A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics: Immanentize the Eschaton!

A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics: Immanentize the Eschaton! October 26, 2012

Note from Tim: I’ve invited several friends to begin contributing periodic posts to Philosophical Fragments. One I’m very excited to introduce to our readers is Joshua Hawley, a friend from my Stanford years, former clerk to Chief Justice Roberts, and now a law professor and the author of an outstanding book on Theodore Roosevelt (see the bio info at the end). 

A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics

By Joshua D. Hawley

Eric Voegelin was a German-American émigré who wrote several volumes of high-toned philosophy in the 1950s which were read by approximately zero members of the American public—save a certain William F. Buckley, Jr. When the irrepressible founder and editor of National Review happened upon Voegelin’s first monograph, The New Science of Politics, he discovered a condemnation of utopian ambition in politics that delighted him. Politics turns totalitarian, Voegelin explained, “when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” Right. In short order, Buckley had converted that jumble of theory-speak into a whimsical political slogan: “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton!” Or, broadly: Beware of all political programs that aim to create utopias.

Eventually Buckley had the phrase printed on t-shirts and buttons and it became a favorite of conservative political writers. But I wonder, ten days before a presidential election in which evangelicals will again be called upon to fulfill their duties as citizens: Isn’t immanentizing the eschaton precisely what Christians citizens should be doing?

For the last thirty or more years, since evangelicals first entered the political fray as a unified voting bloc, they have pursued what one might call a conversionist approach to politics. This is not altogether surprising, given the events that propelled them into politics to begin with: the Supreme Court’s banishment of prayer from public schools and religious symbols from public places, Roe v. Wade, the skyrocketing divorce rate and rise of single-parent families. By 1976, self-professed evangelicals composed a major part of the winning presidential candidate’s electoral majority—Jimmy Carter’s, the born-again Baptist from Georgia. Four years later, evangelicals abandoned him and his Democratic Party en masse in favor of the pro-life Ronald Reagan.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, evangelicals sought to turn back the forces of secularization. Groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition pressed for laws recognizing Christianity’s unique place in American life, including laws that would allow prayer in public schools and Christian displays in public places. They advocated a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In the main, the idea was to resurrect America’s Christian identity, to win from the public and from the government recognition of “Christian values,” and reaffirmation of Christianity’s special place in American history and culture. The aim was, in a sense, to “convert” both society and government.

That approach is due for a rethink. For one thing, it depends on a Christian social hegemony that is likely lost for good. Believing Christians no longer constitute an overwhelming majority of the American public, nor do they occupy the commanding heights of culture, entertainment, and academia. As a sheer projection of demographic destiny, they are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

It’s far from clear that restoring Christian social authority is an appropriate aim of politics in the first place. The conversionist approach tends to confuse the distinct missions of church and state—is it really the role of government, for instance, to promote “Christian values” or refurbish America’s Christian heritage?—even as it fails to provide much guidance as to what, exactly, government is supposed to be doing.

Which brings me to the eschaton. It’s a Greek word referring to the end of history, and in the Jewish thought first-century Christians inherited it meant the millennial kingdom of God that would commence with the coming of the Messiah.

But here’s the thing. The New Testament teaches that this long-looked-for kingdom has dawned now, in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Christ has become king and, as Scripture says, presently rules over the world and over earthly government. That last point is central. Scripture teaches that political government is mandated by God for his service and is one means by which the enthroned Christ carries out his rule.

These things together tell us something quite important about what government is for, and what Christians should be trying to do with it and with politics. Government serves Christ’s kingdom rule; this is its purpose. And Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God—to make it more real, more tangible, more present. Or should I say, to immanentize the eschaton.

Now let me just say, advancing God’s kingdom does not mean abandoning constitutional government in favor of theocracy or using the state to convert non-believers. On the contrary, a kingdom-inspired approach to politics would give up trying to Christianize the state altogether. The reason is found in the state’s unique mission. God’s mandates for state and church are distinct, as Romans 13, to take one example, makes abundantly clear. While the church is to proclaim the salvation of God in Christ, the state is charged with keeping order, punishing wrongdoers—and more broadly, with securing the conditions of life that allow individuals to realize their gifts and callings: in a word, to flourish. Put another way, the mission of the state is to secure justice. Justice, as it turns out, is the social manifestation of the kingdom.

God’s instructions for Old Testament Israel illustrate what this social justice looks like. Mosaic law emphasized the moral equality of citizens. It guaranteed equal access to courts of law and equal treatment by the law’s provisions. The law emphasized the value of work and its connection to personal dignity. Israelites were permitted to own private property and keep the fruits of their industry. At the same time, the law protected workers from exploitation and ensured broadly available opportunity for remunerative labor. The law also specially provided for the poor, the weak and the marginalized. It offered support for widows, orphans, and the destitute; it forbade usurious loans and other abuses and schemes to deprive the poor of their land. In sum, Mosaic law envisioned a society where the dignity of every citizen was protected and valorized, where each laborer had a chance to earn his own way, and where the poor had opportunity for advancement. By keeping these laws and building this society, Israelites were to anticipate the future kingdom of God.

