The Body Politic and the Body of Christ

A former US presidential candidate recently said that a current US presidential candidate had “coddl[ed] . . . repugnant bigotry,” and that doing so “is not in the character of America.”1 If you would, please consider with me what in the world this could mean.

In and Out of Character

When we say that doing something is not in a person’s character, we mean that that person is not the kind of person who would do that kind of thing. It is not in Kanye West’s character to be self-deprecating, while it is in Jennifer Lawrence’s. He’s not the kind of person who presents himself as less than he is, while she is. It is similarly not in Barack Obama’s character to get angry, while it is in Marshall Mathers’.2 President Obama is not the kind of person who has a temper, while Eminem does (or at least he did).

But that is what it means for something to (not) be in a person’s character, and I recall having a national debate here in America a while back about whether groups—specifically corporations—were persons. I believe we all decided they were not. Corporations may have people in them, but are not themselves people.

So, what could it mean for something not to be in a nation’s character? To say that “America is not the kind of country that does that kind of thing” implies that (a) there are things that countries like America typically do and don’t do, and (b) this is one of the things countries like America typically don’t. But do countries do things?

Exegesis #1: Americans Do Not Tend to Coddle Bigotry

Why not say the people in countries do things instead? Let us try this option first in our attempt to properly exegete Former Governor Romney’s tweet. Perhaps what he meant by “coddling . . . repugnant bigotry” not being “in the character of America” is that it is not in the character of Americans.

Humans tend not to be welcoming to people who think differently than they do. Differences of opinion tend to make humans feel defensive, and defensive people tend to get angry at whatever they are feeling threatened by. It takes a lot of work to overcome this internal chain reaction of emotions, and thus to effectively stop acting like a bigot. It is much easier instead to try to shut out those who make one feel threatened and to fill one’s intellectual environment with people who affirm what one believes and/or condemn what makes one feel threatened.

That is, acting bigotedly and coddling bigotry would seem to be the easier path—easier than doing the hard work of attaining the intellectual virtue of perspective-taking (actively trying to see the world from others’ points of view). And I would propose that humans tend to take the easier path. It is a tendency that we can overcome. Not everyone is lazy; some people become Olympic athletes. But since it is so much easier to be lazy, the human tendency will be toward laziness.

I have strong doubts, therefore, that it is not in Americans’ general or average character to coddle bigotry. Americans are humans, and thus will tend to act like humans everywhere have always tended to act on average.

I assume, however, that Former Governor Romney is aware of all of the above. That is, I assume I do not have any special access to these obvious facts about humanity. Since they are obvious, Former Governor Romney will no doubt have noticed them himself. (I take the Principle of Charity3 as my hermeneutical guide, in other words.)

So, I conclude that this first exegesis of Governor Romney’s tweet fails.

Exegesis #2: Avoid the Fallacy of Composition

Since Former Governor Romney must not have meant that Americans aren’t the kind of people who tend to coddle bigotry, perhaps what he meant could be better expressed by: “America itself treats people with dignity and respect, no matter what personal beliefs they hold.” But can that be true of the nation when it tends not to be true of the nation’s members?

The answer is, “Yes, it could be if America were a whole.” A whole, after all, is something different from its parts and thus may have different properties from its parts. You, for example, are a whole, and your hand is a part of you, but you are not your hand. (Or, rather, you are only in part your hand.) This is why you can have the property of being able to sing while your hand does not. It is likewise why your hand can be an instrument for grasping, while you are not

Similarly, your car is a whole and none of its parts has the property of being drivable. You can’t drive your car’s front bumper, its driver’s seat, or its rear-passenger-side tire, for example. But you can drive your car as a whole. Since your car as a whole is a different thing from its parts, it can have different properties from its parts.

To reason from the fact that a part has (or lacks) a particular quality to the conclusion that the whole to which that part belongs has (or lacks) that quality—simply because the whole in question contains the part in question—is called the Fallacy of Composition.4 So, if America were in fact a whole, it might be the case that it is characteristic of America not to coddle bigotry even though it is not characteristic of most of its parts.

That is, if America is a thing (an entity, an object of some kind) and we Americans are all parts of that thing, then just because most of us have (or lack) a particular tendency does not necessarily mean that America itself does as well.

The Body Politic and the Body of Christ

But is America a whole? Is a nation an entity, like you, I, and the computer you are reading this on? And are a nation’s citizens parts of that whole?

