As Christians, one of the reasons we struggle to know what to hope for in the public square is that we are caught, like everyone else in our culture, in several assumptions, tensions and tendencies that are destructive and depressing. Yet we struggle to see a way out, mainly, in my view, because we don’t understand where they come from.
Maybe some examples will help. For a start, one of the most keenly felt difficulties is that a large group of voters in the UK feel like they don’t have anyone they particularly want to vote for. They may, in the end, choose the lesser of two evils, but they find they have nothing to be passionately for. Another similar one is the oft-expressed view that people feel they don’t have many real options – that the main parties are offering slightly different versions of the same basic package, and the smaller parties are simply not big enough to offer an alternative.
There is a deeply felt desire for something fresh, but we don’t know quite how to conceive of it.
A different development to pay attention to is the remarkable rise of nationalism in recent decades. The message of ‘putting your country first’, or ‘the national interest’ has been increasingly dominant and, worryingly, accepted as normative. This can be seen in the success of the SNP in Scotland (and nationalism in Wales), in the Brexit debate (where the whole issue was largely framed in terms of what would be “best for the country”), in the rise of Trump (“make America great again”), in the way we think about trade and in nationalist gains in Europe. The VE day celebrations seemed to me to mark cultural double-think: we can celebrate the overcoming of German nationalism by partnership with other nations whilst increasingly pursuing British nationalism.
What is going on here? In all of this, there is a narrative that is becoming increasingly normative, but because it is often operating in the realm of assumption and ‘common sense’, we are unaware of how it is restricting our public imagination (never mind our Christian imagination).
The narrative varies occasionally, but here are some common threads:
Being free to live as I want to live is essential.
This is seen in our victim culture, super-sensitivity to any perceived ‘hate speech’, constant emphasis on choice and options (seen all over government policy), etc…
Growing in wealth is essential. Both personally, and as a nation, constant economic growth is both the norm and to be desired.
This is seen in economic growth being THE key measure of government success, in our assumptions of what is a ‘basic’ standard of living (which is a luxurious standard of living, both historically and globally), in our debt culture, in the fact that we all think we don’t have enough money, in the way that whether something is ‘good for the economy’ or not is an unanswerable political point…
Efficiency and productivity.
Seen in the ever-increasing push towards ‘efficiency’ in everything – healthcare, services, etc., often with the result that such systems become impersonal and mechanical, where you have to deal with a bureaucratic machine rather than with other humans.
There are many more we could list, but this is hopefully enough of a flavour… the result is a narrative that says “the aim of everything is to give us increased wealth and choice so that we can continue to do and consume more of whatever we want, the main guardian of which is a strong nation state government that can continue to guarantee my prosperity and freedom.” This narrative, as you can see, is shared by both right and left, by the mainstream media and many independent voices – in short, it is our worldview.
But there is something missing, that is so important that when we notice it’s missing, we may wonder how we could ever have missed it. That is – the discussion of what all this choice and prosperity is for. The question of why we pursue these goals. The question of what makes for a good human life.
It’s no mystery why we don’t have these conversations in the public square. The liberalism that shapes our worldview tells us that there are no meaningful answers to these kinds of questions. The postmodernism that dominates our education agrees. But without being able to answer, or even discuss the questions of what is truly good for humanity, our whole social program becomes hollow and meaningless.
I suggest that’s one of the main reasons our public debate feels so vacuous, tedious, corrupt… all the frustrations we experience. We are increasingly descending into a competition for power, but with no-one able to articulate what power is useful for, or what is really important in life. And if we don’t know that, then all we can do is desperately protect our ‘rights’ and our ‘prosperity’, hoping that this will give us the purpose, direction and morality we need to be fully human. Unfortunately, it won’t.
The Christian vision is emphatically not this narrative. We have a robust and secure vision for what it means to be human, where freedom is not simply freedom of choice, but freedom to be who God created us to be, freedom from sin and destructive behaviour and relationships. Where we do not have to cling to our rights as a guide to morality, because we have a true morality based on the recognition of creation. We do not seek our personal good or national good in themselves, but we seek the common good.
These values weren’t always absent from our public square. Perhaps part of what our politics needs from the church at the moment is for us to refuse to talk the language of choice, efficiency and prosperity, but to talk the language of virtue and the common good; to insist on discussing what vision of human flourishing is controlling our agendas; to refuse to even think of humans as mere consumers or clients of our social system, and to relentlessly question the liberalist assumptions that almost all political parties accept as common sense.
It sounds a bit trite, but imagine if the first question in a political husting was ‘what is your conception of human flourishing’? I doubt many candidates would ever have thought very deeply about the question, but the answer they assume dictates far more about their politics than whether they are left, right or centre.
If we don’t maintain a focus on these kind of questions, the likelihood is that we as the church will continue to fight over a narrow range of individual issues, whilst surrendering the defining battles without even realising we’ve done so.
– Tim Murray