The Limits of Freedom and the Possibilities of Politics: A Christian Realist Account of Political Responsibility

by Robin W. Lovin

from Journal of Religion 73.4 (1993): 559-72.
© 1993. Reprinted with permission.


Doubtless the oldest ways of thinking about life in human communities are versions of what we today would call "realism." Almost everywhere that ancient civilizations first put their traditions and questions into writing, they record the assumption that rightly ordered human lives are lived according to some fixed and permanent pattern. Whether this pattern is cosmic, governing the growth and decay of the universe, or written into the desires of each individual, the predominant notion is that the way we ought to live is as much a part of the structure of reality as the physical forces that surround us. We have a choice about whether we will live in conformity to that ideal pattern of life or in defiance of it, but we do not choose the pattern itself. It is given, not made; discovered, and not invented.

From the classical period in Greece onward, the idea of a natural pattern apparent in every aspect of human experience provided a framework for Western philosophical reflections on choice and character. In the Christian era, the Hebrew prophet's image of a divine creator who had made from the formless void a world for human habitation connected with the Greek philosophers' idea of a universal reason that could comprehend that order, a reason that was also practical reason, capable of guiding our actions in conformity to what reality requires. "The Stoic idea of Natural Law, which the Apologists regarded as identical with the Christian moral law,"' became the dominant explanation of commonalities in moral beliefs and expectations across the cultural and historical boundaries.

While the terminology of "natural law" is rendered problematic for some contemporary writers by its use in connection with conservative political or sexual ethics, the basic idea that the moral characteristics of a situation depend on its natural features has been receiving new attention under the title of "moral realism."



The Christian West was sure about the moral structure of reality. It was less certain about politics. Aristotle believed that politics is the individual search for the human good carried on in community, so that ethics and politics are essentially the same activity. Christians, by contrast, harbored other memories—of a people who came together of their own accord to build a tower that would reach to the heavens, in defiance of the created order; of a people who insisted, against the advice of their prophet, on having a king like the other nations round about them. Little wonder, then, that for many Christian writers, the most powerful image for political reality is the image of Babylon—the center of power that exists, temporarily, in defiance of God's order; a place where Christians for the moment, regrettably, have to live, but never a place where they are at home.

There were, of course, exceptions and qualifications to this distrust of politics. Augustine told the Christian citizens of the late Roman Empire that they were living in Babylon, but then he reminded them that those who live in Babylon must pray for it and work for its peace, since that is likely to be the only peace they will have. Luther wrote that a wise prince is a rare bird, but at least he did not consider the idea a contradiction in terms. On a more positive note, Calvin regarded the support of politics as essential to our human nature, and Thomas Aquinas conceived of a human law that could be framed and enforced in accordance with the requirements of the natural law.

Nevertheless, it seems that the dominant tendency in Christian thought has been to link moral realism regarding a permanent pattern and order for human life to another and very different kind of realism, a skeptical political realism, which insists that we must face up to the extent to which people acting in groups, people striving for power and forming governments, are going to act in ways that run contrary to the requirements of the moral life. The moral constraints that are part of reality do indeed bind us, but much of our political history is a record of human attempts to evade, deny, or forget those constraints.

Modern secular thought, by contrast, begins by asserting its freedom from moral realism. The characteristic human achievement is not conformity to the patterns of nature but escape from them or even their destruction. To be truly human is to break free of the restraints that their own nature imposes on lesser persons, into a realm of action that is governed by choice, and will, and powers.  To live well is to live according to one's own pattern, not according to the pattern of nature. And if it is not always possible to liberate ourselves from those constraints in fact, we can at least be free of them in our minds. We can recognize that what our neighbors see as nature is mere convention; we can understand that what appear to our neighbors as the limits of a moral reality are merely the coercive powers of their own expectations.

