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Public opinion as inherited illusion: Koysis on ideologies

Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies
by David T. Koyzis
(Dowers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
Reviewed by John Hiemstra*

Christian social movements interested in deepening the insights of a new generation of justice advocates should enthusiastically welcome David Koyzis’ study of political ideologies. This book is a filled with insightful critique and serviceable analysis of contemporary modern/post-modern society. At the heart of Koyzis’ study is the profound insight that, contrary to the assertions of mainstream Canadian society, the public square is not religiously naked. Political Visions & Illusions speaks this important truth to our rapidly secularising establishment in a way that undresses its pretensions of public, rational, materialistic neutrality as it works systematically to banish faith to the private realm. At the same time, Koyzis calls the Christian community to account for too often voluntarily shrinking the Gospel of Jesus Christ down to only one dimension: that of mere public morality or privatised personal piety.

Writing from his experience as Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College, Koyzis delivers an impressive survey and Christian critique of the social and political ideologies that shape events behind the newspaper headlines. Koyzis devotes full chapters to liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy and socialism. In dialogue with the best literature, he outlines the main features, content, and flaws of each ideology. Political Visions & Illusions does not stop with criticism, however. The last two chapters set out very helpful alternative Christian visions for public life, in particular drawing from Roman Catholic and Calvinian traditions. While this is a careful scholarly study, Koyzis masterfully draws from his colourful experiences in Canada, the United States and abroad to offer fresh examples and interesting detail.

The book’s central thesis is encapsulated in the title Political Visions and Illusions. As North Americans face the dangers of terrorism and racial profiling, the seduction of materialism and consumerism, and the allure of tribalism and nationalism, Koyzis’ message is clear and timely. Ideology is really an illusion that "gives us a false picture of the world" (7). Based on the biblical insight that ideologies are born of idolatry, Koyzis argues that ideologies distort our perceptions of the world, human nature, the character of sin, the source of salvation, and our future hope. Some Christians use in worship the phrases "Jesus is Lord" and "Jesus is King of kings," but then in life behave as though politics, society and the market were somehow neutral endeavours in which saints and sinners co-operate on secular rational terms. Koyzis helps us see that the reigning secularism in Canada is not merely the rejection of Christianity, but rather the active replacement of Christianity with new idolatrous faiths.

This point is powerfully illustrated in the chapter on the ideology of liberalism. The philosophy of liberalism is so close and so familiar to North American Christians that we often fail to discern its deeply spiritual power. Koyzis sketches out five successive stages through which liberalism has historically passed (53-65). Canada bears the marks, both for better and for worse, of each of these strands of liberalism. As Koyzis correctly notes, many of these strands of liberalism still compete with each other in the bosom of our society, rearing their heads in virtually every major political debate. And unhappily, even political debates between Christians are often shaped by these different stages of liberalism! Appealing to the early stage of "night watchman state" liberalism, for example, in order to oppose the newer intrusions of "choice enhancement state" liberalism often leads the Christian community into political cul-de-sacs, leaving us dependent on the flawed compass of one or another form of liberalism.

Even though Koyzis insists on the religious character of all ideologies, he wisely councils Christians to learn from all ideologies. He explains how Christians can learn from each of the ideologies without accepting their religious thrust or compartmentalising the Christian faith away from the ideology. While Koyzis’ reasoning is persuasive on this score, he should have been more generous in the book, identifying more of the valid insights we can learn from these ideologies. Retooling insights from an ideology so they cohere with the Gospel is a crucial ministry of reconciliation for Christians in a conflict-ridden society.

Along the same lines, it is also unfortunate that Koyzis restricts his analysis to the more mainstream 20th century ideologies. While he briefly comments on feminism, environmentalism, anarchism, fascism, Islamism, patriarchalism, and postmodernism, it is regrettable that he does not devote more time to analysing them (39). The newer ideologies, while initially growing out of older ones, often mutate into radical critiques of the older ideologies. The Christian community could learn a lot about living "in but not of" this troubled modernist/post-modernist world, by examining with discernment the criticisms of our culture and dominant beliefs offered by the newer ideologies.

Koyzis presents two superb chapters on alternative Christian social and political thought. If you ever wondered what Citizens for Public Justice means with the principle of "sphere sovereignty" – sometimes referred to as "differentiated responsibility" or "circles of society" – this book is an excellent place to start. Koyzis clearly explains how differentiated responsibility works, what it replaces in dominant secular ideologies, and what its practical down-to-earth uses are. Koyzis also draws deeply from the riches of Roman Catholic social teachings, especially the idea of "subsidiarity." He shows how various traditions of Christian social and political thought can enrich our political lives. Koyzis contrasts these Christian traditions with the modern ideologies, showing how the former are better able to clarify the nature and task of the state in contemporary society.

Clarifying the nature and task of the state from a Christian world and life view is the most outstanding contribution of Political Visions & Illusions. Ironically, Christian social movements are often the least interested in this type of contribution. Activists are often preoccupied, quite correctly, with action instead of theory. Yet too often the lack of solid faith-directed theorising has fragmented the Christian community. Some activists defend the family using Christian principles of "sphere sovereignty" or "subsidiarity," for example, while others attack child poverty using Christian "liberationist" principles. Still others oppose the Iraq war using Christian "peace" principles. What is desperately needed in contemporary Christian political action is an organic bringing together of these diverse strands into a coherent Christian social and political theory. Koyzis is to be thanked for presenting a framework that begins to do so, although much work remains to be done.

Koyzis’ analysis of contemporary ideologies helps make sense of some current events. His explanation of how democracy can easily become a distorting religion, for example, helps explain the spectacle of California’s recent recall election. His critique of the "political spectrum" helpfully clarifies why labelling brothers and sisters in Christ, or for that matter other neighbours, as "leftists" or "rightists" deeply distorts a Christian understanding of life.

Political Visions & Illusions is not an activist handbook setting out detailed policy options or strategic action steps for transforming culture. Nor does it fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, as an inspirational book encouraging Christian social change, as many of us have found in the writings of Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King, or Bishop Tutu. Rather, Koyzis’ book explicitly addresses the much-neglected middle ground. It is designed to help us with the ongoing task of biblically discerning the proper nature and role of the state in relationship to pressing cultural issues. In doing so, Koyzis blesses us with an alternative public justice framework that can make an important contribution to faithfully exercising our citizenship.


* Dr. John Hiemstra is Professor of Political Studies, The King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta. He is also Chair of the board of the Public Justice Resource Centre.


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