Three Responses to “Hopeful Realism”

Published July 24, 2022

The Public Discourse

In “Hopeful Realism,” Covington, McGraw, and Watson provide a salutary, sober, and inspiring vision of what a renewed evangelical social witness might manifest. They rightly point to the need for evangelicals to engage in a resourcement project for natural law. As they put it, “The way forward requires looking back,” and their ongoing project to rehabilitate evangelical social ethics—and particularly evangelical political engagement—promises to build fruitfully on earlier work.

Their brief narrative of how we got to where we are and where we are going from here emphasizes a growing secularity in the culture, a secularity to which evangelicals themselves are not immune. Concomitant with the twentieth-century denouement of natural-law ethics among evangelicals was the supremacy of the so-called “secularization” thesis, which portended the theoretical end of religion in the academy as well as the practical end of religiosity in society. As it turns out, religion—as well as nature herselfis not so easily defeated.

But even in a democratic polity, a decline in the number of religious adherents does not entail a decline in the influence of religion in public life. Religion’s influence on politics, for instance, can remain and even increase if there is increased enthusiasm for political engagement among a small but motivated group of believers. Meaningful religious activism has as much to do with the salience of particular issues as it does with the size of the groups themselves. One consequence of this is that despite there being fewer Christians, evangelical political engagement might well remain an important source of political and social renewal. But to do this it must be reinvigorated on more principled foundations.

Even while the twentieth century was a nadir of evangelical appreciation for natural law, there were important figures who kept the tradition alive. Not least of these was the towering figure of C.S. Lewis, whose treatment of the natural law in The Abolition of Man remains prophetic and instructive for us today. As Lewis rightly observed, an embrace of the natural law is the only realistic option for anyone who desires to resist nihilism. Or as the legal scholar David Caudill has put it, “Natural law, in a sense, is the fallback position for all of us.” It is what makes ethical reasoning itself possible and intelligible. For evangelicals, natural law ought to represent not only a default or fallback position, but as well the ground from which faithful public witness and ethical practice springs.

Natural law is not only about what ought to be done, but as Covington, McGraw, and Watson rightly contend, it also has much to say about how to do it. The evangelical embrace of natural law must continue to mature, and “hopeful realism” is a meaningful step forward in this respect. Natural law is more often the beginning of moral reasoning than its end, even as evangelicals in the early twenty-first century have been so often tempted to invoke “the natural law” as a kind of ultimate defeater for any and all opposing views. Much more remains to be said and done, but Covington, McGraw, and Watson have provided us an important service in articulating the necessary starting point for that critically important ongoing work.

Bradford Littlejohn

As a fellow Augustinian and a fellow evangelical natural lawyer, I applaud the authors’ retrieval of the tradition they call “hopeful realism” in their attempt to renew and redirect evangelical politics today. The authors have offered an excellent summary of the basic outlines of an Augustinian political tradition, the natural law framework that long provided a consensus for Christian political action, and four practical political principles that arise from this tradition; throughout, I found myself most often nodding along in cheerful agreement.

However, every text has a subtext, and that subtext usually includes an implicit target or opponent. Although it can be perilous to speculate on authorial motives, one suspects that these authors have in their sights the growing popularity of various forms of “postliberalism,” particularly on the Right of American and European politics. Regardless, it is helpful to ask just how much a Christian “postliberal” might dissent from the political vision sketched in this essay. For the most part, I suspect, the answer is “very little.” If the essay’s burden is to show that politics is the art of the possible, seeking provisional moral goods within an irreducibly plural and yet not hopelessly fragmented society, and disclaiming utopian projects of political perfectionism, most thoughtful Christian postliberals would cheerfully agree. They would disagree, however, in at least two areas.

First, they would wonder whether the “liberal democracy” described in this piece bears much relation to either the philosophy or practice of late modern Western politics. At the philosophical level, the authors’ vision seems to diverge from classical liberalism in its essentially pre-liberal vision of politics as concerned with the pursuit and implementation of shared goods—variously characterized as “common political goods,” “shared creational goods,” “right ordering of these goods,” etc. As a political philosophy, however, classical liberalism has distinguished itself by its aspiration to use political power merely to carve out a negative space within which individuals can pursue private goods; the political task, on this account, is merely to restrain evil and not to cultivate shared moral goods—an idea that a host of classical liberal thinkers shudder at as implicitly totalitarian.

To be sure, no liberal is actually consistent with this philosophy, because it is inhuman and unsustainable. Accordingly, most liberal politics in practice does aim at the positive promotion of certain visions of the good, but increasingly, these visions are framed not in terms of the unitary natural law order of “right” that the authors of this essay take for granted, but in terms of a chaotic, amoral, and agonistic struggle of individual “rights.” The only shared good that lies behind these fragmentary rights claims is an ideal of freedom as radical autonomy and self-definition. This is the reality of the political order we currently inhabit, and it bears little relation to the tranquil, rational, and incrementalist “liberal democracy” that the authors suggest to be the background condition for evangelical politics today.

Second, a postliberal would be quick to detect some slippage in the authors’ statements about the most important common political good that must guide any functional society: its religious vision. Augustine himself, to whom the authors look for inspiration, famously claimed in The City of God that “there can be no true justice where God is not given his due.” Accordingly, it has been the consensus view of preliberal politics (reasserted today by postliberals) that no politics can be religiously neutral, and a Christian politics must actively promote Christian faith and practice. The authors, however, slip casually into liberal nostrums on this subject without clear argumentation or clarification of terms.

