The politics of left and right have caused many in recent years to jeer “good riddance” to any candidate willing to step up to a mic. Our dominant ideological configurations seem to be malignancies that, for the sake of hope itself, must be removed.
Left and right may be sick. But the solution isn’t to kill them off. Rather, it’s to infuse them with life—ideological life.
Ideology, the level of political thought that bridges ideas to our everyday world, is the sinewy fibre of democracy. By it, the body politic actually manages to move, however haltingly, toward the ideals to which its diverse, interconnected citizens aspire. And so, serious efforts for lasting change must address the defining issues of the day in systemically sophisticated, politically shrewd, historically informed ways. Finance reform, health care, human rights, environmental regulation: all require far more than high-minded good will. They require ideological vision and prescription—that which, for all their comic dysfunction, the left and right exist to deliver.
Still, given the dimensions of the present dysfunction, the temptation to try an analytic end-around is high—to skirt ideology in the name of higher vision, broader aims, and wider appeal. Andy Crouch’s recent book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, in fact, does so with intelligence and flair. In chapter after lively chapter, Crouch advances a vision of power rooted in biblical understanding and branching out fruitfully into the everyday air we breathe. Vivid insight and wise instruction about an array of political concerns—from human trafficking to imperial privilege—steadily flow, framed with a hope and vision centred on a kingdom coming with true force now. It is a book that moved me deeply, that renewed me deeply.
But for a book about power in the present age, it has surprisingly little truck with ideology. What we do not receive from it is the kind of judgment, or social criticism, that stems from a close reading of the particular, historical ways power has been imagined and has played itself out within the body politic. Nor do we learn in any direct way how the particular political traditions that have shaped both our circumstance and our reading of it might be judged within the understanding of power Crouch develops. Crouch’s primary aim is instead worldview maintenance and construction, an endeavour that is truly foundational. But the value of a worldview is established at the ideological level, even as the legitimacy of the ideology is buttressed at the worldview level. It’s the ideological reading that provides the bite in any social analysis. It’s the coherence of the worldview that gives it depth. Both, in complementary fashion, are required.
Perhaps the arena of social thought that most obviously separates the level of ideology and more general worldview construction is political economy: how wealth and health are created and spread to the community. Much widely read evangelical social thought of recent decades has succeeded precisely because, by centring on worldview and neglecting ideology, it was able to avoid political economy. In this sense, Playing God fits well within the lineage of the work of Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Henry Blamires, Os Guinness, and others who, for perhaps wise and worthy reasons, kept the focus of the reader mainly on deep structures of reality and perception when describing life in liberal democracies. And of course it is hard to argue against choosing not to confuse God, Christian faith, and the work of the kingdom with an inevitably more reductive ideology (however “Christian” we may believe it to be). This is a useful and fruitful literature.
And yet human beings have bodies—arguably, are bodies. How bodies are fed and cared for—personally, systemically, institutionally—must at some point become a point of central ethical concern for Christians. And so the realm of political economy must not simply be broached: it must be embraced, even at the risk of disabling disagreement, if Christians are to have the effect in the world that Henry, Schaeffer, Guinness, Crouch, and others have so vigorously called for. Avoiding questions of political economy invites gnosticism, a spiritualized depiction of reality that fails to grasp the levels at which the powers and principalities of the age do their everyday work—and damage.
To elide the ideological is to risk rendering one’s work irrelevant by simply making it easy for the reader to nod in agreement and then move on, leaving the world as it was before. If we wish to change the world, we’re left—gratefully—with ideology.