And, Speaking Of Cross-Shaped Politics . . . A Cross-Shaped Politics of Liberty

I’ve written a lot recently about “liberty,” and until this election season winds down, and as long as Christian conservatives work themselves into a frenzy of liberty lust, it seems there will be reason to write more. So I thought a little illustration of Libertarian/Conservative and Mutualist/Progressive thought could demonstrate how “liberty” as an actual virtue, political and theological, might point us, as all good things do, to the cross of Jesus Christ.

Typically, libertarian conservatives have proclaimed what might be called “negative liberty,” or freedom FROM. “Negative liberty” would include calls for freedom from government taxing my inheritance, the liberty to not be told what to do with my property, the right to not have my guns taken away, freedom from restrictive government interference in my business and private associations, etc. For the sake of illustration, and to accommodate current political theory, we’ll put “negative liberty” on the right side of the horizontal continuum.

Progressives, on the other hand, have more of a mutualistic theory that involves “positive liberty,” or the freedom TO: Liberties that allow me, for example, to work for a living wage, to expect a safe workplace, to organize with my fellow workers, to marry the person I love, and to have my bedroom and my uterus operate freely and under the control of my own conscience. As expected, “positive liberty” occupies the left end of the spectrum.

For the Christian, though, traditional “left-right” political distinctions are not only inaccurate and insufficient, but ultimately fruitless in bringing about desired social change — because the “left-right” model ignores the believer’s relationship with Christ and with others. There are few things in the public arena more tragic than a weak, impotent left-right model roughly pasted over with Jesus talk in the hope of somehow honoring God and transforming society. There has to be something more than hate speech and stupidity dressed for Sundays and yet filthy for the rest of the week.

The spectrum itself isn’t necessarily the problem, but it cannot stand by itself. It needs a support, an up-down line to give stability to the left-right. And this is a vertical grid onto which “liberty” fits easily, but only if the Christian politician is discussing the idea with a commitment to Christ, Christian liberty, and to the effects and promises of liberty for others. Minus any of these things, we’re left only with the tired, impotent, and ultimately divisive left-right continuum that too much of our political dialogue is mired in.

It would seem obvious that within this grid, the vertical points include the Sovereign God and, on the bottom, other people. If the concept of “liberty” is submitted to Christ and his Word, with an understanding that true Biblical liberty is the foundation from which we debate the idea, we can comfortably proceed with the Lord occupying the highest point on both the grid and within our philosophy. But whereas the horizontal Libertarian/Conservative and Mutualist/Progressive grid is by definition a continuum, with variations of left-right political beliefs shifting from the polarized ends to the middle where most people’s beliefs comfortably take root, the vertical God-Others line can never be a continuum. It’s a sign of maturity, political and otherwise, when our politics evolve and shift to and from appropriate “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty” ethics. This isn’t weakness or unGodly compromise, but a simple recognition that neither the Left nor the Right holds all truth. But the God-Other post is never a continuum; God doesn’t compromise or shift or evolve, and the Divine imperative to care more for others than for ourselves isn’t negotiable.

This vertical post, then, tempers ours Left-Right, Liberty From/Liberty To continuum with its unceasing, and blessed, demands that all of our ideas of liberty and freedom recognize both points. No philosophy of liberty that ignores God can prosper; no philosophy of freedom that ignores others — their needs, their sufferings, their voice — can rightly be called “Christian.”

Christian liberty is always, inexorably, Other-focused, and so a Christian politician’s clamoring for liberty must be measured by a plumb line that runs straight from God to “the least of these” Christ is represented in. Anything less — anything that embraces the idea of “liberty” only when our own appear to be threatened — results in a crooked, broken post. But taken together, the Freedom From/Freedom To horizontal post is supported wonderfully by a vertical standard that gives proper worship to God and proper honor to the Other. The result is a Cross-shaped Theology of Liberty that looks, I’m afraid, remarkably different from the hue and cry of “liberty” in this and any other political season.

Christian politics can never be strictly horizontal and can never lodge itself comfortably on only one end of the spectrum. Minus the vertical, the God-and-Other line, we have the sad spectacle of politics as usual, whose triumph is something Christians can never rightly participate in.

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