A common slogan of the feminist movement in the late 1960s was “the personal is political.” This phrase developed various shades of meaning, but its main thrust involved making a connection between women's personal problems and the structure of power in society. The allegedly inferior position of women within the traditional family and limitations upon women's career opportunities, for example, were components of the social structure that women experienced in their day-to-day lives. By making this linkage clear in the minds of women, they would be motivated to organize and collectively fight the structural causes that enforced their “oppression.” In this respect “the personal is political encapsulated a major feature of feminist theory and helped to mobilize feminist activists to attack traditional views of the respective roles of men and women.
Most of the changes feminists have been able to accomplish in the last 35 years or so have been harmful, and thus “the personal is political” has been a verbal spearhead with negative implications. It has been a slogan for those destroying Christian conceptions of family and morality. However, if that phrase is drained of its feminist meaning and context, it may actually be able to express a rather conservative idea. One major theme of conservative thought is that the character of each person has an impact on the politics and government of a society. A free society can only exist where citizens have good character, that is, where citizens have a certain degree of moral virtue.
Because men are sinful, there must always be a certain degree of government in the world. Sinful tendencies must be restrained to prevent anarchy. However, the required government need not always be “civil government” (what we commonly think of when we use the word “government”) if people exercise government over themselves. That is, a society where people have good character (controlling their own behavior) requires considerably less civil government than a society where people lack character and need to be controlled by another force. This is why a free society can only exist among people who have a certain degree of moral virtue.
This idea was well expressed by the eighteenth century British statesman Edmund Burke. John O'Sullivan, in his preface to the book The Loss of Virtue: Moral Confusion and Social Disorder in Britain and America , quotes Burke as follows:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites - in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity - in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption - in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.1
The main idea is that in order to avoid an all-powerful and all-controlling government, people must be willing and able to control their own sinful tendencies. The less people control themselves (by exercising self-government), the more they will need to be controlled by a powerful civil government. This helps to explain the current situation in the English-speaking Western countries: there is an increase in moral anarchy and an increase in the power of the civil government at the same time. The decline in morality helps to fuel the growth of civil government. As O'Sullivan explains it:
The decline in honesty in commerce forces government to resort to regulation, and businessmen to law, with greater frequency. The rise in crime compels the employment of more police and the building of more prisons. The increase in illegitimacy requires more welfare spending and more social workers. And the rise in alcoholism and drug abuse adds to the use and cost of health services in the public sector.2
James Q. Wilson makes much the same point in his book On Character. He notes that a number of current social and political problems are the result of the decline of character in many people. For example, before the 1960s people in the United States generally viewed accepting welfare as “a temporary and rather embarrassing expedient.” That attitude changed during the 60s so that many came to view being on welfare as a right. Wilson writes, “In short, the character of a significant number of persons changed.”3
Similarly, there was around the same time a change in the way people viewed government debt. Until the latter part of the 20 th century, government debt was largely seen as something to be avoided, except in emergencies such as war. There was a moral constraint upon government expenditure and debt because people believed it was necessary to "pay as you go" rather than incur debts to be paid by future generations. In short, “a Victorian morality inhibited Anglo-American democracies from giving in to their selfish desire to beggar their children.”4 By the late 1960s, however, the moral constraint was quickly eroding, and huge public debts mounted quickly in many Western countries.
The realization that personal virtue and good character are necessary for a free society is not a recent discovery. The founders of the United States (that is, the writers of its Constitution) clearly held this view. Although they saw the institutional framework they were designing as very important, they knew that this political structure required a virtuous people to be effective. Professor Ellis Sandoz writes:
They never in their wildest flights dreamed of a system so perfect that the people would not need to be good. To the contrary, they knew that good government presupposes good people - good, not perfect. All their aspirations and hopes utterly depend on the maintenance of the integrity of the community as the basis of the intricate constitutional system of their inspired design. Good morals and virtuous people depend, in turn, on true religion.5
A free society depends upon virtuous citizens, and that virtue itself depends upon true religion. Thus Biblical Christianity is the surest foundation for a free society. Christian citizens living godly lives provide the best population-base for limited government and individual liberty. As R. J. Rushdoony puts it in Law and Liberty , “To have free civil government, it is necessary first of all to have free men whose greatest desire is responsible self-government under God.”6
Self-government presupposes freedom, and there can be no true freedom for man apart from Jesus Christ. Christ is our principle of liberty, the source and power of man's deliverance from the slavery of sin and the penalty of death. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This is the foundation of liberty and of true self-government. Apart from this foundation, Jesus Christ, our destiny is tyranny and slavery.7
There is a sense, then, in which the phrase “the personal is political” can be infused with a Christian meaning. As Christians live godly lives in accord with Biblical Law, there is no need for governmental interference in their affairs. Their personal, day-to-day lives have an important political effect by limiting the need for civil government. Those Christians who go to the greatest lengths to fulfill their Biblical responsibilities have the biggest impact in this regard.
Homeschooling provides a good example. Christian parents teaching their own children at home restrict the activity of civil government in the field of education. In this positive sense the personal is political; Christian parents exercise their Biblical authority over the education of their children, and as a consequence, shrink the size of the state. It's unlikely that “the personal is political” will ever become the slogan of Christian activists, but understood properly, it may communicate an appropriate message of individual self-government as the alternative to a continually expanding civil government.
1. John O'Sullivan, The Loss of Virtue: Moral Confusion and Social Disorder in Britain and America (London: The Social Affairs Unit, 1992), xiii-xiv.
2. Ibid., xiii.
3. James Q. Wilson, On Character (Washington, D. C., American Enterprise Institute Press, 1995), 17.
4. Ibid., 18.
5. Ellis Sandoz, A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (Columbia, MO, University of Missouri Press: 2001), 121.
6. R. J. Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1984), 61.
7. Ibid., 62.
- Michael Wagner
Michael Wagner is a home schooling father, an independent researcher and writer, and the author of Christian Citizenship Guide: Christianity and Canadian Political Life. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta and lives in Edmonton with his wife and eleven children.