Consider these sentences:

More prescriptively, it means that efforts to eradicate such [religious] differences are bound to go astray. At minimum, this principle limits state establishments of religion—refusing to collapse the covenant community with the political community—and protects citizens’ liberty of religious conscience and practice. The divergent ultimate loves within a commonwealth will only be finally addressed at the Last Day, not in the next election or court decision. Protecting this plurality is a key political good.

The authors make a leap from the fact that religious differences cannot be eradicated this side of the eschaton (which is incontestable) to the assertion that this plurality is a “key political good” that should be actively protected. Imagine this syllogism applied to a Second Table rather than First Table issue: “efforts to eradicate hate and murder from human society are bound to fail this side of the eschaton. This principle protects citizens’ liberty to hold grudges and enact vengeance, by violence if necessary. Protecting such space for vigilantism is a key political good.”

Or consider these sentences:

There is good biblical and natural warrant for thinking that the state does not have primary responsibility for the good of religion, for example. Rather, we might say it has a negative responsibility generally not to interfere in religious practices or beliefs, per the first principle of confessional plurality and religious liberty.

Here, an even greater leap is made, from the principle that the state does not have primary responsibility for promoting religion, to the conclusion that its role must be strictly negative. Is it not possible to suggest (as the authors do with education, for instance), that even as other agencies may have a leading role in pursuit of a particular good, the state may nonetheless have a secondary yet still positive role?

Of course, the point here is not to repristinate a pre-modern confessional state, much less to hunt down idolators by the sword. There are very good reasons, from within the “hopeful realist” tradition that the authors draw upon, for placing careful limits on the state’s role in enforcing the First Table of the Decalogue. But this tradition still believed unanimously that the state had such a duty, one that was too important to ignore, even if it had to be handled with great caution. On this critical issue, the authors of this essay leave us little guidance. And to that extent, they should not be surprised if their attempt to reinvigorate evangelical enthusiasm for the practice of liberal democracy meets with a somewhat skeptical reception.

Andrew T. Walker

[I]t is not the honors or power of this life we should covet, since all things under the sun are vanity, but we should aim at using our position and influence, if these have been honorably attained, for the welfare of those who are under us…

—Augustine, City of God, 19.19

Let me state my wholehearted appreciation for what Bryan McGraw, Jesse Covington, and Micah Watson have set forth in their proposal for a “Hopeful Realism” natural law school of thought. As someone engaged in the rehabilitation of natural law among Protestant evangelicals, I find common cause with their underlying proposal. Moreover, to propose a natural law paradigm that finds concord in this age, rather than one we’d prefer to occupy, should be applauded for its chastened outlook. In this regard, their proposal aligns with my own preference to locate a doctrine of the natural law within the Noahic Covenant, which furnishes a post-fall creation ethic with moral thresholds necessary for posterity’s sake. The task in our moment is to forge a theo-political vision that resists either triumphalism or despair. “Hopeful Realism” accomplishes it.

One area for further development in their proposal is a more explicit basis for how their proposal is “evangelical.” Here I see two options to move forward: To recognize both a theory of evangelical enactment and evangelical origin.

In the quote above, Augustine sets forth a positive vision for why Christians should seek to exert influence within a society. This vision can guide us to an understanding of evangelical enactment. As Augustine says, we should not seek power or influence for power or influence’s own sake. But because Christians have knowledge about the world and its attendant goods, one way we can tell the truth is to see the positive good that can come from Christians’ using the levers of influence for the benefit of all. A Christian political ethic would not seek its own hegemonic dominance or privilege, but would seek to expose and point to the ultimate good using penultimate means. A justly ordered political society open to God’s created order is more apt to be redeemed.

Sadly, any pronouncement about the need to recognize objective goods will be viewed as a form of moral imposition by adherents of expressive individualism. If this is the case, it should lead us to be forthright about where our marching orders come from—to be more explicit that the basis of moral goods is not located in the domain of “nature” alone, but ultimately, in Christ. This is where an evangelical origin can be established. Natural law is a signpost that lets us use penultimate goods in relationship to their ultimate reference point in Christology.

The natural law reflects the divine reason of the Logos, Jesus Christ (John 1:3; Col. 1:15-20). Christians must have a concern for the natural law because we are called to love Jesus Christ, who is the origin and terminus of the natural law. He is truth (John 14:6) who sets humanity free to pursue communion with him (John 8:32). He testifies to the enduring authority and intelligibility of creation order (Matt. 19:4-6). He is reason, the rationale for reason, and reason personified. In this, Christ is the ratio, ratio legis, and ratione personae of the natural law. Christ as the ratio of the natural law means he is the basis of reason itself. To say Christ is the ratio legis of the natural law means He is “the logical element of the law, or the purpose that animated the legislator in the issuance of the law.” Christ’s own glory is the reason any such law exists. As the ratione personae, in contrast to traditional expressions of natural law theory that depict law as an impersonal “ordinance of reason” or “Tao,” an evangelical account of natural law sees the logic and instantiation of the natural law as inextricably bound with God’s plan to sum up all things, even the principles of sound moral reasoning, in the person, Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He is also executive editor of the Journal of Religion, Culture & Democracy, and an associate director at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University and the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Photo by Worshae on Unsplash

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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