What happens to political engagement when evangelicals overemphasise individualism

This post was sparked by another by DG Hart, a theologian and historian running in orthodox Reformed circles. His is an observation on American politics about church folks allegiance to the christian right. It’s primarily about religious freedom as mistakenly understood as an individual natural right. Rather Hart calls for the understanding of religious freedom to be broadened but made weaker. Religious freedom is not a natural inalienable right, but rather protecting the rights of religious institutions to self definition should be promoted as being good for society. That is because communal competing accounts of what constitute the common good are particularly good for a secular liberal democracy.

The blog post is entitle “We need a Declaration of  Institutional Independence.” Its closing paragraphs are how his post relates to the UK.

“But what is striking is that the protection of religious liberties for individuals is a very different matter than such protection for religious institutions.

The reason that evangelicals do not see this distinction, or use it in their political reflections, I suppose, is that their religious devotion is largely personal and individual — the believer’s experience — and not institutional or under the oversight and norms of an ecclesiastical body. It is no wonder, then, that evangelicals, long on individualism and short on ecclesiology, will try to find roots for social conservatism in a document that has no legal standing in America’s laws and that celebrates the individual (at least for a few lines). “

This is an important observation to make particularly in contrasting how some evangelical Anglicans behave within the ecclesiology of the Church of England (as individualists, rather than collectivists, about which I have written previously). But it also relates to matters of political engagement of social conservative Christians in the UK (what ever political party they identify with).

It is right that individual christians should engage as individuals in the political process. That this engagement is a given must be so because that is how traditional political engagement operates in the UK. However it is not the only way by which christians can engage in promoting the common good, or as the biblical phrase would go, in “blessing the city” in matters political. In the past, and indeed now, the Church of England has provided education, aid and when working at its best acts generally as a bulwark against physical deprivation. These acts are political acts because they run counter to the services provided by Government (narrowly defined), but also because the church provides a story  into which social service finds a deeper meaning.

Hart, and others identify the problem of big government precisely within the overextension of individual liberty.  Briefly, the argument goes that as individualism and individual rights rise, mediating institutions (such as churches or local party politics participation and membership decline). It is in these mediating institutions that traditional help and support could be found in times of trouble, but it is also in these social gatherings that a learned conformity and expectations for what responsibility to a community looks like. That being so, as responsibility to a community decline, the state increasingly has to step in and provide an ever increasing safety net taking responsibility and also power and freedom from the lowest level of political engagement.

It is perhaps paradoxical that the root of individual freedoms rely so heavily on that British Enlightenment figure John Locke. His reading of the bible influenced his thinking about individual liberty through an understanding of human dignity because we are made in the image of God. We rightly uphold this dignity and my argument here should not in anyway encourage thinking which would abolish for example the Universal Declaration of rights.

But in a society where mediating institutions are in decline, including the family, perhaps the overemphasis on the individual being the most basic unit of society misses what the image of God is really like. Theologically speaking “it is not good for man to be alone”, or in other words, the trinity represents a far better way of thinking about society, than little atomised individuals running around and making money to spend. As the church, as the evangelical church, we need to think much harder about what the Gospel has to say of our ecclesiology in relation to the state. If we care about abortion, drug addiction, gang violence, hunger, welfare dependency and yes, the salvation of individuals, we need to think much more about communal institutional religious freedom.

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