Temporal Power and Christianity’s Conflict of Visions

John Grove’s appreciative articulation of a “power-skeptical conservatism” bears resemblance to what Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision” of human nature in A Conflict of Visions. Thinkers adopting the constrained, as distinguished from the “unconstrained,” vision recognize the epistemological limitations on any individual’s brainpower and insight, and they take note of the “moral limitations of man” and his natural “egocentricity.” These together constitute the “basic constraint in his vision.” Sowell connects the constrained vision with the view of human nature that undergirds the defense of the Constitution in The Federalist and other contributions to American political thought. In that view, government is necessary because of the egocentricity and weaknesses of human nature, but for the same reason it must be limited. Madison’s classic statement in Federalist #51 on the challenge of constitutional design represents an application of the constrained vision to politics.

Grove’s power-skeptical conservative acknowledges an important role for the state in securing common goods but recognizes that the state cannot finally secure the most important ones, like salvation and complete personal and social regeneration, in a comprehensive manner. His argument for respecting the limits of political power contrasts with the idea of an emboldened political Christianity or “political Catholicism” in which Christian leaders of state get comfortable using political power to reorient the public realm toward common goods, and ultimately toward the final common good: God.

Sohrab Ahmari, for example, writes of “a Christian duty to seek better civilizational conditions for the faith, and to do so at the level of the state and the political community.” Along with co-authors Gladden Pippin and Chad Pecknold, he defends a recovery of “cultural Christianity” they describe as mainstream in the historic Christian tradition. Ahmari argues legislators and governors should aim to secure conditions that help rather than hinder the average parishioner, church member, or citizen, recognizing that most are not martyrs or monks. As Brad Littlejohn writes, other theorists like Yoram Hazony propose a “renewed political Protestantism” wherein public officials use the law to promote the common good and a substantive vision of human flourishing, drawing on a down but not out Protestant cultural consensus.

Voices within the Christian tradition provide considerable, but qualified support for Grove’s power skepticism and the constrained vision of human society. The support is qualified because the Christian tradition reflects its own conflict of visions. Christian political theory also provides support for a vision of politics governed by pursuit of man’s final end, a telic vision. While keeping in mind the limits of temporal power, Christian theorists should reckon with the telic vision.

Christianity and the Constrained Vision

Sowell points to the classical liberal Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, Old Whig and forerunner of Anglo-American conservatism, as key exponents of the constrained vision. Grove cites Russell Kirk, founding father of the postwar American conservative tradition who lists the “principle of imperfectability” among his ten conservative principles, as an exponent of power-skeptical conservatism. Prominent thinkers whose primary contribution was to the Christian tradition also provide support for power-skepticism, drawn from this constrained view of human nature. Indeed, the principle of imperfectability this side of Jesus’ return is firmly rooted in the Christian view of man.

Perhaps the most fulsome Christian expression of the constrained vision appears in the works of St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was keenly aware of the stain of sin that mars human life and society, limiting the expectations we can have of perfection in our temporal lives, individually and socially. Augustine teaches that our desires, our loves, are fundamentally disordered because of The Fall. In The City of God, Augustine offers an account of political history that distinguishes the City of God from the City of Man. No earthly polity—not the post-Constantine Roman Empire, not even the church itself—is the true City of God, the dwelling of those whose loves God has ordered toward him. The church is a pilgrim people, subject to the City of Man for the time being and grateful for the peace it affords, but that is as far as its benefits extend. Drawing from Augustine, thinkers like Paul D. Miller have articulated an “Augustinian liberalism,” supporting limited government and a constrained view of our expectations for civil government. Other Christian thinkers have gone further to argue for such a stark distinction between the two cities that Christians should devote themselves wholly to the City of God and avoid temporal politics altogether.

The words of Jesus himself also provide support for skepticism toward earthly power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says in John 18:36 (RSV). “If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Jesus makes clear that in his kingdom, the dynamic of power is reversed: the first are last, and the rulers are the servants of all (Matt. 20: 25b-28). In the most famous passage on the distinction between the temporal and spiritual realms, Jesus instructs his hearers to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22: 21). Jesus’ dictum provides a basis for an institutional distinction between the church, representing the spiritual power, and the state, representing the temporal power, simultaneously acknowledging the legitimacy of the state while limiting its purview.

All this suggests support for skepticism of temporal power from core sources of the Christian tradition. The Christian version of the constrained vision emphasizes the stain of sin, limiting our expectations about the possibilities of social reform and of political power to secure comprehensive common goods, as Grove writes. God gives personal and social renewal through the indwelling of his spirit in the church; our personal and social salvation will be realized only at the final judgment. This argument for limited government rests on a substantive account of human nature, not diffidence about ultimate questions or a denial of common goods and spiritual realities. There are, though, other elements of the Christian tradition that emphasize positive uses of temporal power to promote justice, virtue, and even salvation, particularly for baptized Christians. On the other side of Christianity’s conflict of visions stands the telic vision.