In this characteristically modern way of thinking, politics again becomes, as it was for Aristotle, the most significant realm of human achievement, but for quite different reasons. Where for Aristotle the polis was the place in which practical reason achieved life in accordance with nature on a grand scale, for modern thought, politics becomes the locus of human achievement precisely because there are no natural landmarks there. Politics is where desire and cunning break through into a space where they have room to work. Not practical reason, but instrumental reason, governs here. Its function is not to tell us how to live well, but how to get what we want, for once we have reached this realm of freedom beyond mere subsistence, getting what we want is the only thing that living well can mean.

What the modern era stumbled on, then, was a curious synthesis of Aristotle's idea that politics is the place where human beings achieve their most characteristic excellences with that more skeptical, Christian notion that politics is a realm without moral markers. For the most important tradition of modern political thought, the way of thinking that we broadly label "liberalism," the freedom that marks our political life is not a breaking free of the bonds of nature but simply the absence of any other guidance. Machiavelli's Prince is not Nietzsche's Superman. The prince resorts to cunning and deception, to artificial rewards and punishments, not for the sheer joy of exercising power, but in response to the terrifying realization that there is no other way to keep things together. It is not a question of keeping his own power—though keeping his power is so closely connected with keeping his head that he is unlikely to let go of power easily. The point is that it is only by this constant, vigilant exercise of power that the prince keeps the state itself from sinking into anarchy and chaos. Others may sleep securely, thinking that there is order and justice in the universe. The prince lays awake in the dark knowing that there is only politics.

Like most things that keep us awake at night, however, that knowledge is less terrifying in the daytime. The Renaissance prince lived in fear of the consequences that would follow if everyone knew what he knew. Hobbes, and later Locke, worried about what would happen unless everyone knew it. We must understand that society rests only on our mutual agreement to avoid doing one another harm. It is here that liberalism's fundamental understanding of human freedom comes to full expression: we are free because there is in this realm nothing to bind us but our own consent.

Consent, of course, is different from arbitrary desire, but it is a choice that knows no natural constraints. The only rule of choice is that we must not defeat ourselves by choosing something that will make us worse off than we were before. It is likely, then, that we will choose to make all of our desires moderate ones and trade off our wants with one another until we arrive at a balance in which everyone is satisfied. If these market mechanisms should fail, or if someone should be so imprudent as to violate them, we will want a government at hand to set things right and to restrain the offender. Mostly, however, we will depend on the self-regulating actions of individuals who know what they want and who do not want anything too much.

Thus, by stages, the terrifying freedom of the Renaissance prince evolved into modern "responsible" politics. Where reality provides no guidance, we have nothing but our accountability to one another to shape our conduct. Those who have the power to make political decisions must answer to those on whose behalf they act. That is the key concept of responsible government. But responsibility, as Max Weber recognized, also involves a certain accountability to those whose interests are not our own. Those who think they would like their politicians to be more moral and less compromising should think carefully about what kind of morals those politicians would bring to the task. Compromise, Weber suggests, is the key to responsible politics. He contrasted an "ethic of responsibility," which takes the political task seriously, to an "ethic of ultimate ends," which disrupts the political process by importing ultimate commitments into a political arena that should know nothing but temporary agreements.



It is a long road that takes us from Aristotle and Augustine to Locke, and Weber, and John Rawls. I have traveled it rapidly, pointing out only the principal landmarks, but even this quick tour is sufficient to point up an important fact: the opposition between freedom and nature, worried over by a small corps of modern intellectuals, is tied to another opposition, so widely known as to become the stuff of humor, the opposition between politics and morals. Both of those oppositions—freedom and nature, politics and morals—are tied to another, more basic opposition between responsibility and realism. The connection between realism and moral responsibility that is basic to many Western moral traditions is alien to the way that modern thinkers have understood politics, and that alienation has shaped the political role of religion in the modern world.

Indeed, the modern separation of nature from freedom and realism from responsibility was made largely to secure the separation of religion from politics. The idea, which would have been obvious to a European intellectual of the seventeenth century, was to keep rigid beliefs that have the proven capacity to inspire violent devotion from intruding on the already difficult business of maintaining a stable social peace. Those who in our own time have lived through the horrors of persecution or religious warfare will appreciate the motives of those who set up the walls of separation between church and state and religion and politics.

