June 14, 2004


On One Man's Nightstand (v1. n6) (Rodney Clapp [posted : Nov. 30, 2001, Theology Books)

This month I call to your attention three books in political science and/or American history. The first is a profoundly suggestive volume by Robert Kraynak, a political scientist at Colgate University. Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (University of Notre Dame Press) is a remarkably lucid examination of the limitations of modern, liberal democracy. Kraynak, a committed Catholic, reminds us in detail that most of the orthodox Christian tradition has approached political and governmental systems prudentially--careful never to baptize any one system as the City of God arrived on earth, but ready to say that one or more might nearest approximate, in its time and place, the sort of peaceful order Christians can support. Following this line, Kraynak runs against the grain of most modern theologians and Christian political scientists, and will not say liberal democracy is the absolute best form of polity known to humanity. I have never read a more pointed and powerful Christian critique of modern democratic human rights, and the book is profoundly suggestive on many more topics. There's something here for everyone to disagree with (I, for instance, cannot go with Kraynak's reassertion of gender hierarchy, and wish he were more insightful on the pitfalls of Niebuhrian realism), but the book has all the earmarks of seminality. Kraynak is one of an emerging breed of Christian political scientists who insist on basing politics on explicit, orthodox Christian grounds. Who could have imagined it even ten years ago?

You may not agree with much of it, certainly not all, but it will engage your mind.

-ESSAY: Categorical Imperatives Impair Christianity in Culture (Douglas A. Ollivant, July/August 2003, Religion & Liberty)

In his must-read Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert Kraynak introduces us to the concept of “Kantian Christianity.” Kraynak claims that the “Kantian influence on modern Christianity is … deep and pervasive.” What he means is that Christian thinkers no longer speak about culture and politics in terms of the more enduring principles of moral virtue, law, and the common good but now focus on social justice, understood as solely the immediate, material rights and dignity of the human person. Moreover, they have drastically reduced the role of prudence in politics accepted under the historical Christian anthropological understanding, which has recognized a variety of political regimes depending on the circumstances. This historical understanding also acknowledged the harsh realities of the political realm in a fallen (albeit redeemed) world, and the difficulties and agonies involved in fashioning a just or moral response to contingent events. Instead of prudential judgments, Kraynak maintains that we now hear only moralistic pronouncements about peace and justice that severely limit the range of (legitimately recognized) political options.

Kraynak maintains that Kantian Christianity has seeped into the language of contemporary Christians even though contemporary Christians do not seem to have a full understanding of the underlying anthropology that comes with it. The rights and dignity of each person replaces moral and theological virtues—rational and spiritual perfection. Further, an emphasis on personal autonomy or personal identity diminishes long-established Christian teachings about the dependence of the Creature on the Creator, original sin, grace, and a natural law through which human beings may share or “participate” in eternal law.

Following Kraynak, it is clear to see that in our public life and culture, this language of rights and dignity tends to lead to absolutes in morality, or “categorical imperatives.” Now, Christianity has no problem with moral absolutes (and in fact dictates several), provided they are properly stated. But a proper statement of a moral absolute is made difficult by the anthropology lingering in Kant’s legacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2004 12:47 PM

Question for Professor Kraynak: If the Church orders you to be silent, will you shut up?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 14, 2004 5:37 PM