Political Visions and Illusions

A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (2nd edition)

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David T. Koyzis
  • Westmont, IL: 
    InterVarsity Press
    , May
     2019.
     330 pages.
     $33.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852420.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since its original publishing in 2003, David T. Koyzis’s Political Visions and Illusions has been popular among those people who wish to think through the relation between Christian faith and political engagement, especially in Reformed circles. The world has changed considerably in the nearly two decades since, however, and Koyzis notes that his own thinking about political ideologies has matured during that time, especially with regard to the importance of narrative in political ideologies (xiii). These changes occasioned a second edition.

As the subtitle suggests, the book surveys and provides a critique for five contemporary political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. In his introduction, Koyzis says that ideologies are characterized, above all, by a tendency toward reduction and totalization, a combination which Koyzis refers to as “idolatry” (3). Drawing from Erich Vögelin’s influential account of Gnosticism, Koyzis also avers that ideologies have a Gnostic tendency to identify some aspect of created reality as the source of evil and liberation from that created reality as the goal of politics (14–15).

In the chapters that cover the ideologies, Koyzis articulates what he views as essential to each ideology, identifies the idolatry at the heart of the ideology in question, and describes the soteriological narrative of each as well as the corresponding understanding of the role of the state. In the chapter on liberalism, for example, Koyzis views the “sovereignty of the individual” as the core, the will of the individual as the idol, and the liberation of human autonomy from heteronomy as its narrative, which can result either in a libertarian understanding of the state or a liberal “choice enhancement state.” Koyzis also identifies something to be learned from each ideology: for example, conservatism rightly understands the importance of tradition, even as it wrongly disparages change; nationalism understands the need for an ontology of community, even as it turns that narrowly construed community into a god.

After his survey of the ideologies, Koyzis briefly presents two alternative approaches, which he understands to be non-ideological. One is drawn from Catholic Neoscholasticism and the other is drawn from a Dutch Reformed perspective. In sum, both approaches move sovereignty away from both the individual and the state and entrust more responsibility—and and corresponding sovereignty—to nonstate public institutions, while recognizing that authority ultimately rests with God.

The book has many virtues. It is well organized, with helpful chapter headings for those who wish to explore the book with a certain topic in mind. Koyzis is a careful and orderly writer, with a style that is free of jargon and student-friendly. Koyzis is also an orderly thinker and, in many of the chapters, demonstrates an impressive ability to provide a brief summary about a vast area of literature. Some sections of the book are excellent: Koyzis’s analysis and critique of Christian nationalism in North America and Europe, for example, is timely and well done (114–19).

I have a few criticisms of the book. The chapter on conservatism offers a very textured exploration and intellectual history of conservatism as a set of ideas, and Koyzis offers a critique of conservatism as a set of ideas. But the chapter is curiously devoid of any exploration of the failures of conservatism in practice. This blunts the author’s critique, for it is only when we consider the failures of conservatism in the concrete that we see what a troubling ideology it can be. After all, the defenders of slavery in the American South were nothing if not conservative, and the narratives we have from the survivors of slavery reveal an institution no less monstrous than the Gulag. And slavery persisted far longer.

A correlate weakness is found in the chapter on socialism. The intellectual history and account of the core features of socialism is notably flat and simplistic. There is a little advertence to non-Marxist forms of socialism or even socialism outside 20th-century Communism. Marx is mentioned often but cited only twice. Few other sympathetic theorists are mentioned or cited. Oddly enough, conservative writers are cited often as sources for understanding socialism. The most questionable example of this is the citation of Michael Walsh, a conservative columnist and scholarly expert about precisely nothing, as a source about the Frankfurt School’s influence on the American academy (175). Not a single representative of that school, or any of their contemporary interpreters, is mentioned.

The last problem is theological and more serious. Koyzis’s reliance on Herman Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis theologically grounds Koyzis’s interpretations and critiques in a theology of creation. But, strangely, Koyzis makes nothing of the cross. He mentions redemption often, and speaks of the redemptive narrative of the ideologies as they contrast with the Christian redemptive narrative. But the Christian redemptive narrative, centered on the cross, plays no role in Koyzis’s own political critiques or positions. This is an especially odd omission, and even more so given that theologians of many Christian communions have long recognized a profound political meaning in the cross. A theology of creation and a theology of sin are necessary for a Christian critique of political ideologies, but they are not sufficient. Without a politics that is informed by and centered upon the cross, an understanding of politics may be religious, but I wonder how exactly it would be distinctively Christian.

In spite of these flaws, the book provides a helpful basis for Christians to begin to think about political ideologies. We all need initial concepts and structures to give us a sense of an area of inquiry; Koyzis provides these in his book, and in so doing renders a valuable service.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew B. Hale is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David T. Koyzis holds the PhD in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame. He taught undergraduate political science for thirty years.

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