The Role of the State and Political Theology

Essays

Commenting on the role of the state in a recent article in the Church Times (UK), John Milbank as one the leaders of Radical Orthodoxy says that the state has no goals “save its economic power and no interest in the person save as an atomised cog in a well-oiled machine”. In other words, it is hard to see how the state contributes anything other than an instrumental approach to the affairs and concerns of its citizens. Such a negative and dismissive interpretation of the state seems the predominant view not only within influential sources in theology but also from the realms of more radical political philosophy. Why is this so and is it a satisfactory and adequate understanding? If it is not, what alternative approach might be adopted by a Political Theology?

Commenting on the role of the state in a recent article in the Church Times (UK), John Milbank as one the leaders of Radical Orthodoxy says that the state has no goals “save its economic power and no interest in the person save as an atomised cog in a well-oiled machine”. In other words, it is hard to see how the state contributes anything other than an instrumental approach to the affairs and concerns of its citizens. Such a negative and dismissive interpretation of the state seems the predominant view not only within influential sources in theology but also from the realms of more radical political philosophy. Why is this so and is it a satisfactory and adequate understanding? If it is not, what alternative approach might be adopted by a Political Theology?

Obviously I am of the view that there is a need to rehabilitate our concept of and even the practice of the state. Having just read “Too Big to Fail”, an account of the events of 2008 in the US by the journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin – a thoughtful birthday present from one of my children – I am reminded in stark terms of the vital intervention of the state in the economic meltdown that was about to take place with the demise of Lehmanns, AIG and the subsequent threat to so many of the major Wall Street names. However messy and controversial in political terms the events of those key months, there is no doubt that only the government of the day, working through the US Treasury, was capable of stepping in and averting an even deeper crisis. The amounts involved are eye-watering, and no single financial institution, in itself, could act to stem the flow of funds out of the system. But, of course, it was the UK government which led the way and showed what needed to be done. Paul Krugman, an economist and New York Times columnist said at the time “The Brown government has shown itself willing to think clearly about the financial crisis, and act quickly on its conclusions. And this combination of clarity and decisiveness hasn’t been matched by any other Western government, least of all our own” (quoted in Sorkin P514).

So we know that these were exceptional and dire circumstances and that the impact of government acting in this way has been to shift the crisis onto the state itself and to create a sovereign debt crisis, not to mention the threatened collapse of the Eurozone. But at least it stemmed the tide at that point in the process and offered some breathing space. Was this not a responsible exercise of political leadership? Another thing that needs to be born in mind is that, despite all the rhetoric about rolling back the powers of the state and cutting government deficits by reducing welfare spending, it is still the case in the UK that 40% of its GDP will go on public expenditure even after the proposed cuts. It is simply the case the most Western governments spend considerable amounts on the public world and that significant reductions would entail a level of financial and social upheaval that all would refuse to risk. Hence one can argue that to ignore or dismiss the role of the state when it comes to the wellbeing of citizens is a misunderstanding of the reality of political life.

Rather than dismissing the state, therefore, or imagining some distant world in which one can return to some sort of idealised pre-welfare situation where voluntary groups such as churches or local guilds can step into the breach, Political Theology needs to engage with both the theory and practice of this vital institution. Yes, there are questions of legitimacy and what type of democracy is being practiced, not to mention issues of corruption and fears of collusion between politicians, lobbyists and the media. There are also real concerns about government by a political class who appear out of touch with the lives of the ordinary people on behalf of whom they govern. But, surely, these are no reason to retreat from this form of politics. The decisions and policies implemented and their implications make it clear that politics at this level is far too important to be left to the professional politicians. We are all of us open to criticism in every walk of life, but that is no reason to disengage and retreat to the safe foothills of a communitarian theology.

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