Christian Century Foundation Colloquium

In conversation with Bishop James Armstrong, President, National Council of Churches

I am honored to be here today, and I would like to begin by thanking the Christian Century Lecture Committee and especially its chairman, my old friend Dr. Bill Welch, for extending me the invitation to participate. I am also grateful to another friend, Dr. Hubert Locke, for his good and hard work as moderator today.

Let me define my position here today, very briefly. I speak for no institution and no person except myself. The “self” I bring to this dialogue is that of a Roman Catholic, trained in the discipline of the Church’s theology and once afforded the opportunity to teach it, who has, for the past six years, worked in the public policy arena on what I consider to be the central moral and political issue of our time, the problem of war and the related problem of the defense of democracy in a nuclear age. Those are the experiences and the background that I will try to bring to bear on our conversation.

I. Since it is Lent, and since the main thrust of my remarks will be critical, I think I’d better begin with the good news. And on the question “How healthy is the Church’s social witness?” there is, in fact, some good news to report.


First, and most importantly, there is good news in that the primary question for our attention has shifted, definitively. We are no longer in a period when the primary question is if the Church should be engaged in the public policy arena. From Moral Majoritarians to liberation theologians, and at virtually all points on the spectrum in between, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The real issue has changed. It is no longer “Are we mixing religion and politics?” The pertinent questions today have to do with the standards and values by which the Church’s necessary engagement in the public policy arena is to be defined and carried out. The pertinent questions today have to do, in other words, with the issues “What politics?” or “Whose politics?”

The second piece of good news to report is that the social witness of the Church has become a thoroughly ecumenical task. The ecumenical movement has had its fits and starts, as with anything else constructed by human hands, but I regard it as a great grace, as do, I think, the overwhelming majority of American Christians. Ecumenism has made remarkable strides in the past twenty years, both within American Protestantism and between the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican traditions and my own Roman Catholic Church. One expression of this welcome ecumenism has been in the social witness of the churches. Here, too, the pertinent question for today seems not whether, but how: again, by what standards and values shall we engage with the public policy arena as an ecumenical Church?

II. Before I get into my critical remarks about the health of the Church’s social witness, I’d like to make one last preliminary observation: and that is that we are in a profoundly important time of transition in the social and political activity of American Christianity. One example of this transitional character of our time is how the language that we used to find so helpful in orienting ourselves just isn’t working anymore. What do you call an evangelical Protestant, who believes deeply in the inerrancy of the Bible and the experience of a personal conversion to Jesus Christ — and whose office wall is decorated with a Sandinista poster? Is he or she a liberal? A conservative? What do you call a Catholic theologian, steeped in the theology of Vatican II, who dissents from the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae and writes even today about the dangers of clericalism in the Church — and whose most recent work is in praise of the values of democratic capitalism? Is he or she a liberal? A conservative? My point is really simple: the old terms of reference don’t work anymore and we should abandon them, even if the New York Times and Newsweek and some well-known theological journals insist on maintaining the old stereotypes. My deeper point here is that the old identifiers no longer identify because, as I suggested a moment ago, the terms of the argument have shifted decisively.

III. Now, to the critique. The central issues I want to raise do not have to do with who is giving money to whom for what. Those are important questions. But they are derivative. Funding patterns in the Church, like petition- endorsements and other political statements, are reflections of prior judgments. Those judgments are reflective of certain value choices. It’s at this most fundamental level of the discourse that I want to operate today.

There are six problems I would like to highlight.

We might call the first problem the “problem of not paying sufficient attention to Max Weber,” and particularly to Weber’s distinction between an “ethics of responsibility” and an “ethics of absolute ends.” Another way to put this is to distinguish between the “politics of eternity” and the “politics of this world.”

Both of these types of ethical thinking are important. The “ethics of absolute ends” or the “politics of eternity” stands in judgment against all the works of our hands, including our social and political works. It reminds us that the creation of the Kingdom of God is God’s final responsibility, not ours. It warns us against what I consider the great sin of our age, the absolutizing of the political. The “ethics of absolute ends” is “social witness” in the precise sense of the term.

As I say, it is badly needed. It is also abused, traduced, and warped when it is made the vehicle for prudential political judgments that would better reflect what Weber called the “ethics of responsibility,” or what I called “the politics of this world.” This politics and this ethics also knows that it stands under judgment. But it recognizes, at the same time, that this is a contingent world where choices must be made, not usually between the absolutely right and the absolutely wrong, but between the marginally good, the marginally bad, and the occasionally better. An ethics of responsibility understands that politics in this world is about compromise, accommodation, and getting the better deal that is possible rather than trying for the best deal that is probably impossible.

