Christian Politics ‘Reformation’ Style

by Robin Lovin

At the time this was written, Robin W. Lovin was dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 16/23, 1990, pps. 533-534. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Robin Lovin’s review of The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation, by Glenn Tinder. Tinder’s evaluation of politics is shaped by the conviction that Christianity has understood human possibilities and limitations better than its markets and liberal competitors, so that the prospects for the future depend greatly on recovering Christian insights, understanding them and using them to shape our political expectations.


Christians have in recent years thought much about political issues and rather less about politics. Abortion, the arms race, homelessness and human rights have exercised theologians’ tongues and pens, but little has been said about a fundamental theological assessment of the political order itself. Yet politics is as pervasive and determinative of human life as love, death and the other mysteries that engage the theological imagination.

It is not surprising, then, that an important theological reflection on politics should come from a political scientist who has thought deeply about Christianity. Glenn Tinder, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has over the years written on a number of basic political concepts, including Tolerance: Toward a New Civility and Community: Reflections on a Tragic Ideal. His evaluation of politics is shaped by the conviction that Christianity has understood human possibilities and limitations better than its Marxist and liberal competitors, so that the prospects for the future depend greatly on recovering Christian insights, understanding them and using them to shape our political expectations. The Atlantic excerpted Tinder’s book in its December issue; asking in a banner headline on the cover, "Can we be good without God?" Tinder’s answer is complex: knowing God, we will learn first not to expect too much of our own goodness. But we will also understand that our achievements will always be at risk unless we understand them in relation to God as the source and end of history.

Tinder considers the key to the political meaning of Christianity to be the "prophetic stance," an attitude toward people and society. "So far as we are responsive to God, we must live within human kingdoms as creatures destined to be fellow citizens in God’s kingdom," he says in his prologue. "This obligation gives rise to a political stance that is ambiguous and, in a world of devastatingly unambiguous ideologies, unique: humane and engaged, but also hesitant and critical."

The hesitation comes principally when our fellow citizens try to build perfect societies in which we may already relate to one another as members of a human community. True community, in which we would relate to one another through genuinely shared interests, in real affection, is simply not possible under the conditions of history. Those who try to create it have fundamentally confused community, in which we all seek to live, with society, which can at best be a "setting favorable to the rise of community." Those who think they have remade society into a community have confused their achievements with the kingdom of God.

Tinder, however, has no patience with those who use this gap between human achievement and Christian hope as an excuse for inaction. The prophetic stance requires a commitment to social transformation. It attacks every injustice with the same vigor with which it insists that we cannot achieve perfect justice. But it also requires prudence, lest the zeal for reform inadvertently sacrifice limited achievements that are not easily replaced.

Those who know the traditions of Christian political thought will find these themes, familiar, as Tinder intends. His goal in The Political Meaning of Christianity is not to suggest a radically new departure but, as his subtitle indicates, an interpretation, even a "personal statement ... shaped by my own temperament and interests." Apart from critically assessing liberation theology, Tinder does not engage many contemporary Christian thinkers. Among recent ones he has a profound admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Tinder’s political ideas echo aspects of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, though they differ significantly. He also acknowledges debts to Augustine and especially to Luther, and although he rejects Christianized "Hellenic" conceptions of justice and the state, his program seems to owe much to ancient and modern ideas about civility and civic virtue.

The most controversial feature of Tinder’s interpretation is his sharp differentiation of "Reformation" and "Catholic" traditions of Christian politics. Tinder employs them more like Weberian ideal types—simplified images that make key ideas clear—than like real, historical groups, and he consistently puts the terms "Catholic" and "Reformation" in quotes to remind readers of the possible distortions. In Tinder’s view, the "Reformation" tradition has faced the facts of human fallenness more squarely than its "Catholic" counterpart, and consequently expects rather less of human society. The "Reformation" tradition emphasizes the inherent evil of political systems; the Lutheran accent is here unmistakable. "Christians do not deny that governments are evil—deceptive, selfish, arrogant—and often are atrocious; but they are indispensable."

Tinder’s interpretation of the "Reformation" tradition appealingly conjoins a prophetic stance that "presupposes a disposition to attack concrete, visible injustice" with a realistically low estimate of all our attempts to do justice. The critical reader may ask, however, whether that connection can actually he maintained, either in practice or as a matter of principle.

