.
Koyzis cautions against Christians aligning with particular ideological commitments. In his book, he examines liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, “democratism,” and socialism. He then distinguishes between Catholic social teaching and the Reformed model of sphere sovereignty, the latter refined by Dutch statesman and thinker Abraham Kuyper. Koyzis is himself Kuyperian.
In this conversation, Koyzis and Tooley discuss the book, voting, nationalism, Christian realism, and Christian political engagement.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, DC, and also editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And I have the pleasure today of speaking with David Koyzis, who is retired—although he’s very youthfully retired—from Redeemer University College in Canada. And we’re going to discuss his book which was re-released last year, called Political Visions and Illusions, about Christian political theology, a topic which is always especially important these days as it often seems—and David, you could disagree with me if you choose—it often seems that American, and perhaps even Canadian Christians, are increasingly disconnected from the great traditions of our faith in the area of political theology, so we need the kind of reminders and counsel that David’s book offers. So, David, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
KOYZIS: You’re very welcome, I’m happy to be here.
TOOLEY: So, tell us a little bit about Political Visions and Illusions and what its main themes are.
KOYZIS: Yes. Political Visions and Illusions—I started writing back in the 1990s, and it was when I first began teaching that I was charged with teaching a course on political ideologies. And back in those days, there was no internet, so I had to look through these orange books and prints in order to find something. And I couldn’t find anything that I thought needed to be done, especially given that I was teaching at a Christian university. And so, I began taking notes on this—this actually grew out of that course. The first edition was published in 2003; it went through 12 printings—this is with Intervarsity Press—and then the second edition just came out in May of last year.
The book itself is a survey of several political ideologies, Western political ideologies, but I think we have to qualify that by recognizing that the whole world has been influenced by the West to a very great extent. So, beginning with liberalism, going on to conservatism, to nationalism, what I’ve labeled in the second edition democratism, and socialism, and then talking about two Christian traditions that have offered alternatives to those political ideologies. And those are the Roman Catholic and the Reformed traditions.
TOOLEY: And you yourself come from the Reformed tradition?
KOYZIS: Exactly, that’s right, yes.
TOOLEY: And how would you distinguish what the Catholic social teaching has to offer versus the Reformed tradition, especially the Kuyperian tradition, which you align with?
KOYZIS: That’s right, yes. In the Catholic tradition—and this goes back centuries, but it was really Pope Leo XII in the late nineteenth century that articulated these principles with the clarity that enabled them to be unpacked in the succeeding decades. And one of these principles is known as subsidiarity. And subsidiarity is the principle that those agents within a society, those communities within society, that are closest to the people, closest to the communities, do the bulk of the work, and then higher agents, such as the state, step in only if those lower agents are unable to function adequately or need help, or subsidium, which is the Latin word for help. If they need assistance, temporary assistance that would enable them to get back on track, then presumably the higher organization, the state, or what have you, would end up withdrawing from that.
TOOLEY: And when you look at Christian, especially evangelical, political engagement today in North America, especially in the United States, from your perspective, what are the positives, and what are the negatives, and where are we heading?
KOYZIS: Well I think the positives are that people have a lot of enthusiasm. I think this is certainly more now than was the case when I was growing up. I think when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a lot of evangelicals had more or less withdrawn from social and political life, and they had for about the previous 50 years. I don’t think that could be said today. I think a lot of people are more involved in political affairs than was the case in the past.
But I think the negatives are that this involvement sometimes comes with an unhealthy activism. We want to do something, and we haven’t thought adequately about the foundations that support whatever activity we wish to be involved in. And that can be dangerous, because we can get on the bandwagons, we can follow movements that sound right, but may actually be problematic when you start to dig a little bit deeper into them.
TOOLEY: And as denominational traditions have collapsed in the United States—I assume the same is largely true in Canada—first you see more and more disconnected from the traditions of our faith, and perhaps [inaudible] more and more captive at the same time with ideologies, having really no knowledge or experience with what the historic church has to teach about engaging in politics and what the vocation of the state is.
KOYZIS: Yes, yeah, I think that’s true. A number of years ago, the O’Donovans, Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, published a book, a collection, from Irenaeus to Grotius to try to get Christians to understand something of the traditional of political reflection going back almost 2000 years. I think books like that are a very positive thing.
