The role that religion can, or should, play in modern democratic regimes has proved to be perplexing since the end of the World War II era. In one respect, religion can be considered as a social benefit for a regime precisely by helping its adherents to become decent citizens. It is believed that since basically all religions are, deep down, the same, any religion is equally qualified to achieve this aim. Religion, according to this first theory, is ultimately about ethics and guiding those who follow its commands to become good people. This would be religion’s public “space,” the room it will be given to accomplish its real but limited ethical task. Another view is one that is more hostile toward religion, claiming that religion is the cause of civilizational wars and perpetuated violence. While some religious persons are noble and reasonable, it is more often the case that religion has been a leading factor in oppression, class warfare, and civic and societal disorder. In this regard, religion is meant to be explicitly removed from or denied access to the public sphere, and it should be relegated to the realm of the merely private. Politics is the public work of the secular, areligious order that aims to bring about civic peace with little to no influence of religious doctrine.

What I want to propose in this essay is something altogether different. By briefly exploring one facet of the history of political theory, especially as articulated by the ancient Greeks and the medievals, we can see a richer, more complex account of the proper relationship between politics and religion. More specifically, I will argue for the necessity of recovering an account of political theory that has two essential yet distinct features. First, Aristotle’s argument that the human person is a naturally political animal provides an insight regarding the integral connection between a polity and human flourishing. At the same time, the primacy of the theoretical and metaphysical order helps to place man’s political nature within a context of limits and scope. And this aligns with the second point. If political life is necessary for human flourishing yet limited in scope and not the highest good, then what is this summum bonum? In other words, does politics point to anything beyond itself which prevents it from becoming the highest good without simultaneously denying its importance for human happiness and communal life? It is precisely this question that can be addressed by the meeting point between political theory and religion, specifically Christianity.

Aristotle argued that one of the essential features of man’s rationality entailed that he was naturally political. What this means is that ingrained within human nature is a fundamental tendency or inclination to live in community with others. Expressed and lived out through practice and written law or custom, human beings seek to order themselves in a communal life for the sake of living well, not simply for mere living or for the protection of “rights.” Rather, humans seek community which stems especially from a need for others, an interdependence that fundamentally coincides with the desire for happiness. It is not simply that humans seek happiness, but that they also understand that this cannot be achieved without the aid of others. As Aristotle observes, without law and the communal life of others, men must then either become like gods or beasts. Aristotle makes his point definitively about the nature and telos of man’s political life:

Now a city is formed rather for the sake of a good life and not only for the sake of mere living, nor for the sake of mere alliance to prevent unjust treatment, nor for the sake of trade alone, or other useful exchanges. . . . And from this it is evident that each state, in the true sense of the word and not in name only, should pay attention to its virtue only, otherwise this association becomes a mere alliance differing from other alliances only in that its members are nearer each other, and its laws become a mere treaty . . . a mere guarantee to the parties to treat each other justly instead of the sort of thing to make its citizens good and just (Politics 3.9)

The history of political theory finds its most substantial and definitive account here in Aristotle’s reasoning. However, Aristotle goes to great lengths to ensure that politics knows its proper place within the whole that is reality. This is why he observes that politics is not the highest good for man, since, if that were the case, then human beings would be the highest beings as such. Political theory, according to Aristotle, presupposes a theoretical or metaphysical order that is not the object of human willing and making. Human nature is an already existing, stable reality that provides intelligibility to our natural inclinations, especially with respect to living in community. To say it in a different way, Aristotelian political theory is based upon the truth that what it means to be a good and happy human being is something that is outside of human will and control. The ends of what men are have already been given and established. And so the drama of human life and man’s political nature is then whether he will order himself to this proper human end.

In this light, one could argue that a defense of man’s political nature must entail both 1) that politics is an essential feature defining human nature, and yet 2) not the highest good for human beings as such. This is why, for Plato and Aristotle, the contemplative life was considered to be the highest way of life for the human person and to have a limiting effect upon the question of where politics fits into the scheme of life.

What does Christian revelation provide in light of this incompleteness of man’s social and political life? Thomas Aquinas argues that revelation’s influence on political thought has a number of important effects. First, since revelation is fundamentally concerned with man’s transpolitical destiny, the place of politics is once again viewed within the proper context of limits. It is not the best way of life for man. Even more than this, Christian revelation affirms that salvation is meant to be understood as something that cannot be intimately tied to political success. Salvation, in this light, is not a political program and can never be connected to a this-worldly project.

From the perspective of the Christian tradition, divine revelation does not provide a specific social and political program that aligns best with its creedal and doctrinal tenets. This is not because revelation has nothing to say about politics and the good or bad regimes in this world. Rather, revelation seems to provide an intellectual stimulus for humans to consider how to organize themselves together in this world, socially and politically, grounded in justice and the friendship that is the wellspring of charity. The revelation of God’s inner life is Wisdom, but this is not one that destroys or negates all other limited but real forms of wisdom, especially social and political types. Instead, it purifies, clarifies, and illuminates. And so, God’s wisdom helps us to reflect more clearly and humbly upon those truths received from the past and to see how they fit into the order of reality.

These remarks on political theory and religion hopefully provide some illumination for understanding of the complex relationship between the two, especially as it relates to modern liberal democracy. Two features of modern democracy are pertinent to the discussion at hand. First, the secularism of political and democratic theory has been closed off to all sources except those stemming from human intellect. Questions regarding transcendence and religion have been viewed as dangerous and distracting to the political, earthly task. On the other hand, religion has been neglectful of political theory in the manner described and articulated here. Religion has been, in a number of respects, a seedbed for ideology in the modern age precisely because it has articulated a vision of its doctrine that disregards, or rejects, natural reason and political philosophy. A religion that cannot provide an articulation of man as a naturally political animal in need of a community for his flourishing opens itself to a religious impulse that may converge in tyranny and immoral activity, all in the name of “religion.”

Many Christians have also been led to believe that the tenets of liberalism and democratic societies are practically those of the Christian faith itself. Since the end of World War II, democracy has not only been considered the best regime hic et nunc but the best per se. The two-fold wisdom of ancient political thought and Christian revelation is an aid to counter such questionable positions. And, the truth of Christianity reminds us that, no matter the regime, the grace of salvation and the highest way of life is still possible.

Brian Jones is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is currently writing his dissertation on the political philosophy of James V. Schall. He is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and currently lives outside Houston with his wife and three girls.