The Limits of “Civil Society”

Posted: June 16, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Ethics, Politics

Peter Leithart notes that appeals are often made to “civil society,” which he defines as “private and voluntary institutions distinct from both the bureaucracies of the nation-state and the economic institutions of the market,” as the counterbalance to state power or the market.  Chuck Colson, whom I respect greatly, often refers to Edmund Burke’s idea of “little platoons” in discussing the proper limits of government power.

Leithart, citing William Cavanaugh, thinks that the civil society itself may be “a construct of the modern nation state” and therefore unable to provide a real alternative power center to the state.  He contrasts this with the medieval church, an organized institution which did exercise a check on kings.  But civil society, in contrast, is an “amorphous cobble of associations.”  Thus,

Cavanaugh has pointed out, quite accurately, that the idea of civil society carries an implicit ecclesiology.  Advocates of civil society want to enlist churches into a program of national restoration.  The implicit ecclesiology is a thoroughly modern one: The church is not an alternative public or an alternative civic order, but a voluntary organization that assists the state because it has proven itself effective in forming a compliant citizenry.  But churches aren’t in the business of national restoration but are called to witness to and embody the kingdom to come.

More simply: Civil society is a prescription for social healing that relativizes the healing society.  It aims to restore brotherhood among men without acknowledging the Fatherhood of God, to restore communion without mention of the Spirit.  It is a proposal for social salvation that doesn’t make any mention of the Savior.

This tension is particularly concerning to postmillenialists like Leithart (here’s a good, short description of the way he looks at the future).  But it’s worth considering the assumptions that govern the way that churches interact with society.


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