Book Review: Political Visions & Illusions – David T. Koyzis (2019)

The last few years of politics have been a rollercoaster ride. Since the EU Referendum in the summer of 2016, much of what we thought we knew about British politics has been turned on its head. In last month’s General Election, the Conservatives’ simple “Get Brexit Done” slogan led to their largest majority since 1987, won largely off the back of large swathes of Labour’s traditional pro-Brexit heartlands in the Midlands and the North going blue for the first time in generations. Over the last few years, we have seen an increasing polarisation in British politics. How do Christians navigate a political world where more and more people view their political views as ultimate, and where there is a plethora of different philosophies and ideologies competing for our devotion? David T. Koyzis’ Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies is a really helpful contribution to this discussion. Whilst at times it has an American lens, it nevertheless has much to offer to us here in the UK.

Ideology is idolatrous

Koyzis’s main argument is that all political ideologies are essentially religious and are therefore essentially idolatrous. In the first chapter he argues that everyone approaches politics with a worldview, and each of the main political ideologies likewise offers a particular way of viewing the world. They each ignore God’s sovereignty over His creation, and instead place something else as the ultimate good to be striving towards, and then look for salvation in some other part of the created order.

In the next five chapters, Koyzis summarises five of the main political ideologies in turn: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. He looks at each of their historical and philosophical underpinnings and sets out the particular narratives each of them tells, matching them to the corresponding points they are trying to emulate from the Biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption.

In the second half of the book, Koyzis explores how Christians should engage in a political world filled with so many competing ideologies. He sets out two historical Christian approaches – Catholic Social Teaching and the Reformed model of sphere sovereignty – before ending with a chapter on how the role of the state is to do justice in God’s world, with a final postscript on how the institutional church should engage in politics.

The bad and the good

Koyzis pulls no punches in his critique of each of the ideologies, providing a helpful and balanced assessment of their different merits. He demonstrates that all political ideologies are fundamentally flawed and fail to deliver on their promises because they overemphasise certain aspects of creation and look for salvation in the created order. He also helpfully points out that humans very often fail to follow their preferred ideology through to its logical conclusion or end up with a mismatch of conflicting principles.

However, whilst putting the ideologies in their place, he nevertheless importantly stresses that each of the ideologies does contain kernels of truth that we would be foolish to ignore. For example, liberalism stresses the importance of individual responsibility and human rights, conservatism reminds us of the significance of tradition and historical continuity when thinking about change, nationalism alerts us to the value of communal solidarity among people with a shared citizenship or ethnicity, democratism emphasises how important it is to encourage popular participation in government affairs, and socialism demonstrates the role played by economic class and how political authorities might redress economic inequalities found in society. We cannot, therefore, just ignore all political ideologies; as Christians we should be looking to affirm what is good in them, even if at the same time we make sure we are not taken in by their false promises or their absolutizing tendencies.

A Christian approach to politics

How then should Christians approach politics? Rather than retreating from the world, Koyzis argues that we should affirm “societal pluriformity”. In other words, we should recognise that all of the political ideologies have some good in them, but they need to be kept in their rightful place. We should not subscribe wholesale to any one ideology and this means we should be humble in disagreements with those of a different political persuasion from us, as we recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get involved in politics – far from it. In the UK, if we want to make a difference in politics, this will most likely mean joining a political party, and so we may have to align ourselves with whichever ideology we find most compelling. But we should go into this with our eyes open and remember that it is God who is ultimately sovereign and is the only one who can save us. Engaging in politics is an important pursuit for Christians as we seek justice and the common good, and there is much good that can be done through serving God in the political sphere. However, Koyzis reminds us that we know the end of the story already:

“We do know that the finale will come and that God sees fit to use our own frail efforts for his own purposes and glory. In short, every act of doing justice, whether in the political or other realms, is a signpost to the coming of God’s final reign of justice over the new heaven and the new earth.”[1]

This book is a helpful resource for any Christian who is interested in politics or who is looking to get involved in the public square in the future, and a timely contribution to the discussion of how Christians should engage with political ideologies.

[1] Koyzis, David T (2019) Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (2nd Edition), p.273