But in the modern European context, this effort to free politics from religious pressures and influences led to a much wider transformation of politics than the first theorists of political responsibility anticipated. Western Christianity holds a series of now disputed propositions about God and human destiny; but Christianity is also a set of beliefs about human nature. Indeed, it was primarily through these beliefs that the religious influences on politics were mediated. Religious persecution rarely begins with a simple demand that other people hold the same beliefs about God and salvation that I do. It begins with the demand that other people act in ways that are appropriate to the way that my faith understands human life.

If you are really going to keep religion out of politics, at least if you are going to keep Western Christian religion out of politics, you must eventually shut moral realism out of it, too. You must stop people making claims about what human nature requires or what human flourishing really is because those ideas about the world are for our traditions too closely bound up with ideas about God ever to permit a purely secular discussion of them. It sounds like the right solution to insist that, if religious believers want to influence public policy, they must make their case on secular premises. The problem is that no one can neatly identify what a truly "secular" premise is. Can we imagine a "secular" case for or against capital punishment that ignores religious ideas about human accountability? Can we even, as the courts have contrived to do, imagine a legitimate "secular purpose" for Sunday closing laws, without finding ourselves at once involved with religious ideas about human beings and what they need?

The radical solution of early modern political thought is on this point more satisfactory than the contrivances of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Modern politics proclaims: Let us have done with appeals to human nature altogether. Let us reconceive politics as a space of freedom in which persons assert their interests and for which they establish mutually satisfactory rules to determine which interests shall prevail. Politics is not about truth but about procedure. Politics provides a mechanism for deciding what we are going to do now. Those who require more enduring answers must look elsewhere.

The moral realism of Western Christianity, however, elicits precisely this search for enduring answers that the modern, Weberian "ethic of responsibility" tries to discourage. Basic to every kind of realism is the recognition of a reality that is independent of our minds, that is not constituted by our ideas about it, a reality about which our ideas may be right or wrong, true or false.

When we form an idea about what the world is like, physically, or morally, or religiously, we try to check it out because we know that there may be a difference, perhaps a very large and dangerous difference, between what we think about how the world is and the way it really is. Most human beings devote a large part of their waking lives to those investigations. We spend long hours talking to each other, trying to determine whether our idea of events conforms to what really happened. "What did you do then?" "Where did the money go?" "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Nor are our conversations always so inquisitorial. We also spend hours trying to understand one another, and trying to understand ourselves. I want to know why the painting that leaves me indifferent, or even angry, delights you. I want to know why you are crying. I want to know whether you think I am making a fool of myself. I want to know whether I should stop writing this essay and go get some exercise.

Our lives are made up of such questions, posed to ourselves or to our real and imaginary companions. We ask them, not just because we are seeking particular pieces of information, but because we suppose that there is a reality to which the answers to our questions refer. If we ask enough questions, we might begin to know what that reality is like. If we know enough about it, we might begin to understand how to live well in it.

That practical, commonsense realism dominates our conscious lives and knits together the innumerable projects that we take up in a day or a week. Its search for truth and excellence is what most of our relationships, various as they are, are all about. We connect with one another, not just to get things done or to have our needs met, but to understand the world, including ourselves and each other. Eliminate that realism, and there is little left for us to talk about.

Just because modern Western liberalism originated in an attempt to eliminate that realism from politics, it is hardly surprising that the political discourse of the liberal democracies is so severely attenuated. If politics avoids the potentially divisive question of what our humanity requires of us, it cannot discuss truth and excellence. It cannot try to persuade us to want something different from what we already want, cannot tell us that we would be better people if we did. It can only try to reassure the maximum number of individuals that this program, party, or candidate has the same interests that they do. It does not take long to do that.

There is a tendency to blame the decline of political thought on the thirty-second sound bite, but we might also consider the possibility that the sound bite exists because it is an appropriate expression of what politics, divorced from the moral realism, is all about. The sound bite is too short a space in which to persuade you of anything, but it is a very efficient way to find out whether a candidate agrees with what you already believe to be in your own interest. If that is, politically speaking, all you need to know, you can get your answer quickly and get back to the con­versations that really matter.



