T.S. Elliot’s short work, The Idea of a Christian Society, keenly addresses foundational issues of a conundrum that has plagued the Church for many years – Christianity and government. Based off of a lecture series given in 1939, Elliot argues that a state-mandated Christian society is the best way for a nation to thrive. With the dawning of World War II, it is easy to see why Elliot would believe this. Hitler’s rise to power and the unsettling events surrounding the beginning of the war shed light on the implications of a society that abandoned a foundational moral ethic.
Elliot notes that there must be a foundational, grounded philosophy at the root of society in order for it to remain steadfast. Both “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are vague terms that fluctuate in purpose as culture changes. He writes that “neither Liberalism or Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.”
Elliot claims that his idea of a “Christian State” does not refer to any particular political form, but rather “whatever State is suitable to a Christian Society, whatever State a particular Christian Society develops for itself.” Elliot is more concerned with Christian foundations for morals and ethics than political policies. He continues, “It is not primarily the Christianity of the statesmen that matters, but their being confined, by the temper and traditions of the people which they rule, to a Christian framework within which to realize their ambitions and advance the prosperity and prestige of their country. They may frequently perform un-Christian acts; they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.” Ironically, the key to a thriving society is having a tension produced by dual allegiance between State and Church – with the former being subservient to the later.
In order for a Christian society to work, Elliot claims that there must be a Community of Christians (intellectual leaders comprised of clergy and laity) as well as a Christian community (a universal church comprised of heartfelt Believers). To Elliot, it is not enough to advocate for a Christian society because of it’s societal benefits, but rather because of its historical truth. All of this must be achieved through a biblically-based educational system rather than a governmental system.
It is easy to see the appeal in Elliot’s ideas. The issues that he addresses are just as relevant now as they were almost 80 years ago. The only critique of the book is that it is too short. Elliot is brilliant in pinpointing foundational concepts, but lacks detail in expressing their practicality. He does not address interpretations of biblical government, which seem to guide policy-making for many Americans as much as they do spiritual enlightenment. It would be interesting to see how Elliot’s idea of a Christian society compares to those of Theonomists – Christians who believe that the Old Testament ethical law should apply to the United States today. Despite these shortcomings, Elliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society is an important read for all Christians. His advocacy of morals and ethics grounded in Christian truth ring true for a society that continues to abandon objective principles.