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Sunday, September 21, 2008

toward a political philosophy

In this election season, my thoughts are turning more to politics than usual. Right now I'm thinking through something I've never been able to formally put into words: my political philosophy, and how it relates to my faith (if the two are related at all).

I've never been comfortable with the politics of the religious right. In fact, I believe the reputation of the Christian faith has been badly damaged by this group. So now that the "religious left" seems to be on the ascendency, I should be overjoyed. Right?

The truth is, the religious left makes me just as nervous as the religious right. Even though I agree with many of the causes that religious liberals are championing -- stewardship of the environment and a social safety net for the most vulnerable citizens, to name a couple examples -- I'm not convinced that these problems have purely political solutions. Or, to be more precise, I don't think the available political solutions are specificially Christian.

The United States is not, and has never been, a Christian nation. Nor has any other nation. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party was founded on Christian principles, and neither party today espouses Christian principles in its party platform. There are issues, to be sure, where each party's philosophy coincides with Christian values, but that does not mean that either party is seeking first the Kingdom of God. (Nor should they. Our political leaders ought to be concerned with ensuring that the nation's citizens have freedom and opportunity in this life, and leave the preaching to the churches.)

Still, I think governments can and should play a role in alleviating the problems their citizens inflict on themselves and others. The libertarian notion that government inaction will lead to a better life for all of us is simply too naive to be successfully put into practice. Human beings are inherently selfish, and in any political climate there will be ruthless people who will use any means available to them -- government power, corporate power, military power, sexual power, even religious power -- to oppress others.

So just what is the government's role? I must confess, my concept of the proper role for government has always been a little nebulous. If I had to state it succinctly, I'd probably have to describe my political philosophy as generally utilitarian. The government should act in such a way as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- or as the United States Constitution puts it, "to promote the general welfare."

But what does that mean? How does that principle translate into policy? As the Wikipedia article linked above states, utilitarianism has been adopted even by Marxists and libertarians as a basis of their political theory.

So to say my political views are utilitarian is not really to say anything at all. It's a great starting point, but it could lead to any number of conclusions.

I'll have more to say in a later post.

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