Perhaps that is the best that we can do. If politics cannot be about the things that concern us most deeply as persons, we should ask no better than to get it over quickly. But if the search for truth and excellence is a public task, we must not so quickly accept the separation of political responsibility from moral realism.

An alternative way of thinking about politics appears in the twentieth century Protestant school known as "Christian Realism." Although Rein­hold Niebuhr, with whom the term is chiefly identified, insisted on the difference between his political realism and other understandings of what "realism" means, others in the school saw a close connection between a realistic assessment of power and interests and the commonsense realism I have described.

In any case, the reconnection of realism and responsibility that I want to explore begins not with definitions of "realism" but with rethinking the key concept of "freedom." I have suggested already that freedom is the key to a modern idea of responsible politics that operates free from natural constraints. Freedom, either as the determination of choice by one's own will in Locke and the liberals, or as the independence of reason from desire in Kant, provides the starting point for moral and political accountability.

Freedom is also crucial to Niebuhr's Christian Realism, but it must be understood in a rather different way. It is not the absence of natural and situational constraints that characterizes freedom but our capacity to rec­ognize these givens as limitations, our ability to conceive, not a reality in which they would be absent, but a reality in which they would impinge on us differently.  We are not confined to knowing the world as it is. We are also able to imagine it as it might be, and to know the ways in which this imagination is closer to our needs than the reality that we know.

This imaginative grasp of a good that is not present, and that indeed may not exist anywhere, may seem like an odd form of "realism." But the realism is not in the imagination. The realism is in the recognition that the capacity for imagination is itself an inescapable element of human reality. This freedom sets limits on politics because we cannot deny it in others or in ourselves. Freedom is itself a reality that politics cannot ig­nore because it cannot be eliminated from human experience. Let the threats be however brutal, the conditioning however thorough, the lies however consistent, still no force can deprive us of the power to think that things might be otherwise.

Freedom, so understood, is not a sphere of activity over which nature has no control or from which nature can be forcibly held at bay. The freedom that makes politics possible is itself a part of nature. The capacity to transcend reality is itself a reality. Once that is understood, the charac­teristically modern opposition between freedom and nature is no longer possible, but it is also true that freedom is no longer absolute. To speak of an "indefinite transcendence" of the existing conditions of life implies that our imaginative grasp of other possibilities cannot be foreclosed by a priori limits. But that freedom does not look down on all realities from an equal distance. It is in the nature of human freedom that it starts from somewhere, that it envisions possibilities out of quite specific discontents and deprivations. For a single mother struggling against poverty to care for her children and protect them from the consequences of bad housing and urban decay, the tedium of the suburban housewife who wields her mop against the backdrop of a well-stocked refrigerator and spends the afternoon driving her children to well-planned recreational activities may be the picture of freedom. Freedom for the suburbanite may require a little more dirt and disorder.

In the Christian Realist's version of moral realism, then, freedom occupies a place not unlike that of reason in Aristotle's ethics. Freedom, like reason, is a basic element of the human good. But freedom is more than a good. It is also the capacity by which we know the good and identify the things that are good. While reason is usually conceived to know an objective good that is the same for everyone, a realist's freedom grasps the good from a distinctive angle of vision, based on its own starting point. Such freedom is akin to the insights gained from myths and sym­bols, which capture coherences larger than we can explicitly formulate.  It is in this connection, by the way, that Niebuhr rejects the Aristotelian claim that reason is the defining characteristic of human nature, relying instead on an Augustinian formulation that encompasses reason, mem­ory, and imagination. Any definition of humanity must include the partic­ularity of individual experience as well as a capacity to reach beyond that particularity.

This reconception of freedom in naturalistic terms cuts across the divisions between nature and freedom, or realism and responsibility, that usually characterize modern political thought. As in systems of natural law, this freedom is a part of reality, incorporated into nature. Reality, however, is not so fixed and determinate as some versions of natural law have made it. Yet in contrast to the systems of responsibility that render political freedom quite independent of the commitments that constitute us as persons, this naturalized freedom is located and particular. We can­not understand it without specifying what the existing natural and social realities are from which this freedom sets us free.

