How does politics shape the way we see the world?

April 20, 2021

Politics and ideology are forces that do not merely pertain to governance but often cast a vision about the nature of reality, individuals, and society. As such, political ideologies can have a religious power, shaping the people that adhere to them. In Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis examines the fundamental political ideologies of our era, unpacking and evaluating the worldview assumptions and stories they tell about public life and the direction of history. Koyzis suggests that understanding the idols of ideology is key to understanding faith and politics in our contemporary moment. The interview below further explores these ideas and how they affect our society and faith communities. 

What prompted you to write Political Visions and Illusions?

Well, it was a very practical need beginning in my first year of teaching back in 1987. I was assigned to teach a course in political ideologies at a Christian university in Canada. This was before the internet, so I had to look through these orange hardbound volumes of Books in Print to find a suitable text. I couldn’t find anything that did what I thought needed to be done in such a course. So I ended up assigning a standard text but followed my own agenda. A few years later I began writing something to replace it with, and Political Visions and Illusions was the result. The first edition was published in 2003. And it ended up filling a need. It’s been used at universities throughout North America and elsewhere, and even in theological seminaries, somewhat to my surprise.

The book frames ideologies as modern manifestations of idolatry. What exactly does that mean?

An idol is something we put in the place of God. We take something out of the creation and make it a surrogate god, expecting that it will somehow save us. Of course it can’t do that. But if we reject the one true God who has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, we will inevitably turn to others. In this respect, there is no such thing as a person lacking faith. We inevitably put our faith in something, and that something will not satisfy.

As for ideologies, they are rooted in a kind of secular faith. Liberalism, for example, rests on a faith in the liberty of the individual. Nationalism makes a god of the nation. Democratism places its faith in the popular will. Socialism makes a god of the economic class or, in the case of Marxism, in a providential history based on concrete material forces. Liberalism is not wrong to esteem individual liberty, of course. The fact that ancient peoples worshipped idols made of wood and stone does not make the created materials of wood and stone evil. Individual liberty is a very good thing, but it can become an idol when every other consideration, especially anything related to community, is made subservient to it.

How does ideology relate to the Bible’s redemptive message?

Actually this is one of the ways that the second edition, published in 2019, differs from the first. In the first edition I treated ideologies as manifestations of idolatry, but in the second I trace the false redemptive narratives underpinning them. The biblical story begins with creation, taking us through the fall into sin, redemption in Jesus Christ, to the final consummation of God’s kingdom. The ideologies have similar salvation stories that take us through historical stages leading to something much better than the present, for example, Marx’s classless society to be ushered in by a messianic proletariat, or industrial working class. The liberal story promises salvation when we have expanded the scope of individual choice to the maximum extent. Nationalism sees a redemptive struggle liberating a particular nation from oppression by some external force. It is often said the Marxism is a Christian heresy. But each of the ideologies in its own way represents an effort to achieve salvation on human terms. As such it is parasitical on the biblical story.

In your view, which ideological idols are most tempting to Christians in North America?

I’m inclined to think that the liberated individual is the most alluring of these idols today. This has underpinned the sexual revolution over the past six decades, as well as a consumer-oriented libertarianism focusing heavily on the free market. But of course I cannot fail to mention nationalism. Even as ostensibly liberated individuals, we want to belong to something larger than ourselves. And nation often serves this purpose, at least for a time.

2020 was one of the more politically tumultuous years in recent history. How does your book speak into the political developments of 2020? If you were writing the book today, is there anything you would add now?

Well, the second edition was just published in 2019, so it’s not quite two years since it came out. However, the changes I made in the new edition reflect developments in liberalism since the turn of the millennium, the somewhat more positive attitude to socialism among American young people, and the increasing influence of what some have labelled cultural Marxism. The year 2020 saw some of the negative elements I foresaw in 2003 coming together in the bitterly contested presidential election, culminating in the January 2021 uprising at the Capitol. A society that pushes individual autonomy and personal authenticity for their own sake, especially at the expense of ordinary communal standards, should not be surprised when the glue that holds a people together begins to weaken.