TOOLEY: Do you think Christian, especially evangelical, political engagement today is perhaps messianic in its expectations and perhaps there’s too great an investment in politics?
KOYZIS: Yeah, I don’t know if there’s too great an investment in politics, but I think if we are going to involve ourselves in politics, we need to do so with a certain degree of realism as to as to what can be accomplished in the here and now. I think it is easy for people to fall prey to Napoleonic figures that may sweep in and make promises, that they have to know on some level that they cannot keep. I don’t mean that to be a partisan statement, because I think that happens on both sides of the political aisle, probably in the United States more so than in Canada, at least this is the impression that I have. I was born in the United States, but I lived in this country, in Canada, for 35 years now.
TOOLEY: You mentioned realism, would you self-identify as a Christian realist in any way?
KOYZIS: I don’t think I would want to identify with that that particular tradition, because I think Christian realism is—I am a Christian, I’m a realist, in a certain sense—but the tradition itself, I think it has cautions that it can bring us, but in terms of a vision for where we need to go now, I think it has flaws, in that respect. You can read Augustine, you can read people like Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and so forth; I think they have something valuable to offer. But I also think that we need some kind of a vision of justice and of what justice means in a complex, differentiated society, that is our lodestar, that we can look to. Not as a kind of utopian goal for the future, but I think as a kind of principle that we take with us from the outset of our activities, always recognizing that we may or may not reach success. We may not achieve success in the present age.
TOOLEY: So, it sounds like you’re saying Christian realism perhaps offers a needed yellow light, or even a red light, but not sufficient green.
KOYZIS: That’s right, yeah, I think that’s right. Yes. We need something that will give us a route to follow, and I don’t think realism can do that as a tradition.
TOOLEY: Your book, of course, focuses a great deal on the threat of ideologies to Christian political engagement. Can a faithful Christian be a committed conservative, in a contemporary sense, or a committed progressive, or does the faithful Christian always in some sense stand outside those categories?
KOYZIS: I think in some sense, I would want to say we would stand outside those categories, but we can align with people that disagree with us as co-belligerents. There may be many people in the pro-life movement with whom I would disagree very radically on some fairly basic issues, but in terms of trying to secure justice for the unborn, then I would want to consider them co-belligerents in that particular battle. So I think we may have to commit ourselves to certain issues that we believe are important, but I think we always have to do that recognizing that our allies may have many flaws, and may have many defects that we would not want to identify with, both on the policy level and at the deeper philosophical level.
TOOLEY: And could it be that Christians have particular vocations in different political directions that may put them at odds, very frequently, on many issues? So, we shouldn’t expect Christians to march in lockstep politically?
KOYZIS: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve struggled with over the decades, because I would prefer to see some kind of a unified Christian voice. I would love to see something like Abraham Kuyper’s anti-revolutionary party that he founded in the Netherlands back in 1879 and lasted until about 100 years later when the three Christian parties merged in the Netherlands. I would love to see something like that.
I’m also aware that in countries like the United States and Canada, because we have a single member plurality electoral system, also known as first past the post, that basically, we have two choices—more in Canada—but the two, the Democrats and the Republicans. It is true that if people have concerns for the poor and they judge the Democrats are better able to pursue policies that would care for the poor, they might decide to vote for the Democrats. If they believe that Republicans have an advantage with respect to maybe economic policy, perhaps social policies, then they might decide to vote for the Republicans. But at the same time, I think what I would counsel Christians, is that when you cast your vote, and you cast your vote for a particular political party or a particular candidate, you are voting not only for the good things that they offer, but you’re also—maybe unintentionally—but you’re also voting for the bad things that they are going to do as well. And even if there are advantages and there are things that you want to pursue—justice for the poor, justice for the unborn, justice for the elderly—that as you are voting, be aware that the party that you’re voting for may not necessarily come through on those particular issues, but it’s also true that they may do a lot of harm as well. And I think both parties are fully capable of doing that. So that would give us a bit of humility as we’re going about our political activity.
It also means that you’re going to be frustrated as well. I don’t know that I have ever cast a vote without holding my nose first. I don’t want to say that that’s the Christian attitude that we have to bring to it—that sounds awfully pessimistic—but at the same time I think we need to admit that we may end up voting for the party or the candidates we think will do the least harm.