The ambiguity here is not merely conceptual, as though we might resolve it by coming up with a better formulation of what freedom is all about. The ambiguity is part of the experience of freedom as well. There is no way to tell in advance whether a given possibility of which we have an imaginative grasp will actually free us from the constraints of our start­ing point or whether it will ironically bind us more closely to the realities from which we seek to establish our independence.

The result is not only that we are unable to formulate a universal defi­nition of freedom; there is no certain way to identify an experience of it. That is what makes us prey to the appeals of demagogues and car salesmen, religious charlatans and hairdressers, all of whom in their own ways promise to set us free from our problems, though the result most likely proves in the end to be just another kind of bondage. This uncertainty about something as important to us as freedom also makes us prey to our own anxieties, leading us to forms of pride that deny our vulnerabilities or to a timidity that takes no chances for fear that it might be wrong.



When the limits of freedom are understood in this realistic way, the possi­bilities of politics take on a different shape than they have in the classical liberal theories through which modern political life has generally been understood. The ordering of civil society in liberalism is a remedy for what John Locke called the "inconveniences" of a state of nature, in which there is no recourse but to violence when our interests clash with those of our neighbors. If, however, our freedom is itself a part of nature, politics is at once more integral and more dangerous to human life than liberalism has made it out to be.

Let us consider the dangers first. Much of twentieth-century history has shown us how fragile our aspirations are in the face of massive power. The good we seek for ourselves and the people we know most intimately can easily be overwhelmed by military or economic forces that treat us merely as obstacles to be overcome or as instruments of someone else's purposes. Those who are destroyed in this way are not in any direct sense participants in politics. They are victims. Our solidarity with them may seek to empower them in ways that ends their victimization and makes politics possible.

Certainly our solidarity with them should change our politics, but the true political danger begins not with victimization, when someone else mobilizes forces to destroy us. It begins when politics makes us coconspirators in our own oppression. Raw power can destroy us despite our best efforts to fight or to flee. Only politics can secure our consent to the destruction of our freedom.

It is for that reason that religious thought in the twentieth century has so often appealed to human rights that protect the freedom of the individual from absorption into the aspirations of the leader, or the party, or the people. Persons in their freedom deserve protection from what poli­tics can do to them. Just because we know that our freedom is contingent, limited, and embodied—because we know that freedom itself is not absolute—we will be inclined to make the protections of freedom as nearly absolute as we can. Human rights impose constraints on politics that may not be abolished for any reasons of state, and any proposals to suspend them should receive a very strict review, both by domestic political critics and by the international community.

A bill of rights alone is not enough, of course. Protecting freedom from politics requires active voices and organizations to amplify those voices and spread their words through print and broadcast media. It also requires organizations like churches and universities, in which those voices can be educated to their task and supported when it becomes difficult or dangerous. James Luther Adams has said that without the freedom to organize and to publicize one's opinions, freedom of speech is a "laryngeal exercise.”  To that pithy phrase, we may add that without communi­ties that nurture persons who undertake these difficult tasks of advocacy, even the freedom to organize is a hollow commitment. If you have a little time, you can stifle dissent by creating a narcisscistic culture in which people do not care what happens to their neighbors even more effectively than you can control dissent by forbidding it.

A realistic understanding of freedom requires legal principles and forms of society that protect freedom from politics. That lesson is clear in twentieth-century history, and it is one that churches with their extensive advocacy of human rights in the years since World War II have appar­ently learned rather well. So well, in fact, that it now seems to many Christian thinkers that the appropriate stance toward politics is a sectarian withdrawal into communities of alternative hopes and values. The ancient Christian suspicion of politics returns in a modern form, warning us against offering the pinch of incense to Caesar and adding that the banalities of the New Hampshire primary are about all we should expect from such activity. The Christian calling, according to this view, is the higher task of witnessing to the limits of politics.

