restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


The Selfish State 

 David Alan Black

As President Bush begins his current tour to Europe and the Middle East (snubbing Germany, by the way), it will be well to remember that Christianity is not a private religion. Christianity challenges human pride both on the personal level as well as in the public square. It has even led many to question the ends being pursued in modern global politics.

Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his brilliant work significantly entitled Moral Man and Immoral Society that the selfishness often found in individuals is much more pronounced and unchecked when found among nations. Individuals are sometimes motivated by love or sympathy to sacrifice their own interests for the good of others, but nations as corporate entities pursue their own interests unswervingly. Individuals may sometimes be found to be humble; nations almost never. Therefore a nation is a dangerously possible object of idolatry.

National selfishness is widely affirmed by scholars; its usual name is “the national interest.” Those steering the ship of state are motivated by the philosophy that the national interest is the highest aim to be pursued by a nation in its dealing with other nations. These same people almost always defend the use of power in pursuing national aims. The current debate over whether to use force against our latest enemy, Iran, will of course quickly pass, for power as a means of pursuing the national interest is the natural concomitant of statist selfishness. “Power politics” is inevitable in a world of independent nations.

The danger of tyranny is not limited by democracy but only presented in novel forms. Today it may be the tyranny of the majority, tomorrow the tyranny of the despot. But just as selfishness can never be totally eradicated in the human psyche, neither can selfishness ever be eradicated in the soul of a nation. Thus, probably, another war is inevitable. True, war may sometimes be a lesser evil than some other evil—e.g., a despotism obliterating all freedom (such despotism made war inevitable in America in 1776 and again in 1861). It goes without saying, however, that Christians will never take lightly this threat of war. 

Are we then forced into political quietism? As I have frequently argued, Christian principles decisively rule out any such conclusion. The Christian judgment on power is expressed in the conviction—held from ancient times—that the Church must be distinct from the state. The Church represents the Kingdom of God on earth. Thus secular power is inappropriate to it. It leaves to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and leaves the state to stand, in all of its unsanctified selfishness, as a symbol to our fallenness.

In the Republic, Plato spoke of the state as being the individual “writ large.” For the Christian, history is the life of an individual written in global letters. This is why each individual ought to have a deep interest in global politics. National selfishness is nothing other than the expression of individual sin. This means that the building of the Kingdom of God, which Christians believe is sovereignly carried forward in the events of human history, does not occur primarily through improvements in society, but through the singling out of individuals by grace. Pride and pretentiousness may be exacerbated by war, but it is the sinfulness of individuals that is at the heart of the problem.

It will be interesting to see how our national hubris plays itself out in the next few days. It may be, even while dreading the thought of yet another war, that we calmly and imperceptibly entertain selfish attitudes in our daily lives that will make war a likely eventuality.

May 30, 2003

David Alan Black is the editor of

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