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Don’t Let Nietzsche Be Your Political Teacher

Nietzsche wrote in his book The Anti-Christ, “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.”

This is a poignant example of what Augustine termed “the city of man” and “love of self, even to the point of contempt for God,” which is in stark contrast to “love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, [which] made the heavenly city.” Indeed, Nietzsche knew he was presenting an opposing vision for humanity and society, hence the title of his book.

While Augustine’s vision for a society shaped by the city of heaven still influences both the left and right of America’s political spectrum, we have in significant ways become more and more children of Nietzsche. He has become our teacher.

Here are three dynamics of Nietzsche’s philosophy influencing our politics today and some suggestions for how those living for the heavenly city might respond to a political world so influenced by him.

Thirst for Power

Nietzsche taught a hermeneutic (a way of seeing the world) predicated on power: “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master of all space, and to extend its power (its will to power), and to thrust back everything that resists it.”

The political left increasingly sees the world this way. There’s a strong concern for equalizing power imbalances and promoting liberty by removing roadblocks to social groups who lack power. These goals may be admirable, but theories have arisen alongside them with moorings in Nietzsche’s and Marx’s philosophies that view people through intersections of power and advocate a reversal of social power dynamics.

And while the political right may see itself in opposition to such an approach, populism’s rise suggests otherwise. For Nietzsche, the embodiment of the will to power was the Übermensch (the Overman or Superman), who embodied the ideals we now see played out in populist leaders.

Populism portrays “the people” (the populus) as weakened by corrupt powers—“elites” at the top of society—and by those coming into the populus from outside. Complex social issues are typically reduced to this corrupting/weakening narrative, with the Übermensch the one person who “says it as it is,” offering to clean things up and restore the people’s strength. If this sounds familiar, that’s the point.

Even when it has some explanatory use, seeing things through lenses of power can’t chart a constructive way forward. Power reduces everything to a zero-sum game. We’d do well to reflect on the bloody regimes of the 20th century that, whether underpinned by Nietzsche or Marx, saw the world this way.

The gospel is a hermeneutic of love, not selfish power. The foundational reality in the universe is Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God [and equal in power], did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6). Christ laid down his life for the sake of others, loving us supremely through his sacrifice on the cross. Christians should reject a “win at all costs” and a “winners and losers” mentality. Loving others isn’t the same as affirming everything about them; instead, love is seeking their good, which may require gracious disagreement. However, when we see the world through a way of love, we can envision a future of mutual flourishing for all, not just for the winners.

Distortion of Truth

One of the problems with power being the bottom line is that it distorts truth. Nietzsche wrote in his Notes, “Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying ‘there are only facts,’ I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a hermeneutic of love, not power.

What was “true” for Nietzsche was the interpretation of the group in power. This gives rise to a hermeneutic of suspicion. If politicians talk about the “flourishing of society,” we don’t think they mean what they say; it’s just a rhetorical mask that manipulates people into believing those who want to increase their power.

And it’s not just politicians—we also become suspicious of one another. This erodes relationships and the very foundations of civil dialogue. We should be alarmed by the rise of fake news, the blurring of boundaries between reporting and commenting on the news, social media echo chambers, and the prevalence of both sides of the political spectrum adopting tactics once reserved for propaganda in totalitarian regimes.

The apostle John describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His grace and truth are fully revealed at the cross, where the objective and stubborn “truth” about our sin and his amazing grace meet.

When we believe this, we can be charitable to others while pursuing truth. We can seek to see the best in them while not being naive: If sin and our propensity to deception are so serious that Jesus had to die, how can we be naive? But if Jesus died to extend his grace to us, how can we not be charitable? Charity will look like seeking to understand others and fostering good dialogue, not because people never have ulterior motives but because we’re secure enough in Christ not to default to cynicism.

Erosion of Morality

Like the erosion of truth, a hermeneutic of power relativizes morality. Morals are seen as mere values those in power impose on others. Nietzsche wrote, “The distinctions of moral values have either originated in a ruling caste, pleasantly conscious of being different from the ruled—or among the ruled class, the slaves and dependents of all sorts.”

Nietzsche concluded from this view that Judeo-Christianity was a “slave morality” that was harmful because it weakened society. Similarly today within large parts of the political left, Judeo-Christian ethics like the rights of the unborn and those with disabilities (and increasingly the rights of the elderly), the fixed reality of biological sex, and Christian sexual norms aren’t just viewed as outdated but dangerous, inhibiting our march to “progress.”

However, the relativizing of ethics also grips large swaths of the right who are too prone to overlook the character failings of populist leaders and who adopt aggressive and xenophobic rhetoric when describing those in their political crosshairs. In the U.K. (my home context) in 2018, Boris Johnson described Muslim women wearing burkas and niqabs as looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes,” incurring the ire of liberals but strengthening his appeal to his populist base. Similar examples abound in the U.S. during the last two political cycles.

How can we respond? If we live for a heavenly city marked by a love of God and others, morality can never be merely a function of power; power must serve love and the flourishing of humanity. This doesn’t mean we can expect people to agree with Christian morals, but we should be confident that, far from being dangerous, the Christian ethic is the path to flourishing.

If we live for a heavenly city marked by a love of God and others, morality can never be merely a function of power.

At the same time, we need to be acutely aware of the terrible irony that it undermines our witness to gloss over (or even justify) the moral failings of politicians who advance, in some areas, a Judeo-Christian ethical position. Humility, gentleness, self-control, honesty, and charity are to be praised in leaders with whom we disagree. In the same way, pride, aggression, anger, deceit, and self-aggrandizement should be lamented and called out in leaders, even in those with policies we support.

Love, Not Power

We’d do well to heed Augustine’s warning and exhortation:

While some steadfastly continued in that which was the common good of all, namely, in God Himself, and in His eternity, truth, and love; others, being enamored rather of their own power, as if they could be their own good . . . became proud, deceived, envious. The cause, therefore, of the blessedness of the good is adherence to God.

Or as Micah puts it, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8, NIV).

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