Both of these kinds of ethical thinking are important in the Church. The Mennonite community stands as perhaps the clearest exemplar of the “ethics of absolute ends.” The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions more often reflect the “ethics of responsibility.” I say both are important, but they must not be confused. We need a Christian witness that stands over against society and calls it to judgment according to the standards of eternity. But such a witness, having been offered, cannot then turn around and prescribe in the prudential political order, where the canons of ethical reasoning are different. Just as we reject any politician of this world who would raise himself or herself to an absolute standard or position, so we ought to reject as inappropriate (at best) and dangerous (at worst) a witness ethics that then tries to impose its prescriptions in the prudential order. This is not, let me repeat again, a call for the abandonment of Christian witness. It is precisely a call to preserve it in its necessary form.

This problem of confusing the two types of ethics Weber identified, shows up time and again in the Churches today. Which leads to my other examples.

The example closest to my heart is the problem of war and peace. Here, the central problem. I see is a very unfortunate tendency on the part of religious leaders to accept a survivalist definition of our dilemma, by following, for instance, the analysis of Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth. The Methodist social ethician at Notre Dame, Stanley Hauerwas — one of the seminal minds in the Church today — put this problem at its sharpest at the American Academy of Religion meetings in New York this past year, when he said that “For Christians, it is more important to be faithful to God than to survive.” What, one asks, is so surprising about that statement? What is so surprising, and so refreshing, is that one rarely hears it from religious leaders addressing the problem of war and peace today. We hear a lot about species survival, in Schell’s terms. This is, let me put it flatly, a pagan theme. It has nothing to do with a Church which traces its founding from the blood of Christ on the Cross, and which celebrates its martyrs as the seeds of its growth. What would a Dietrich Bonhoeffer say to the proposition that “survival” was the ultimate value?

I raise this problem, not to lessen our sense of the peril in which we stand, but to assert that that peril -will not be adequately confronted by an anti-politics of fear, based on an ethic of survival. The philosopher Sidney Hook got this quite right when he noted that the person who places survival at the top of their list of values is the person who has told you that there is nothing that they will not betray.

We need a Christian social witness, and a thinking through of the problem of war and the requirements of peace with liberty and justice, that rejects survivalism and reaffirms the transcendent value and purpose of the individual human being, and human history.

Weber’s distinction is equally useful in sorting out our problematic approach to human rights issues. The distinction, so much controverted, between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes seems to me both essential, and insufficient. It is essential, because people who don’t recognize the difference between a regime that imprisons you for challenging its politics and a regime that shoots you for baptizing a child are not very likely to do useful work on human rights. It is insufficient, as a basis for U.S. foreign policy, and for the Churches’ engagement with human rights issues. We should stand squarely against the abuse of persons, no matter which government is the perpetrator. This should be especially true of religious persecution.

The “ethics of responsibility” enters in here when we move from the abstract question “Should we oppose all abuses of persons, no matter what the ideological coloration of the regime?” (to which the answer is surely “yes”), to the question of how we best foster regimes less likely to commit such abuses. What to do, for example, in an El Salvador or a Guatemala? Or a South Africa? Or a South Korea? My short answer is that, in these authoritarian regimes, the most likely remedy for human rights abuses is the development of functioning democratic governments. The history of revolutions in this century does not give me much hope that, to turn Mao on his head, “Democracy comes out of the barrel of a gun.” It seems to me that a Church genuinely seeking to protect basic human rights would be actively promoting the cause of pluralist democracy. And yet today, we see fellow-Christians lined up with anti-democratic forces of the Left, as their grandfathers lined up with antidemocratic forces of the Right. This is an improvement? Not in my view.

Which leads to my fourth criticism: we value democracy too little, despite the lip service we pay to it. This lack of esteem is expressed in various ways: by people who say there must be bread before freedom (a statement always made by those who have both, and rarely if ever by those who have neither). It also shows up when Church leaders say “We have to be critical of all governments.” That is a correct statement. But it is an incomplete statement.

