A few years ago, a U.S. church exercised church discipline and excommunicated a member. In turn, that former member sued the church. Does the fact that the lawsuit didn't just get laughed out of court say something about the way that the church's differentiated responsibility has been compromised?

Oh, yes. That's even more the case in Canada than in the United States, which is surprising because Canada has always had the reputation of being a more conservative country. There's a conception that religious freedom belongs to individuals. If a community gets in the way, then presumably the individual is within his or her rights to take the matter to the court. If somebody is put under discipline for having embraced a lifestyle that falls outside of biblical understanding, then the assumption under the liberal framework is that the community is violating the individual's right to freedom of religion.

But of course, a religion, in and of itself, is communal. So liberalism is trivializing religion. It becomes simply a matter of personal choice. The prochoice philosophy, which undergirds one whole side of the abortion controversy, has come to be extended into all sorts of areas. Any kind of communal obligations that are not reducible to personal choice come to be seen as oppressive.

In the abortion controversy, both sides talk about rights: the right to life of the unborn baby versus the woman's right to choose. Isn't this the thought framework of classical liberalism? To be true to a Christian worldview, should prolife advocates be using a different kind of rhetoric?

Yes. The whole of political discourse has been reduced to rights talk. And if you can somehow take refuge behinds rights, then that presumably trumps all other considerations. Rights talk has only served to polarize further the two sides on the abortion issue.

If at least one side were to adopt a different kind of language, it might lessen the distance. For example, you could talk more about the common good. Is it in the common good for society to countenance the large scale ending of life in the womb?

If you would start asking that question, people might look at it in a different way because they would come to realize that there are all sorts of other considerations: There are economic considerations—though we must never reduce life issues to economics. There are also considerations about the way that the vulnerable, in general, the old, the infirm, are treated. In Scripture, there are all sorts of commands about protecting the vulnerable. And there's a real sense, not so much that the rights of the vulnerable are being violated, but that by abusing of the vulnerable, we abuse God himself.

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That makes for a society that's cheapened human life, a me-centered society, a society where people are concerned only with getting what they can. And in that kind of society, the powerful are always going to end up winning.

Especially in the Old Testament, there's a concern to ensure that the society develops in a balanced way and that those who are on the bottom rung of society will be able to defend themselves. That involves rights, but it can't simply be reduced to rights.

The "common good" approach also includes public health questions.

Yes, when you follow the abortion controversy, it certainly looks as though there's an attempt by one side to cover up a lot of the negative side effects.

Is the politics of family values a sign that the place of the family is an institution in American society has atrophied? Or perhaps that other institutions, such as state schools or even the entertainment industry, have muscled in on the family territory?

Even though the family is under siege, it does not atrophy as easily as people tend to think it will. The family is anchored in something that is much stronger than a mere human tradition. It's creational. It is part of universal human experience from the beginning of time. The family is culturally variable, but it always reasserts itself.

In The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama argued that after the social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, societies seemed to be reknitting themselves. Despite the impact of sin in human society, societies tend to bounce back. The family bounces back as well. Marriage bounces back.

So you may say that the family has been eroded, that it's under siege, but it is probably more resilient than people who speak about family values tend to assume.

The Bush Administration has recently earmarked funds for encouraging marriage among the poor. Certain critics have cried outrage, that this is privileging one form of family over another form of family. In your theory of "differentiated responsibility," is it legitimate for the federal government to encourage marriage in that way?

I have no difficulty with that. In the fifth stage of liberalism—what I call the "choice enhancement" stage—the state is supposed to be neutral with respect to lifestyle choices. There is an assumption that privileging one lifestyle is somehow a violation of the equality rights of the individuals. But even if this form of liberalism claims a benign neutrality towards different lifestyle choices, those lifestyle choices still have very different consequences. That's something that those people adhering to the choice-enhancement state are unwilling to see.

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So when those choices have a deleterious effect on society, for example through higher rates of illegitimacy in the inner cities, the state has to somehow expand itself to compensate for those ill effects. Certain kinds of choices that people make are better than others, and it is within the state's prerogative for doing justice to be able to make those kinds of judgments and to embody them in law.

You talk about Marx's false hope that a brief revolution would bring in the classless society. Of course, that never happened. Is there an analogy to the experience of the Moral Majority, which thought it had a shot at some quick legislative reforms, but which didn't pan out?

I think there is a similarity to the Marxists' conceit, that somehow all it takes is one victory, whether it's the legal entrenchment of the rights of the unborn, for example, that as soon as that legal victory is won, then abortion will be put an end to.

When the 18th Amendment was adopted in the United States, there were many people—including evangelist Billy Sunday—who believed that because of Prohibition, the poverty in the inner cities was going to go away, that wife beating and a host of other social ills were going to evaporate, simply because booze had been outlawed.

There is a tendency on the part of political activism to assume that adopting a particular reform is somehow going to end up making everything much better than it has been. It's a kind of revolutionary conceit that is common among Christians on the left and the right. It's kind of a false eschatology.

This is not to say that Christians shouldn't be actively seeking legislative change?

Oh, absolutely not. But I think they need to be more modest in their expectations of what that will bring about.

Along with the legal fight against abortion, we've seen crisis pregnancy centers develop. Along with concerns legal skirmishes over problems in state schools, we've seen a charter school movement develop and a proliferation of Christian schools and home schooling. All of these seem to be attempts to strengthen mediating institutions.

Especially since the collapse of communism in 1989 and 1991, there's been an emphasis on what many people call civil society. People are working on their own initiative to solve these sorts of problems, and they're not depending on the state for everything.

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Crisis pregnancy centers are a potent way to deal with the abortion issue. And Christians have been at the forefront of that. What I said before about many Christians adopting a kind of utopian expectation about what can happen through politics is in some ways a caricature because Christians have been doing much more in the way of grassroots efforts.

Related Elsewhere

Political Visions & Illusions by David Koyzis is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. See also David Neff's extended review of the book.

Political Visions & Illusions is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.

InterVarsity Press has more information on the book, including excerpts of the preface and introduction.

Koyzis runs a weblog called "Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist."

Redeemer University College's website has both professional and personal pages for Koyzis.

Earlier Editor's Bookshelf selections can be found here.

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns: