The last few decades of American politics have seen a widespread increase in polarization and partisanship. Much of this is explained by the prevalence of ideology in today’s public square. Adherents to opposing worldviews claim an inability to agree on so much as “basic facts” and view each other with suspicion, even open hostility. Moreover, members of the political left and right are held to an inflexible standard by their co-partisans, expected to toe the party line on every issue or else face punishment.
Can Christians participate in this kind of ideological conflict in good faith? Certainly believers may find themselves on one side or the other of the political spectrum. If their political beliefs more or less match up with the stated stances of the Democratic or the Republican Party, they may even become de facto progressives or conservatives. But can they consider themselves true de jure ideologues? The answer has to be no.
This might seem like an overly restrictive stance. In everyday parlance, the word “ideology,” like its cousins “worldview” and “values,” is morally neutral. The assumption is that every person has an ideology and that it’s impossible not to have one. But ideologies are actually uniquely modern phenomena, and historically, they have been highly value-laden. The 19th-century philosopher Destutt de Tracey invented the word “ideology” to describe the system of ideas he designed to transform France into a more rational, enlightened society. By this definition, an ideology is not a neutral worldview, but rather, an active intellectual framework tied to particular social and political ends. As such, English political theorist Maurice Cranston writes that it “has been from its inception a word with a marked emotive content.”
Cranston identifies five essential characteristics of ideology. Ideologies are comprehensive: they profess to explain the entirety of the human experience. They are goal-oriented, proposing a desired state of affairs for society and then encouraging people to work for it. They also teach that progress will entail a struggle, whether against natural forces or other people. Ideologies require commitment and demonstrations of loyalty from those who subscribe to them. Finally, they are intellectual, led by thinkers and academics.
Several of these characteristics are problematic from a Christian perspective. First, only our faith can be truly comprehensive. If we believe that Christ is the Truth, then nothing other than Christianity can accurately account for the entirety of the human experience. Second, the form of commitment that ideologies require is often unconditional, but Jesus tells us in the Gospel to “call no man father on Earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (RSV Matt. 23:9). This means that no one other than God––neither a person nor a system of ideas––should command our full loyalty. Third, the special status of intellectuals within ideologies represents a perverse obsession with rationality and knowledge. The Christian tradition, conversely, holds wisdom to be only one of many virtues, and one that is superseded by humility and charity.
Ideologies should also be concerning for Christians for two broad reasons. For one, they tend to fill the same role in a person’s life as religion. The first four of Cranston’s characteristics of ideology, when disconnected from the word itself, describe just as accurately the function of religious beliefs as they do that of political ones. And if we find our meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in an ideology, then that ideology––and not our faith––will become the guiding force in our lives. Jesus said that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21), and it is important to remember that humans are no more immune to idolatry now than they were in 1st-century Palestine.
Moreover, ideologies tend to produce a reductive and warped view of reality. Adherents to Marxism, for example, begin to only see the world through the lenses of class power and economics. Utilitarians, meanwhile, may lose the ability to recognize motivations outside of rational self-interest. This is unavoidable for any belief system that claims to be comprehensive but in reality is not. The only way it can account for all human experiences is by diminishing some and exaggerating others. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis explains that ideologies “all consist of fragments from [the truth of reality], arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation.” The result is a way of viewing the universe that is wrong not because it is inconsistent, but because it is incomplete––a pattern of circular logic in which the circle is just too small. To quote G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy: “There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you see it in many modern religions”––and he might well have added “ideologies.”
These may seem to be observations about what is obvious. After a century’s worth of ideological conflict and bloodshed, it’s tempting to think we have learned our lesson and already moved on. However, ideology is not confined to the basic “-isms” of the 20th century: communism, fascism, Nazism, and the like. According to Cranston’s definition, any comprehensive political or social belief system––from liberalism to nationalism to progressivism to libertarianism––can be an ideology. As Christians, we might find that our religious principles, personal experiences, and knowledge of the world lead us to agree with one or the other of these systems’ conclusions, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. But we must resist the urge to identify ourselves with them completely, and treat them as independent sources of truth. Jesus Christ is the only authentic source of truth, and if we let anything supersede Him in our hearts and minds, we will go astray.