TOOLEY: Perhaps less so in Canada, but certainly in the United States right now we seem to be in a moment of cultural, political despair. Ross Douthat wrote his book, The Decadent Society, before events in the last several months, which perhaps added to that sense of decadence and despair, so, perhaps the church or Christians have a calling at this moment, in at least American history, to offer a sense of more confidence and hope, would you think?
KOYZIS: I would think so, because we recognize that our hope does not ultimately lie in this present life, and that God’s kingdom will come. We don’t know how he’s going to bring about his kingdom. He may use us in some way to advance his kingdom. I don’t think we should ever pretend that we’re going to build God’s kingdom, as the old social gospelers thought a century ago, but I think God uses us to advance his kingdom, and we don’t know the outcome. It may be that the things we’re doing now will bear fruit maybe a hundred years from now. And I think in this respect of the missionaries to China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who, when they were kicked out by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, could never have anticipated that the seed that they planted would bear a huge amount of fruit over the last 40 years. And I think that’s absolutely remarkable. Maybe the United States and Canada will last; maybe they’ll end up breaking up; maybe there will be some other configuration in North America. But whatever happens, we know that God’s kingdom will ultimately triumph, and through the working of his Spirit in this present life, we ourselves may not see it, but maybe our children or our grandchildren will see something new and remarkable happen in the Western world.
TOOLEY: Your book addresses the topic of nationalism, and there’s been a flurry of books, and certainly many articles in American media, critiquing what is called Christian nationalism, in a very negative sense. Can a Christian be a nationalist, and if so, to what effect?
KOYZIS: Yeah, I would say no. The way that I define nationalism in my book is that it’s a kind of idolatrous love of nation, whether it’s a political entity, or a particular ethnic group. I think of Gus Portokalos in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who’s sort of the caricature of the ethnic nationalist: “The Greeks invented everything.” I say that because I have Greek roots on my father’s side. And I think it is possible to idolize a nation. At the same time, I think there is a kind of tempered love of one’s political community, or one’s ethnic community, if you will, that’s perfectly legitimate, in the same way that we love our families, we love our neighborhoods, we love our church congregations. There’s more of a human love that we can give to people without making idols out of them. Nationalism, in my mind, is something which is already over the top. Maybe patriotic loyalty, perhaps, might be another way—I’m trying to avoid using patriotism, because it’s another ism, as it were—but as for a more modest type of patriotic loyalty to one’s country, I say, “Yes, absolutely.” And I think at this point, it may be that our political communities do not have enough of that. Because many people do not seem to recognize the sacrifices that they may be required to give to their communities. And we have this lopsided focus on rights, at the expense of the responsibilities that we bear to the communities in which we are apart. That’s not just political communities, but it’s all the communities in which we find ourselves embedded.
TOOLEY: On the topic of Christian political engagement, and on political theology, are there particular writers and thinkers whom you’re looking to right now, both established and up and coming?
KOYZIS: I rather like—well, one person who’s been a big influence on me is James Skillen. I think you probably know James Skillen. You’ve probably met him. I very much appreciate his writings. As a matter of fact, his most recent book, God’s Sabbath with Creation, I think is an excellent book; I think that was probably the best book that I read over the last year. It helps to put into perspective, in a very vivid way, the Christian task in this world, while we’re also expecting, looking forward to entering God’s rest on his seventh day. So, I’ve been very much influenced by his writings.
And there are a number of other people too. Abraham Kuyper is a man that we both mentioned earlier. In many respects, his ideas are similar to Catholic social teachings, except that it’s much less hierarchical. Various communities in society relate to God in a more direct way, rather than through the state or the institutional church. And Kuyper has been a big influence on my writings. A man by the name of Herman Dooyeweerd, who was a philosopher in the Netherlands, who was an heir of Kuyper, lived from 1894 up until 1977. I wrote my dissertation on him at Notre Dame. He’s been a big influence on me as well. And so, I think all of them have had an impact on the way that I have written my books.
TOOLEY: David Koyzis, author of Political Visions and Illusions, thank you for a very insightful conversation, and I hope our listeners will check out your book.
KOYZIS: Okay, thank you very much.