Christians must continually wrestle with the conflict of visions in light of the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord,” a proclamation that grounds and blends them both. 

Christianity and the Telic Vision

Proponents of political Christianity can appeal to the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal in the political and public realms. All creation is ordered to the final end of mankind: the adoration and enjoyment of God for eternity. Temporal polity, too, serves a purpose within the created order, pointing man toward his final end. Temporal power is limited, but limited in the sense that it is subordinate to the spiritual power, represented by the church. The spiritual power, being more directly related to man’s final end, should discipline and guide the exercise of temporal political power. This is the telic vision, and it too finds support within the Christian tradition. Catholic integralism is based on it, and it has informed Christian leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, for centuries.

According to the telic vision, while the state cannot fully and finally secure salvation, it should not place or permit unnecessary roadblocks in citizens’ path on that road. Rather, through the promulgation of wise laws, the state should contribute to the construction of a social environment that at least tacitly, and perhaps overtly, guides—nudges?—citizens along the path toward their final end. On these grounds, Christian political theorists have justified the use of temporal power, including execution, to suppress heresy and apostasy. Augustine himself supported the use of coercive measures against adherents of the Donatist heresy. The use of coercion would sting at first, but once the heretics reclaimed the true faith, he argued, they would be glad for the state’s temporary heavy-handedness. Augustine also wrote that, while the City of Man and the City of God are distinct and not to be confused, it is better for a Christian ruler to govern the state, giving support to the church.

Though strewn in a few different places in his works, and often employed in the service of other theological and philosophical arguments, Thomas Aquinas provides a clear account of temporal government subordinated to the spiritual power, each divinely ordained to serve man’s final end. Since man is a social and political animal, government must help to guide man to his final end, as he writes in De regimine principum:

Now man has a certain end towards which the whole of his life and activity is directed; for as a creature who acts by intelligence, it is clearly his nature to work towards some end. But men can proceed towards that end in different ways, as the very diversity of human efforts and activities shows. Man therefore needs something to guide him towards his end.

The “secular power,” he writes in the Summa, “is subject to the spiritual as the body is to the soul.” Here we find the basis for the intervention of the spiritual power, the higher power, in the temporal realm: “And so judgment is not usurped if the spiritual authority intervenes in temporal matters where the secular power is subject to it, or in things which have been relinquished to it by the secular power.” Aquinas’s discussion of the limited purview of the temporal power, the primary purpose of which is to secure peace, justice, and the “political common good” as Samuel Gregg writes, is nested within the context of a political order directed toward the ultimate common good, with the temporal power subordinate to the spiritual power.

Reckoning with the Telic Vision

Any Christian political theory must accept the “primacy of the spiritual,” the core of the telic vision. That principle, contra Aquinas, need not require physical coercion to suppress heresy or apostasy, nor does it necessarily demand an expansive vice-suppression regime. Respect for the transcendent purpose of the human person can also ground a case for religious liberty, articulated in Dignitatis humanae. Among the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, the declaration teaches that man’s end transcends the state, offering a tempered form of the telic vision by which the state is bound to respect the dignity and the transcendent purpose of the human person. The state should show the church “favor,” primarily by respecting the freedom of the church, but it should not “presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.

Christians and fellow citizens must negotiate the precise role of the temporal power with regard to spiritual matters in light of its primary, limited task of securing temporal peace and justice, as acknowledged by both Augustine and Aquinas. In the context of American politics, an emboldened political Christianity presents both opportunities and dangers. The project could lead to a recovery and renewal of a sense of ordered liberty, built on a more fulsome anthropology than modern liberalism offers and allowing for some legislative curtailment of social ills like pornography, divorce, and abortion. Even proponents of the constrained vision can acknowledge a need for legal and social constraints on individual action that helping to incentivize moral behavior, due to the tendency toward egocentricity and human weakness. Political Christianity may offer a vision for a genuine culture of life, promoting laws and cultural practices that respect human dignity.

Yet, there are strategic and theoretical questions and problems associated with the project. For one, the end game, if not the short-term tactical goals, of political Catholicism and political Protestantism are fundamentally at odds. Grove adds to the mix an appropriate word of caution about the absorptive tendencies of power and the inevitable temptations for those who wield it. In both the constrained and the telic registers of the Christian tradition, despotism is a danger. Without adopting that caution, a call for an emboldened political Christianity might lead to an inadvertent reversal of the spiritual and the temporal, unduly elevating temporal politics instead of properly confining and constraining it. 

The Christian gospel presents a conflict of visions vis-à-vis its political implications because of its inaugurated but not yet consummated eschatology. On the one hand, as Jesus said: “my kingdom is not of this world.” Yet, Jesus also taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Christians must continually wrestle with the conflict of visions in light of the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord,” a proclamation that grounds and blends them both.