Many public figures say religion should have no voice in politics, but then quote the Bible, the Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita to back up their policies. Religion does matter in politics, and it can provide a transformative vision for the future of all.
The Church of England recently addressed a letter to U.K. voters laying out a new public strategy that may surprise both Republicans and Democrats—actually advocating for the common good, and giving individuals and smaller groups more control over their own lives. The letter “is about building a vision of a better kind of world, a better society and better politics.”
Unlike modern politics—excessively targeted to small groups of “swing voters”—the church’s vision aims at the true common good. In order to promote the good of all, politicians and voters should turn to the idea of virtue—the art of being a good person and promoting true community.
Central to this effort are voluntary associations (like churches, rotary clubs, and local charities) and the principle of subsidiarity—local control and local solutions for local issues. Big government’s focus on the individual has weakened social groups at the expense of our ability to live good lives in solid communities.
[pq]A robust civic society would not just boost the economy but also lead to true human flourishing.[/pq]
“Virtues are nourished, not by atomized individualism, but in strong communities which relate honestly and respectfully to other groups and communities which make up this nation,” the bishops wrote. The smaller organizations which strengthen communities must be informal and independent, “intermediate institutions a lot bigger than the family but far smaller than the state.”
Organizations like parish churches and rotary clubs should work in tandem and in tension with each other, to promote the good of a community. “A thriving society needs many intermediate institutions, including those who disagree with each other and pursue incompatible goals,” the letter explains. “A culture in good order needs that kind of diversity and capacity to argue about what makes a good society.”
A robust culture like this would require a much smaller and less regulatory government. More intermediate institutions would restore individuals’ trust in one another and society as a whole. Without them, government has needed to provide a heavier hand.
“Because a society centered on individuals finds trust difficult,” the letter explains, “laws, regulations, and contracts have entered into many areas of life that we once governed by shared understandings of ethics and wisdom.” This intrusion of law and regulation leads to anxiety about the rules, which prevents people from acting freely, sensibly, or wisely, even in areas without official regulation.
Excessive regulations also carry an economic cost. While the letter does not mention it, these restrictions weaken the ability of entrepreneurs to compete with established businesses—holding back innovation in order to serve those who have already achieved great wealth.
In contrast, when people work together in a common culture, “it becomes possible to trust in their shared wisdom and to avoid assuming that everyone is a fool or a knave who must be constrained by regulations and protocols.”
Such regulations also carry a price tag—which takes the form of higher taxes or mounting deficits. The bishops of the Church of England condemn indebtedness and encourage ways to reduce it.
“It is game-playing to claim that anyone who cares about the impact of austerity on the most vulnerable members of society is, by definition, careless about the extent of national indebtedness. The mirror image of that view is equally trivializing: a concern to reduce indebtedness need not necessitate grinding the faces of the poor.” In this way, the bishops propose reducing government debt without hurting the poor.
This letter stresses that the scaling back of government welfare—often known as “austerity”—needs to be fair, giving priority to the vulnerable, promoting global aid, and providing security for future generations. Government need not care for the poor if charitable organizations like churches and local charities can take over the welfare programs which cost taxpayers so much and generate so much debt.
The Church of England’s bishops encourage this non-state civic society because “governments will always tend to prefer structures which accumulate more power to themselves—and oppositions will collude with this in the hope that their turn in power will come—leaving ordinary people increasingly powerless.”
The idea that we as individuals are dependent on one another, rooted in community, and needing to give and receive aid, flows throughout the letter. It encourages people to take responsibility for each other and serve one another without the intervention of the government.
This view of a robust civic society would not just boost the economy but also lead to true human flourishing. In community with minimal government, each person matters and has the power to change the world for the better.