What might a kingdom-inspired agenda take as priorities today? To start, a kingdom focus suggests Christians ought to be working not merely for a bigger economy, but for a better one. The number of low- and unskilled workers in the labor force has declined precipitously under President Obama, but the truth is, the trend is more than forty years in the making. Too many workers with less than a college education simply cannot find work in today’s marketplace—or cannot find work sufficient to support themselves or a family. This must change. Labor, and the ability to earn one’s own way, is central to dignity and indeed, to vocation. Christians should seek to broaden the private economy to include more individuals in remunerative labor.

A kingdom agenda would also focus on expanding opportunities for the poor and marginalized, with better primary and secondary schools, for example, and expanded access to vocational training. Of course, the most vulnerable among us are the unborn, and just as the Mosaic law forbade abortion and protected the rights of the marginalized, so kingdom-focused Christians today should continue their efforts to protect the unborn in law. But they should go further. Pro-choice advocates have long argued that access to abortion is necessary to guarantee women equal standing in society. Embracing the kingdom call to equality, where “there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew,” Christians should work to ensure that this is not true. Women must be welcomed as full and equal participants in society as women­—including as mothers—and not required to behave as men in order to achieve social standing. To the extent workplace mores and even laws must change in order to make this ideal a reality, Christians should work to change them.

This is the merest sketch of what a kingdom-focused agenda might mean, but here is the point. Rather than seek to Christianize the state and use it to restore a Christian social consensus, believing citizens should call the state to its true purpose—to serve justice, and by extension, the kingdom of God. This is Christians’ role in politics, and their service, both to the Lord and to their fellow man. For the principles of the kingdom and the social life it envisions are not for Christians only, but for all people. The kingdom life is the common good. And Christians should offer it winsomely, creatively, heartily once again.

A former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. of the Supreme Court, and Michael W. McConnell on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Joshua Hawley served in the national appellate practice of Hogan Lovells US LLC in Washington, DC, for several years, and now teaches as associate professor law at the University of Missouri Law School. He is also the author of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, published by Yale University Press. 

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  • Too many workers with less than a college education simply cannot find work in today’s marketplace—or cannot find work sufficient to support themselves or a family.

    Too many workers with a college education cannot find work in today’s marketplace—or cannot find work sufficient to support themselves or a family.

  • Very good piece, but I’m not sure if the part about abortion and Mosaic law is quite accurate. The nearest thing to abortion in the Old Testament is an accidentally induced miscarriage in Exodus 21.

  • innovaflow

    M thoughts are it’s not necessary to Christianize the State, that ruling government body, so that the Govt can impose Christianity and values and morals. I am a Christian. What I believe is Christians should Christianize the people via evangelism, and by so doing the State will by default become a Christian led institution governed by people who live by Judaeo-Christian morals and values. You change a State from the bottom up, not the top down. From the top-down imposed change created the Catholicism of Christianity brought to you by Constantine. From the bottom up inspired change creates real change inside people, the only real change there is, brought to you by Jesus. the “kingdom now” crowd believes it is their responsibility to manifest the fullness of the reality of Jesus’ kingdom on earth. I don’t believe that. The “Kingdom not but not yet” and likewise, I, believe that Jesus is King- and he is coming again, but he has not returned yet. Until he does his Kingdom will not be realized in its fullness. you see from scripture prior to his coming life on earth is pure hell; and after his coming life and human history are forever changed, and so begins the “utopian” Kingdom Jesus will reign over forever. it is a Christian’s responsibility to do what he can when and where he can but that ultimately the Kingdom in it’s fullness will be brought about when Jesus returns and HE imposes justice and the Kingdom upon the earth. we mere finite humans could never achieve that.

    • innovaflow

      correction to typo, “Kingdom Now, but not yet” crowd…

  • jerry lynch

    An earlier response to a soemwhat related thread:
    ‘That insightful analysis seems correct and fits my experience…up to a point. Although I may be speaking as a minority with my objection, I find the present absorption with politics by those who appear devout and faithful Christians to be a cultural engagement that is diluting, even making unpotable, the living waters of Christ, sort of reversing the flow of the Nones. As this nation becomes more pluralistic and the preferred status for Christians appears to be fading, even falling under greater attack by an upsurge of atheists and the perceived threat of Islam, “the devout and practicing Christians of all stripes” seem to be reacting by digging into the culture, entrenching themselves to fight for a Christian Nation. There any number of Christian groups, apparently stocked with the truly faithful (if that can be said given their ambition), looking to “re-take America” for Christ. ‘

    From my perspective, I must tell you from the start that I disagree with nearly everything you said. It seems enough for me to point out that as far as a better economy goes, Jesus said on the question of taxes, “Render unto Caesar…” The Jews were being literally pushed out of existence by the demands of Rome, yet no concern or word on such an injustice. How much can be extrapolated from that absence?