There is an important truth in that position, and American churches that have often been quick to identify themselves with their culture need to hear it. It is, however, not all of the truth. Alongside of the protections that freedom needs from the destructive mechanisms of the state and the economy, there is also a participation in politics that freedom positively needs to be fully realized. We must always be prepared to be the church in the catacombs, because we cannot protect freedom from politics unless we understand that possibility. But we must not make the church in the catacombs the normative church, the ideal church. To say that the church is most truly the church when it is in a posture of resistance can only be shorthand for the more complicated truth that it is better to resist than to collapse, but better still to live in a society that allows you to explore the creative and positive possibilities of the life of faith.

This, too, follows from the nature of freedom. We have the imaginative capacity to transcend the limitations of our present situation toward a way of life that is more adequate for ourselves and for others, but we also have the capacity to choose mistaken courses that will not yield the goods we seek and the capacity to deceive ourselves into choosing and seeking goals that actually constrict our lives and separate us from others. The point of a realistic account of human freedom, again, is that there is no formula that can tell us whether the things we now think good really are good. We do not find out whether our ideas about freedom and well­being are self-defeating simply by testing them for logical consistency—though that is not a bad place to start. We find out through the whole practical discourse and investigation that is central to our lives and rela­tionships.

Ideally—though impossibly, of course—that practical discourse should include all other human beings, but there is no procedural test to approximate the response of "all other human beings." There is only a more and more inclusive circle of discussion, ending in a considered, fallible, but still settled conviction about the good.

That is where politics comes in, for in its divided and sometimes chaotic reality, it is the best approximation we have of a community of discourse in which our ideas about the human good could be tested against all the real human beings that the ideas are about. To free oneself from one's starting point is not merely to imagine the same self in a different situation but to understand the possibility of a quite different human self. If I understand a situation only in terms of how it might be altered better to suit my needs or the needs of persons very much like me, I am not yet free of it. But the only practical way to know that I have grasped a differ­ent set of possibilities is to have my perceptions confirmed, transformed, or challenged by others with quite different experiences.

The achievement of freedom, then, is not measured by the intensity of my commitment to my own ideals, nor by the cohesiveness of the community I can create around them. It is measured by the responses my ideals elicit from others. In some cases, indeed, I become more free by having my purposes opposed by others than I would be if I were allowed to realize them unopposed. In all cases, I can be relatively confident of my freedom only if I know that such opposition is possible.

Niebuhr's version of realism grasped this central importance of politics to the achievement of a Christian moral vision: "The church would do more for the cause of reconciliation," he wrote, "if, instead of producing moral idealists who think that they can establish justice, it would create religious and Christian realists who know that justice will require that some men shall contend against them…. This kind of Christian Realism would understand the perennial necessity of political relationships in so­ciety, no matter how ethical ideals rise."

These Christian Realists whom Niebuhr wants display a high degree of self-confidence, matched by an increasingly rare capacity for self-criticism. They also point us to a Christian understanding of politics that differs in subtle but important ways from the major alternatives available today. The Christian Realist defies both the perennial Christian suspicion of politics and the classical liberal's suspicion of faith at work in the politi­cal arena. We must not view politics, as some Christians have done, as an unruly place on which truth must be imposed or, as other Christians and most moderns have seen it, as a dangerous place where there is no truth. We must see politics as a place where truth can be found.

Responsible politics then is not a matter of taking care to exclude our commitments but of taking time to ask the important questions. How much opportunity do I want and how much security do I require to live a good life? How far must I be left alone to pursue my own excellences, and how much must I contribute to the well-being of others? How much individual accountability must a society impose if it is to survive, and how much poverty can it tolerate before everyone's life is diminished?

Those questions, of course, remind us of the search for truth an excellence in which the moral realist is engaged in all aspects of life. Politics, as we now know it, is not very much like that. But the responsible realist is one who thinks that it could be.


Robin W. Lovin is Dean and Professor of Ethics at Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

© 1999 University of Chicago Press.  Originally published as Robin W. Lovin,  “The Limits of Freedom and the Possibility of Politics:  A Christian Realist Account of Political Responsibility,” Journal of Religion 73.4 (1993): 559-72.
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