The practical question suggests itself first. Are those with such a limited view of the possibilities of human society really likely to be motivated to sustain a constant vigilance against injustice? History suggests not. That is why Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, called the pessimism of Luther "too consistent." Unrelenting pessimism about the prospects for justice leads people to regard the injustices that regimes create as inescapable. Hence they hesitate to limit the power of the rulers themselves, and settle for less justice than might otherwise be achieved.

Genuine political realism begins instead with recognizing the indefinite possibilities for good and evil, justice and injustice, that are inherent in every social system. The realist acknowledges that there is no inherent limit on the creative possibilities of human society. That, Niebuhr suggested in The Nature and Destiny of Man, is the Renaissance truth that neither Catholicism nor the Reformation recognized. The prophetic stance, however, is not a blind trust in this endless creativity. It aims to remind societies of the possibilities they customarily overlook or willfully ignore.

When society began to treat justice as a simple historical possibility, as many American Protestants did during the Social Gospel era, the prophetic task of the next generation of "Christian realists" was to insist that there are things that society cannot do, goals that must remain "impossible possibilities." Neither realism nor prophecy, however, can be thus limited. In situations of cultural cynicism, prophecy may have the function of reviving old idealisms. In situations of extreme oppression, prophecy’s obvious role is to kindle the most unrealistic hopes.

Tinder, by contrast, has a narrower view of the function of a prophetic stance, and although it is arguably correct for our present American cultural and political circumstances, his making it central to all Christian politics leads him to some harsh criticism of theological ideas of justice that have arisen in other situations. His low estimate of liberation theology is a case in point.

Further critical reflection leads one from asking these practical questions about how a prophetic stance interacts with human motives, hopes and circumstances to a more basic question of principle: Is the vision of the "good state," which Tinder dismisses as "self-contradictory" and "profoundly false," really irrelevant to the prophetic struggle against injustice, or do we need a vision of ideal justice precisely in order to recognize concrete injustices when we see them? A finely tuned sensitivity to human need and suffering may be a sufficient guide to action for the optimist who believes that the state can make everybody happy, but the realist who understands that every state rests on power and coercion is the one who most needs an ideal of power guided by justice. How else would that person decide which sufferings and frustrations to attack and which to accept? Here again, Niebuhr, the paradigmatic realist, stretches our political imagination in more idealistic directions: "Augustine’s realism was indeed excessive. On the basis of his principles, he could not distinguish between government and slavery, both of which were supposedly the rule over man by man and were both a consequence of, and remedy for, sin; nor could he distinguish between a commonwealth and a robber band, for both were bound together by collective interest" (Christian Realism and Political Problems).

In his sharp distinction between community and society and his tendency to dampen hope with predetermined limits on what societies can achieve, Tinder seems to me to speak for a too-narrow spectrum of the large tradition he is seeking to interpret. His "Reformation" tradition is far smaller than that of the Reformers, to say nothing of the "Catholics" whom he has set aside. Many readers who find that Tinder sets them thinking about important and neglected connections between faith and politics will nevertheless conclude upon reflection that political societies offer positive opportunities for human fulfillment, and that they are essential expressions of our created human nature, rather than concessions to our fallen state. Such readers stand in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker and that notorious "Catholic," John Calvin. But the "Catholic" hope for Christian politics always acknowledged the reality of sin, too; and Tinder’s more vigorous rejection of political hope may be a useful antidote to secular optimism even if it is not (as I think it is not) a true statement of human possibilities.

Most remarkable and admirable in Tinder’s reading of the "Reformation" tradition is his steadfast refusal to allow the limited expectations of his theology to temper the commitments of his faith. His "prophetic stance" makes a claim on us that even his critics will acknowledge.

The truth of the concept of the prophetic stance is realized only to the extent that my life is shaped by my apprehension not merely of the concrete here and now but of the global situation and eternal destiny of the human race. Such a unification of existence will be fully accomplished when love becomes all that it ought to be and there is no longer tension or even difference between love of self and others or between the love of personal friends and of all humanity. In organizing and maintaining the polity, it is vital to remember that love has not been thus perfected. But prophetic faith tells us that it will be and that this faith must form and direct our individual lives.