    “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:4). “This world system dangles before every Christian various spider-webs of entanglement, and politics is one of those. The Lord, the One who enlisted us as soldiers, is never pleased with any such entanglement, let us be clear about that at the outset.” Your entanglements are quite alluring, as they are meant to be. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” 1John2:15

    “…the state is charged with keeping order, punishing wrongdoers—and more broadly, with securing the conditions of life that allow individuals to realize their gifts and callings: in a word, to flourish. Put another way, the mission of the state is to secure justice. Justice, as it turns out, is the social manifestation of the kingdom.”
    The presumption that God charged goervnments “with keeping order, punishing wrongdoers,” or to be His arm in the world and that is their calling to be the “social manifestation of the kingdom” by their justice, is unbiblical. God may use governments but all worldly governments are, well, read Luke 4:5-8 and see who is behind this world’s kingdoms. His Son received no justice from the best-developed political system that the world of that day knew, the Roman empire, and was betrayed as well by the kingdom of Israel.

    The justice of the New Covenant is restorative, not retributive. No government can possibly be an agent, for it is only through Christ that such justice, true justice, can be realized. When we live as Christ was in the world, with love and forgiveness and mercy toward all, we are the kingdom’s manifestation of justice. This is not and cannot be a political movement but a way of life in each moment.

    Where is “In God we trust”? Politics is not of God, it is not a fruit of the spirit. We are separated out in order to be of maximum service to the lost and needy. The love we show in these areas, along with a refusal to be entangled with worldly wisdom and values, is the demonstration of the kingdom. Each of us is to be a clear choice between worldliness and godliness. Our trust is wholly in God, not politics or government. As followers of Christ, we are to live as if already in heaven–in peace, joy, love, and unity under the one sovereign, God.

    To submit to the governing authorities is not to have allegiance with them. We do so out of love of neighbor. And we do not rebel, as did the wayward Founding fathers, over no taxation without representation. No matter how tyrannical, we pay and submit. Yet if the governing authorities violate love of neighbor toward others, such as segragation, we practice nonviolent civil disobedience as a means to restore unity, done as much for the oppressor as the oppressed. There is no enemy.

    “Rather than seek to Christianize the state and use it to restore a Christian social consensus, believing citizens should call the state to its true purpose—to serve justice, and by extension, the kingdom of God.”
    I say it is neither. Although it may sound trite and thus easily dismissed, we are not here to change the world but be of maximum service in changing hearts. We serve love and that is all the justice of our concern. It is the love of Christ accepted that comes to know true justice, and that is how we are to live in the world.

  • In September, Mitt Romney said: “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.” If there are any doubts whether this Mormon guy stands for “Christian values” or not, this is sufficient evidence for me that he doesn’t. Christians should always want to heal. It is the devil who wants to kill and destroy (Jn 10:10). When Jesus encountered a storm, He silenced it (Jn 4:39). http://holyspiritactivism.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/romney-sandy-and-haiti/

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hilarious comment of the day, right there.

  • Bob Srigley

    It’s not merely a choice between a Christian vision of society and a secular one. In fact there is a conflict of religions, and the old paganism is with us in a new guise, and it has succeeded in capturing practically all the drug-using and MTV youth along with the sixties generation which is still proud of leading us into the wilderness. Since this religion is demonic in origin and its governing spirit is inimical to all of God’s creation, its strategy is to multiply sin in order to increase death, suffering and continued demonic oppression. Even apart from our desire to liberate and convert those in bondage, mere love of neighbor should compell us to resist at every turn the incursion of the religion of death into our public policies and general culture. Are we that afraid of being called joyless Puritans by those who know nothing about real joy?

  • Peter

    Bob Srigley has it right. Voegelin did too when he rightly identifies every political religion with gnosticism leading to totalitarianism.
    When we say “Thy Kingdom come” we are praying to the ultimate ‘other’ and transcendent being, and toward the Kingdom that will have no end, not a two dimensional, mortal, and ultimately demonic immanent being or beings.
    Leo Strauss, if he were alive, might object to being numbered as ‘zero’, as likely would his numerous influential students.

  • Yes, we should join hands with Mahmoud Akhmedinejad to bring about heaven on earth and force God to do our bidding in our imminent wisdom and perfect love for all mankind. We can even allow Him to sit on the throne as a kind of titular monarch and permit him to preside at certain traditional (hollow and meaningless) state functions much like the queen of England. But by “we”, I of course mean the (deputized) royal We because only one flawlessly (informed) intellect
    can sit just behind the empty (until He comes) throne and dispense that perfect knowledge from on high.

    I trust Joshua Hawley not understand what the phrase ” immanentize the eschaton” actually means or at worst, hasn’t thought seriously about in in his eagerness to use William F. Buckley’s phrase as the hook for his own essay.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It seems clear to me that professor Hawley does understand the phrase and wants to give it a different spin. Clearly against theocracy, he thinks it’s nonetheless a part of the vocation of Christians in law and politics (and elsewhere besides) to work toward a society of wisdom and justice. To liken that with Ahmadinejad is beyond absurd.