Theology deadlock

One of the things I see as I watch the slow-motion train wreck that is the budget deadlock in Congress is a battle between two competing theologies.

These two competing theologies have, above all, differing notions of sin and salvation (soteriology):

On the one side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside primarily in individual humans. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily the responsibility of an individual. The way to fight sin, and move towards salvation, is to assign the highest level of responsibility to individuals. This theological position tends to deplore government intervention in social problems, such as providing health insurance; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals, not impersonal social structures, are ultimately responsible for saving themselves and, e.g., taking care of their own health.

On the other side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside both in the individual and in social institutions; however, in practice the emphasis tends to be on social salvation and social sin, since social sin is perceived to be so much more powerful a force than individual sin. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily a battle that must be fought in social institutions. The way to move towards salvation is to assign the highest priority to fighting sin in society. This theological position tends to urge governmental solutions to social problems; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals are not powerful enough in themselves to fight social sin, and must use social structures such as government to fight sin and reach salvation by establishing a moral society.

These two different theological positions also have differing understandings of the nature of human beings (theological anthropology):

The position that locates sin in the individual tends to believe that humans are capable of reaching salvation on their own. Individual humans can be pointed away from sin, and in the direction of salvation, through exhortation and rational arguments. When exhortation and rational arguments fail, then individuals should be punished. This position relies heavily on the criminal justice system to punish sinners. This position is also willing to give up on sinners; in this theological view some individual humans just can’t be saved, and to keep them from inflicting their sinful ways on more moral individuals, the unredeemable sinners should be locked up. This position is more likely to want to legislate moral issues, e.g., passing laws that regulate marriage closely. However, this position also believes strongly that humans are rational beings; this is why exhortation works so well. This means that this theological position is more likely to understand society as a collection of rational beings who, if given a choice, can make the right decisions (assuming they are not sunk in sin); and therefore those who hold this position deplore what they call the “nanny state,” that doesn’t allow individuals to make their own moral judgements.

The position that tends to locate sin in society has a substantially different understanding of the nature of human beings. Social forces can overpower individuals, forcing those individuals to act sinfully even when they don’t want to act sinfully; therefore, it is important to change social structures to help individuals act morally. In addition, this theological position believes that social structures can cause individuals to act sinfully without really being aware of it; this happens, for example, with racism, a social force so powerful that often individuals don’t even know they are acting sinfully by being racist. So this social position is more likely to want to legislate social issues, e.g., passing laws that address unconscious racism. Interestingly, this theological position believes that humans, while rational beings, often do not make rational choices; thus this theological position does not believe that the economic marketplace is made up of rational beings who are always making rational decisions. Furthermore, this theological position believes that humans cannot change certain aspects of themselves simply through rational argument, e.g. their sexual orientation. So there is a substantial part of each individual that is not rational; and since exhortation and punishment are not particularly effective, this theological position believes that social structures must be changed in order to move individuals towards salvation.

Obviously, I’m speaking in broad generalities here, and my descriptions of the two positions are somewhat crude. Equally obviously, there is a lot more going on in the budget deadlock than theology. Nevertheless, I think that it is possible to see the effects of this theological difference in the real world.

4 thoughts on “Theology deadlock”

  1. I tend to view the current political polarization as the Theology of Scacity vs the Theology of Abundance. Your theory looks into it a little deeper than that. I will give this some more thought. Thanks Dan.

  2. I see a vast difference in attitudes about punishment. One side sees punishment as a lesser evil. By punishing the guilty, we may prevent future harm to innocents, but if we could get the same result without punishing anybody, or by punishing them less, we would. To the other side, punishment is a positive good. Punishing evil is something that should happen even in situations where it has no deterrent effect; leaving the evil-doers unpunished, or even insufficiently punished, is just wrong.

  3. Doug, interesting insights into the differing views of punishment, thank you!

    Do you think this reflects differing views on the nature of human beings? If so, how would you characterize those differing views? If not, do you see any theological basis for these differing views?

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