This kind of question is particularly important for Christians who must deal with the notion of Christ’s body in two different senses. The first and most famous is the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, and 1 Corinthians 11:24 as saying of a loaf of bread, “This is my body.” His disciples then consumed that bread, and its parts became parts of them.

The second is less famous, but still deeply important to Christians’ self-understanding. St. Paul refers to Christians as “members” of the “body” of Christ in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 5. Unlike America, it is obvious that Christ is a whole. He is a person, and persons are wholes. It is at least easy to understand how a person can be a whole, even if it is difficult to understand how we can be parts of another person,

Note, however, that few Christians think of Christ’s Body in this way. We tend instead to think of “the Body of Christ” as a metaphorical label for the group we would otherwise call “the Church.” If we think of the issue in this way, we exchange one problem (“How can multiple people be parts of another person?”) for another. In fact, the problems . . .

  • “Are a country’s citizens parts of it, and is therefore the country a whole?” and
  • “Are Christians part of the Body of Christ (i.e., the Church), and is therefore the Body of Christ a whole?”

. . . become identical. We are speaking in both cases about a group and its members, and asking whether the group is itself a thing (a whole) that includes its members as parts.

Dependent Identity

At the core of this problem is the issue of derived or dependent identity. My hand derives its identity from me. What it is to be my hand is to be my hand. It is of me. In me it lives and moves and has its being, as it were. It depends on me for being what it is.5

Similarly, we tend to think of ourselves as deriving our identity at least in part from the groups to which we belong. I am a Tillman, an American, a Christian. I depend for my identity on my family, and thus feel like I am discovering things about myself when I explore my family’s history. I depend for my identity on my country, and thus feel proud or ashamed when I learn of things “it” has done. My identity as a Christian depends on . . . what? On the group, “Christians”? On the religion, “Christianity”? On the person, Christ?

Note however that for one thing to derive its identity from another, or to depend for its identity on another, the two do not have to be related as part to whole. A portrait of me depends for its identity—for what it is (a portrait of me)—on me, but is not a part of me. And are we not images of God (Genesis 1:26–27), meant “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29, NRSV; compare 1 Corinthians 15:49 and 2 Corinthians 3:18)?

Confusions, Distinctions, and Maturity

The reason I worry about all of this is that being able to draw appropriate distinctions is an aspect of intellectual maturity6 toward which most people only take a few baby steps. The human tendency is to see identity everywhere, to lump everything together. As we grow, we become able to make a few distinctions like that between “people in my group” and “people in other groups.” But very few ever do the hard work of taking the further step of learning to see the distinctions between people “within” each group. Instead, they continue to identify everyone in each group with everyone else in that group.

Take Bob, the average human being, for instance. If anyone in Bob’s group is insulted or attacked, Bob feels insulted and attacked because he can’t fully distinguish himself from the other members of the group. And if any member of another group is mean to him, he thinks everyone in that group is responsible because he can’t fully distinguish between them. When you put together these two failures, Bob comes to see everyone in the other group as responsible for whatever any one of them does to any one of the members of his group. And that way lie blood feuds, clan and gang wars, and racism.

We derive our sense of self and of the meaning of life from the things on which we depend for our identities. Knowing who you are and having a meaningful life are good things. So, there must be a healthy way for our identities to depend on things other than ourselves.

Surely, furthermore, if we truly derive our identities from Christ, we have a good thing going on. But I remain suspicious of the idea that this means we must see the groups to which we belong as wholes.


I conclude, therefore, that Former Governor Romney must think of America as a whole, though I cannot follow him in that belief. He is not obviously wrong—I gather that most rational and good people agree with him—but it is a dangerous belief to hold. Like many dangerous things, it can be used for both good and ill, and its being dangerous does not mean it is false. However, I certainly would feel safer in a world without it.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • Phil

    If you are implying that Romney’s view of a whole America is dangerous, I think you need to clarify that statement with more explanation or evidence. It seems to me that, regardless of the truth of his statement, he is calling on “the better angels of our nature” to influence people to reject Trump. While I don’t necessarily share Romney’s political stances, I don’t see a problem with him elevating the rhetoric in an effort to influence people to think more clearly and rationally. Please explain how you think it is a “dangerous belief to hold.”

