Political Agnosticism is Just Ordinary Gnosticism


In my interview last week with World Magazine's Nick Eicher, he asked me an inevitable question. Essentially, I have written a book designed to espouse a biblical perspective on politics. Yet, when one takes stock of the actual positions I take with respect to life and sexuality, economics and charity, criminal justice and war, they seem to line up fairly well with the Republican Party platform. Isn't it a just criticism to point out that what I have done is baptize conservative political ideology? Haven't I simply taken a current ideology and stamped "biblical" on it?

I gave a short and sweet answer to that question: namely, I am not going to apologize for the fact that the Republican Party takes a position on, say, individual human dignity and the right to life that is pleasing to God and the Democratic Party does not. Just because nobody gets it perfect doesn't mean that nobody is closer to the ideal than anyone else. I do not need to be infallible to be right, nor does a political party need to be infallible in order to be right. 

It so happens that I believe modern political conservatism takes positions that are far closer to biblical principles and ideals than modern political progressivism. I've made the argument, and readers can judge the merits. I am comfortable that in my own mind the biblical principles are primary, and the actual endorsement of a party is secondary. I have not decided that I am a Republican first, Christian second. I am a Christian first, and my politics are subordinate to that.

I know people will accuse me of simply baptizing my own political preferences, and I knew all along they would so accuse me while I was writing the book. Here's my sincere response: I am completely open to that argument. It is certainly possible. Everybody has their blind spots, and I am hardly immune. The problem I encounter is this: many people want to arrive at that conclusion, but nobody actually wants to make the argument that gets to that conclusion. Show me where I have trumped Scriptural teaching in favor of a political golden calf. Really. Show me. That is what must be done. I spent 200+ pages explaining how the Bible's presentation of life, economic, and justice issues affect politics. If someone wants to argue that I've wrongly interpreted what God thinks about life, economics, and justice, I'm all ears.

But more typically I read emphatic declarations that any attempt to apply the Bible to politics is misguided, legalistic, and/or violates God-given freedom and liberty of conscience. But saying that is quite a bit easier than showing it.

I know that political differences are divisive. They present a peculiar challenge to the community of faith. People are passionate about politics. I am no exception. I fully understand and, to a degree, sympathize with the impulse to make politics off-limits to our religious communities. It certainly ought to be a lower priority than, say, preaching the good news of salvation to sinners. As I hope I made clear in my book, I do not believe that each and every political question has an answer that can be read off the pages of the Bible. The Bible does not tell us the rightness, utility, or wisdom of drilling for natural gas in the Bakken oil field or building the Keystone Pipeline. The Bible doesn't directly tell us what our marginal tax rates should be. That is why I think the issues need to be discussed at higher elevations. Getting the contours of the overall vista is needed before walking down into the valleys. We need to get the BIG issues right before we start in on the smaller, thornier problems.

But there are some who want an all-out cease-fire. Darryl Hart tells us:

"[T]o try to find a biblical warrant for political positions is invariably a violation of Christian liberty. The reason is that in matters where Scripture is silent—which would include most aspects of domestic and foreign policy—Christians have liberty to act according to their consciences.

Quite a statement, most of which I dispatched in the introduction to my book. The bottom line of Hart's view is that there is no "Christian" view of most aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Progressive or conservative, six of one, half-dozen of another; only the individual conscience is to be our guide. In other words, since there is no divine guidance on political issues, we are left with political laissez-faire. No one, says Hart, has the right to claim divine approval for "most" (what a slippery word!) aspects of politics. This is a call to political agnosticism.

But it is really just a version of ordinary Gnosticism, of the garden variety.

The ancient Gnostics drew a fundamental, antithetical divide between the divine, spiritual life of God and the mundane, material world in which we find ourselves. For the Gnostic, divine truth does not exist in broad daylight, for God does not mingle in the realm of space and time. Truth is only available in private, individual, spiritual intuition. Only by looking "within" can one tap into the divine realm. In other words, there is no divine revelation, no "unveiling" of God's will in the world. Divine truth is "secret" and "veiled" truth. (This is why their gospels were always the secret gospel of so-and-so.) No one can have confidence what God thinks about anything pertaining to life in this changing world. At its heart, Gnostic theology quarantines God from the messy affairs of humanity.

It means that God utterly transcends our ordinary political concerns.

It means that God doesn't speak to the malleable, changing, messy material and political world in which we find ourselves (or at least "most" of it).

It means, further, that we cannot say, one way or another, whether God is pleased or angry about any particular political position.

It means that God is utterly impassible, unaffected by our political preferences. Divine favor or disfavor does not apply to our political life.

It means that our ethical guidance must come exclusively from within (i.e., our conscience).

These are all characteristic convictions of ancient Gnosticism, and they all follow rather directly from the sharp dichotomy between the timeless, impassible, unknowable God and the messy, changing material world. And I have to wonder about the similarity when I hear Christians adamant that since politics is messy and divisive, we should not seek biblical guidance or that such guidance does not exist. If we do not have a God who speaks, we have the ineffable god of Gnosticism, knowable only through internal spiritual intuition.

Now, maybe somebody like Darryl Hart will admit that God does speak (and I'm sure he would), and argue that the disagreement we are having relates to what, exactly, God says. That is, of course, fine. But at the end of the day, if we do not know God's mind on (in his words) most issues of domestic and foreign policy, we are compelled to say that most issues are adiaphora ("indifferent things"). We must say, in other words, that what appear to be morally antithetical positions are equally good and legitimate for Christians to hold. 

I'm sorry for being stubborn. NARAL* and NRLC are not equally good. Marriage and polygamy are not equally good. Private property and wealth redistribution are not equally good. Individual liberty and collective Statism are not equally good. True justice and identity politics are not equally good. Belief in the legitimacy of the coercive State and pacifism are not equally good.

* Did you see their President, Nancy Keenan, speak at the Democratic National Convention? As a native Montanan, I'm sad that our great state produced someone of her ideology. She once served as the superintendent of the entire Montana school system. When she was in charge, my parents wisely chose homeschooling (one "choice" of which Nancy Keenan decidedly does not approve.)

When someone tells me they are politically agnostic, what they are really telling me is that they are religiously Gnostic, at least to some degree. They are saying that the central point of my book is completely wrong:

We have no earthly idea what God loves.

I understand certain people taking that view. Postmodern relativists, for one, the sorts of people who removed all references to God in the Democratic platform and then vigorously opposed re-inserting them. I have a very difficult time understanding Christians taking that view, especially some who ought to know better.

Brian Mattson