For the church, what is the difference between idolizing ideology and healthy Christian civic engagement?

Oh, there’s a huge difference. Healthy civic engagement requires that we have a commitment to the body politic of which we are citizens. It requires a commitment to seeing public justice done to the individuals and communities within its jurisdiction. It does not require that we put aside our partisan commitments and our commitment to the truth, but it does require that we retain a certain modesty over our understanding of the truth and of what it entails. If we are committed to a certain faux-redemptive story and are unwilling to budge from it, we risk the health of the entire body politic. Proper civic engagement requires that we maintain our loyalties to other communities of which we are part, including families, neighborhoods, church congregations, labor unions, workplace communities, and so forth. We ought not to seek our ultimate identity in our citizenship, and if we do, we have effectively made it an idol.

What is societal pluriformity? How does the recognition of societal pluriformity benefit governance and society?

Societal pluriformity is an expression I use to describe a society in which human activities are dispersed into a variety of communities of different kinds. Schools educate children and youth. Business enterprises use material and other resources and enhance their value for the mutual benefit of investors and users. Labor unions protect the rights of workers in the workplace. Marriages bind couples together for purposes of mutual companionship and producing the next generation. Families provide a stable context for raising children. Churches properly assemble members for the purpose of worshipping God. None of these institutions and communities should usurp the tasks of the others. A pluriform society provides the best context in which to use the gifts God has given us for a variety of purposes.

How should the church approach an increasingly secular public square?

It depends on what you mean by church. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Christian statesman who served as prime minister more than a century ago, made a crucial distinction between the church as the body of Christ and the church as a specific differentiated institution. If we define it as the body of Christ, of which all believers are part, then we simply live out our lives in every setting recognizing that our ultimate allegiance is to God’s kingdom. This may call for organizing politically to see that justice is done in public life. Kuyper founded a Christian political party in the Netherlands in the late 19th century. That may not be possible in North America, and many Christians hold that it would not be desirable either. Yet we ought not be content to live as mere individuals in the face of the very ideological visions I analyze in my book. We need to be a communal witness to God’s grace throughout the whole of life.

How can pastors better equip those they are called to shepherd to navigate political and civic engagement? How can pastors discern when to speak out about political issues?

This is where the church as institution enters the picture. In the second edition, I have appended a “Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript” where I discuss the role of church congregations, denominations, and ministers of the gospel. I do not think it’s appropriate, for example, for an ecclesiastical assembly to pronounce on a $15-per-hour minimum wage or a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine issue. However, the church definitely ought to be instructing parishioners on a biblical understanding of justice and its larger implications for life in community. 

How do you suggest believers approach public justice? In your view, what is the source of our disagreements about what justice requires?

There are two sources of our disagreements. First, we may disagree on basic principles of justice, in which case it may be that we have been negatively influenced by the redemptive stories told by the secular ideologies I treat in my book. Perhaps we have become Christian socialists, or Christian nationalists, or some such. A major reason for my writing this book is to move believers into examining themselves to see whether they are in fact accepting an unbiblical redemptive narrative and whether this might be adversely affecting their approach to political life.

But second, even if we were all agreed on first principles, we would still differ on how they should be applied in particular circumstances. In other words, we would disagree on prudential grounds on the wisdom of this or that specific policy. We needn’t regret such disagreements, because debate over such matters is crucial to the policy process. If everyone simply accepted a single policy proposal without question, there is a good chance it would go badly.

I might end with a caution. Just because we ourselves are Christian believers does not make us all-wise and perfectly in tune with a biblical understanding of justice. Humility is not often regarded as a political virtue, and many of our political leaders are not generally noted for possessing it. Yet humility is needed if people are going to cooperate for political purposes and to see justice done thereby.

You can order Political Visions and Illusions here.

Photo attribution: Joecho-16 | Getty Images Plus

Andrew Bertodatti

Andrew Bertodatti is a minister in New York. He resides in New York City with his wife, Karen, and their son. Read More by this Author

David Koyzis

David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada.  He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick, 2014). Follow him at Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24