Of course we criticize all the principalities and powers in light of the Gospel. But, if we have decided to enter the prudential order and change things there, we have a responsibility to discriminate. Some governments are infinitely worse than others. Some governments are the bearers, despite their manifold faults, of a tradition of human freedom. Others, despite their occasional accomplishments, are the bearers of a tradition of tyranny. It seems quite clear to me on which side of that great divide — freedom or tyranny — we should line up. The divide does not have to do, in the final analysis, with capitalism vs. socialism. It does have to do with democracy vs. communism. Those who find this a “McCarthyite” distinction are welcome to do so, but they will permit me to say that they are seriously mistaken.

A last point here: the question of democracy and the question of peace are directly connected. Democratic processes and institutions are the best available means of resolving conflict without the mass violence of war. This will remain a world of conflict; that, at least, is how I interpret the doctrine of original sin. Peacemaking, in this world, must therefore mean developing legal and political structures to settle conflict. That is what democracy is about. The advance of democracy is the advance of peace. We need a Christian social witness that explicitly makes this connection, and does so publicly — by both affirming democracy and by vigorously condemning tyranny.

The question of Marxism and the Christian Churches’ relations to Marxist regimes connects here. I support a Christian-Marxist dialogue. I have no doubt that we will be living in a world with Marxist regimes for as long as I am alive — and this despite their miserable record of failure — and thus we will have to find a way to live with them in peace while working for their liberation. The critical point I wish to raise is, again, at the conceptual level. It has to do with the “compatibility” of Christianity and Marxism that is now widely proclaimed, especially in Latin America. This may possibly be true if we are talking about Marx the sociologist. It is surely not true if we are talking about Marx the political philosopher. Marx’s materialism (even when modified by the writings of the “early” Marx) does not seem to me compatible with Christianity’s view of a transcendent source to human life. Marx’s view of the human, his view of the dynamics of social change, and the political “ethics” that Lenin drew out of Marxism all seem to me to be at cross- purposes with Christian understandings. It is worth noting that Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish philosopher who is perhaps the world’s leading historian of Marxist thought today, has come to a similar conclusion — and after many years as a convinced Marxist.

Finally, it seems to me that in our social thought and action, we have been too little attentive to empirical evidence, and too much devoted to abstract theory. This is especially true when we discuss political economy, here and abroad. Because of a predisposition to minimize the value of market economies, we have a tendency to miss what happens when state-centered economies go awry. Tanzania, which is still extolled by some religious leaders, is a case in point. The country is an economic basket case, and it doesn’t do very well by civil rights or political liberties either. Its leader, a devout Catholic, is undoubtedly a man who intends well. His policies, particularly the forced collectivization of agriculture, have turned a country that could be the breadbasket of East Africa into a beggar nation. What works, in cases like this and within a scheme of prior human rights, is surely more important than rigid adherence to theory.

IV. The root of these, and other, problems with the Church’s social witness is a point on which we all must examine conscience during these next forty days— and beyond. May I propose a question for all our examinations of conscience? Do we really believe in the truth of Christianity, or are we so unsure of that truth, so uncertain of our capacity to preach it in a “secularized” society, that we settle for making ourselves, and our faith, “useful?” And do we not do that, make ourselves “useful,” in terms drawn from one current of thought in the political culture, rather than from our own tradition? Who sets the agenda, the world or the Church? If we say that the world sets the agenda for the Church, I cannot see how we can maintain the integrity and independence of Christian social witness and Christian social action. The Church has its own agenda, whose concrete expressions in the public policy arena are to be worked out in a respectful dialogue with “the world.” But let us examine ourselves on this fundamental point; do we have a mature, humble confidence in our faith that allows us to articulate and act on a specifically ecclesial agenda? Or have we sold our souls for a mess of porridge?

V. Perhaps the best way to summarize all of this — and to bring it back to my earlier point about the re-shuffling of the deck (if I may be permitted the analogy while surrounded by so many distinguished Methodists) that is going on in the Christian Churches today — is to define myself briefly. I am a social conservative, a political liberal, and a Christian radical. Which means, on the social side, that I think the family, the neighborhood, the voluntary association, and other “mediating structures” are crucial to the formation of human society, and democratic policy, and deserve the active support of the Church. On the political side, it means that I favor the broadest possible scope for liberty, and the broadest possible inclusion of people in the political process — an agenda that, again, I would hope the Church would support. Finally, it means that my fundamental commitment is to God, and to Jesus Christ, and to a transcendent revelation that stands in judgment on all our works, theological and political, while at the same time calling us Home.

This is, perhaps, an odd mix. But I hope it is a faithful one.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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