    • Hi Phil, thanks for the request! As I explain in the article, treating groups as wholes is a key factor in racism, nationalism, blood feuds, etc. When one accustoms oneself to thinking that way, one cuts oneself off from conceptual tools and safeguards needed to combat racism, nationalism, etc. (In addition to the fact that it is simply false to say a nation so “polarized” and “divided” as ours is a whole.)

      You are correct, however, about what Former Governor Romney was trying to do. Thank you very much for bringing that out, and good on him for trying! I’m glad he did. But you know what they say about the road to hell.

      • Phil

        I certainly appreciate your point of painting with a broad brush. I agree that racism, nationalism, et cetera are stoked when people use them as a group tool. However, the reverse can also be true. If I were to say, “America stands in solidarity against Islamism and jihadism,” I certainly paint with a broad brush, but I am using the power of community to draw the line against harmful ideology.

        The crux of my point is thus: painting with a broad brush can be used to spread bad and good ideas alike. We should not simply forsake the tool while others use it cause harm. It would be irresponsible for those with even a modicum of power NOT to use it with great care when it can clearly be a vehicle for improving the well being of others. You know what they say about those with great power.

  • Peter Schellhase

    Micah, what I really want to know is, is the musician J. Tillman your little brother?

    From my reading of political philosophy, I get the sense that the idea of the “body politic” reached its full development in the early modern political discourse, along with the “divine right of kings.” These two ideas were related in their attempt to find an absolute ground for political sovereignty in the breakdown of the medieval paradigm.

    These concepts attempt to establish a political sacramentum analogous to that of the Church. But in those days it was not viewed as a metaphor anymore than the Church as the true Body of Christ was considered to be a mere metaphor. Rather, it was a reality expressed in political form. The political discourse of the time, which frequently compared national events with the political history of the Israelites, reflects this.

    Mormonism is obviously this political theology of America-as-Israel (on crack), so it’s not a surprise to see Mormons like Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck expressing these views.

    I disagree with this vision of politics. But the understanding of the Church as sacramentum appeared much earlier (it is present in the apostolic Scriptures) and is associated with the theology of the Eucharist. So I think I would go further than you seem to go in affirming that as individual Christians we are in fact members of Christ’s undivided body, and therefore also members of one another, in a more than representational sense.

    • My younger siblings are all musicians, but the J. Tillman in our family is my sister and the other J who is also a musician is our brother-in-law (though different last name) 🙂

      I understand the history of the term “body politic” in the same as as you do, and would add that Plato and Aristotle were already doing political theory in terms of bodies since they saw the polis as a whole (that in Plato’s Republic can have virtues or vices and be happy or sad, and from which we can learn about our own souls).

      The disagreement between the ancients and the moderns, therefore, was over how political wholes came into being: the moderns thought it was something deliberate and chosen, while the ancients thought it was something organic and natural. I depart from both by asserting that a group is a fundamentally different kind of thing from a whole precisely in being a group (and thus in not being a single thing at all). But I’m weird.

      (And also, as a Christian, I assume there can be something spiritual about Christ and the Church that would make a religious group a different case; though I would also argue the church has–just as a matter of historical contingency–never been one, as Christ and the Father are one. One day though we may be!)

      • Peter Schellhase

        I was referring to the musician who tours as Father John Misty and according to my brother grew up in our hometown of Gaithersburg. Thought you might be related via the small world department 🙂

        Tend to agree with your political radicalism, although again I would set it off in contrast with the Church as Christ’s Body, which gathers all “nations” into one.

  • TJ Humphrey

    Well said! I enjoyed this. Initially, I wasn’t sure where you were going to go with it (which intrigued me enough to really dive in). You pulled everything together in a very satisfying and thought provoking way, though. It was great following your line of thought with you. Your thought process here really reminds of what I have read in the ancient Church Fathers, especially as they wrestled through the implications of human personhood and human nature. I felt like, in a way, you took a piece of Cappadocian theology and applied it to today’s political context. Not sure if that is what you were going for but I thought it was cool. Great article!

    • Thanks so much, TJ! I really appreciate that. And If I understand correctly, we philosophers owe our concept of personhood to the Cappadocians. It would be foolish for at least us Christian philosophers not to take the work of the theologians into account on this stuff. We need our theories to work for the whole of reality, not just the human corner thereof 🙂