Christianity and the Social Contract

By Christopher Watkin 27 Aug 2020

'Contemporary Western society is in the grip of contractual thinking'- Virginia Held[1]

'The response to the pandemic, and to the widespread discontent that preceded it, must be based on a New Social Contract'- U.N. Secretary General António Guterres[2]

The U.N. Secretary General is doing it. The World Bank and Joe Biden are doing it, as are Black Lives Matter activists, Naomi Klein, Australian Liberal politicians and Extinction Rebellion: they are all using social contract language to frame the most important and immediate public issues of our day.

The ‘social contract’ is the political theory that our security and prosperity rely on a set of implicit assumptions and agreements that shape how individuals, governments and corporations relate to each other—these assumptions and agreements are the ‘social contract’. In everyday langauge, ‘the social contract’ means something like ‘the unwritten rules of how we all expect to treat each other in society’. If police beat or even murder a man they are supposed to protect, then they are breaking the social contract. If I sneak out of my house when I am supposed to be self-isolating because of COVID-19, then I am breaking the social contract.

Today, our social contract is facing acute and immediate challenges. From Black Lives Matter to the COVID-19 lockdowns, every day we see both the necessity and fragility of our social contract played out on the evening news.

Should Christians simply embrace the language of the social contract and join the conversation on those terms? Or should we critique and resist the idea of the social contract as a concept that frames our society’s present and guides its future?

Origins of social contract theory

As well as having a casual, everyday meaning, the ‘social contract’ also has a more specific, philosophical meaning. This more technical, philosophical sense of the term is multiple. The major classical social contract theorists Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau differ on many points, but at its most basic the idea holds that organised society began with a (usually mythical) agreement among individuals to surrender their natural freedom (the freedom to do just whatever they like) in exchange for the protections afforded by a central sovereign power, such as physical security and the right to own property. Almost no social contract theorists think the contract was a real historical event; it is a device to explain why we are willing to surrender our natural freedoms in society.

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What are the benefits and opportunities of using social contract language?

If the aim is to contribute to wider social debates and be heard in the public square, then one important consideration is that social contract language is simply the frame in which current discussions are taking place. Like Britain’s rail service, social contract language may be far from perfect and may include unwelcome detours, but it is almost certainly quicker than refusing all help and trying to walk.

The contract metaphor can also push against modern individualism in showing that no man is an island and that we are part of a larger society with obligations to each other, whether we like it or not.

The social contract has the distinct advantage over some historical and contemporary ideas of government that it attempts, in one way or another, to honour the security and dignity of all human beings, not just an elite.

The social contract makes visible that the foundation of our common life is deeper than laws and regulations. Society is not just built on legislation but on relationships of trust and mutual benefit, without which laws would crumble and society disintegrate.

What are the limits and dangers of the social contract idea?

In addition to the many critiques of the social contract idea in the academic literature,[3] Christians have raised some distinctive problems from a theological point of view.

The first is that the social contract is in fact a Christian heresy, a corruption and thinning out of the richer biblical notion of covenant, putting one or another human institution in the place of God.

Secondly, it has been argued that modern social contracts are living off the borrowed capital of Judaeo-Christian ideas of trust, promise-keeping, moral accountability and a power beyond the state, without which they cannot survive.[4]

Thirdly, the story of the social contract moving from a state of oppression through an act of deliverance to a state of security or freedom is parasitic on a distinctively Judeo-Christian salvation narrative.[5] 

A Toolbox of Christian Responses

Christian theology offers a cornucopia of ways to engage with social contract theory: to resist it, question it, transform it and improve it.

Social contract theory tends to reduce all fundamental relationships in society to the single relation between the individual and the state. The Christian Trinity diagonalizes[6] this dichotomy between the one and the many, providing a way of understanding relationships that preserves intermediate civil society groups such as the family, the church and the community.

The biblical covenants, particularly the Mosaic covenant, demonstrate how social agreements need to be underpinned by a complex of rituals, practices, ceremonies, catechisms and liturgies.[7] Legislative and regulatory interventions by themselves are far too shallow to renew the social contract.

Biblical covenants are based not on the reciprocity of (rational, self-interested, male, bourgeois) persons but on grace: Abram is asleep while God pledges himself in covenant to his descendants in Genesis 15, and Israel is rescued before it receives the Sinai law. The Bible presents a social model with gift and thankfulness at its basis, not the calculation and demand fostered by the contract paradigm.

A biblical ethic is also, gloriously, the fulfilment of the social contract. Christians can relate to the social contract in the same way that Paul relates to the values of Hebrews and Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1: showing how the fullness of its aspirations is found in Christ.[8]

The social contract in itself is neither inimical nor necessary to Christian social thought. While we would be unwise to eschew it on grounds of its imperfection we would also be foolish not to recognise its inner tensions and shortcomings, not least because the theological voice can offer a distinctively penetrating set of critiques and a particularly rich and coherent proposal for its renewal and strengthening in our day.

Christopher Watkin lectures at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia and is a contributor on the Jubilee Centre's post-coronavirus task force on the role of the state. You can find more reflections on the Bible and culture at his website: thinkingthroughthebible.com.


[1] Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[2] U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, “Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era”, New York, 18 July 2020.

[3] These include the charges that the contract reduces people to self-interested negotiators, is modelled on white bourgeois male citizens, excludes our relationship to nature, assumes the rational citizens it claims to cultivate, and smuggles in a covert vision of the good life when it claims to be merely procedural.

[4] David Novak, The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985) 12.

[6] See Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Press, 2017).

[7] I am using the term “liturgy” here in the sense developed by James K. A. Smith in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy: pre-theoretical practices that inculcate certain ways of living in and understanding the world and ourselves. Overlapping terms include “habit” and “paideia”.

[8] For an example of this model, see ‘Are Christianity and society in conflict?’, Cambridge Papers (Jubilee Centre: September 2019)

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