Between the time I write this and you read it, I will have voted in the Florida primary. Kind of seems like an exercise in futility at this point, but since I could walk to the polling place (or drive by it on the way to gym) it also seems wrong to not exercise my civic duty before I exercise by upper body and quads. Also, since the polling place is a Unitarian Universalist church, it will be nice to see that location being used for something productive (just kidding, although not really, I’m just being ironic given what I said just a few sentences ago).
Anyway, let’s talk politics.
Recently, IVP Academic sent me a couple of books on the subject, as did Zondervan. The first I’ll mention is Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. It is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series, which I’ve commended previously (here, here, here, and here). Along with J. P. Moreland, Beckwith served as a series editor, and this gave him a chance to put the vision in the series preface into practice.
Over the course of 5 chapters, Beckwith covers topics like separation of church and state, secular liberalism, natural rights and natural moral law, and the Christian’s relationship to liberal democracy. The opening chapter gives a taxonomy of the branches of study within politics. All of this takes place in about 130 or so pages. While this makes it seems like a primer on the topics addressed (and it is), Beckwith offers sophisticated analysis of the issues he discusses and I found it particularly thought provoking. This is especially so for the final chapter on natural rights and moral law and whether one can ground either of those in God’s absence (short answer is no).
I think this book should be a if not the starting point for Christians who want to think more deeply about politics. Other books may be more comprehensive, but this one is more foundational (especially the opening chapter charting the lay of the land) and sets better groundwork (especially if you value philosophy). As there is a need for Christians to be more political savvy (not just more involved), this book is the place to start.
The next place to stop off might be Zondervan’s Five Views on The Church and Politics. I’ve mentioned my fondness for multi-view books many times before. This one is no exception, although I felt that the contributors could have duked it out a bit more in the responses (especially for a book on politics). Whereas Beckwith’s book is more about thinking through the nature of political science and a Christian’s place in relationship to it, this book is focused more on the church’s relationship to political life. In other words, it is one thing for Christians to have certain expectations for private political involvement. It is another to try to dictate what the church at large should be doing in regards to political life.
Taking cues from Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture, the contributors here are plotted along a similar spectrum:
- Anabaptist (Separationist): Thomas Heilke
- Lutheran (Paradoxical): Robert Benne
- Black Church (Prophetic): Bruce Fields
- Reformed (Transformationist): James K. A. Smith
- Catholic (Synthetic): J. Brian Benestad
Each author was responsible to trace the historical development of their position. Then they were to consider their tradition’s view on the role of government, as well as also addressing the extent to which an individual Christians and churches should be involved. The goal is to lay out the theory underlying each tradition’s view, which is then applied to the practical situation of policy debates about domestic poverty (17). The authors for the most part complete their task well and in concise fashion. I found myself agreeing in part with each in one way or another, but found the most agreement with Smith’s Kuyperian vision.
What tends to emerge as you read is that each tradition is variegated such that each author is part of a spectrum within their own label. I think Smith is the most self-aware of this, but other authors either comment on themselves or others in the response sections. Speaking of the response sections, they tended to be a little more agreeable than most books like this that I’ve read. I think this might further illustrate politics can be messy. In other words, while the authors could be agreeable in their responses, they can’t all be fully on the same page regarding how involved the church should be in political life or even which kind of policies flow from “the” Christian position. For reasons why this is, one would need to jump back up and read Beckwith’s book.
Finally, for a book that is not on politics per se, but definitely details some of the influences in American political life, you should read John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. In a nutshell, here’s the argument of the book:
Exceptionalism is an aspect of American civil religion. Closed American exceptionalism entails the five theological commitments I listed above [chosen nation, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, glory], each conflicting with the Christian gospel and potentially leading to idolatry, so it must be discarded. But open American exceptionalism – while it remains a part of civil religion – serves as a benefit to the nation, to religion and to the world by fostering a civic engagement informed by freedom, equality, and justice. (20)
The first two chapters of the book explain the historical roots of American exceptionalism. It is kind of like the new patriotism and entails a web of beliefs and moods about the status of the nation (“we’re different”), it’s mission (global peacekeeper, model for others, etc), and its character (“we’re better and everyone should be like us”). Wilsey makes a distinction between open and closed exceptionalism, which is important to keep in mind:
Closed exceptionalism is unrealistic and unchristian because it locates life’s ultimate purpose and meaning in America itself as the millennial fulfillment of human experience. But open exceptionalism find its expression in the American creed of individual freedom, natural rights, justice and equality (32).
Exceptionalism is not the problem per se, but rather how it is construed in relationship to the American story can be problematic. Thinking of America as a chosen nation that has a right to the land it inhabits and is on a divine mission to save the world is closed American exceptionalism. This plays itself out when one views immigrants (who make up the nation to begin with) are problematic because they intrude and wants to build higher and higher walls to keep them out. On the other hand, one could have a view American as exceptional, but see this land as a beacon of hope to the oppressed and offering unique opportunities for the advancement of human flourishing. The question is whether your view of exceptionalism leads to a wagon circling mentality or to offer a helping hand knowing you come from a place of privilege.
With this in mind, the rest of the chapters tackle the theological commitments that go with closed exceptionalism. The roots and development of each receive their own chapter length treatment. The final chapter reiterates the point that the closed version of American exceptionalism is not compatible with Christian faith, either theologically or practically. On the other hand, a model of open exceptionalism is good for civic engagement and human flourishing.
This is an important read for anyone who has believed or was taught that America is (or was) a Christian nation. Certain strains of that teaching are highly problematic (and Wilsey examines several that appear in homeschool curricula in the final chapter) and do more harm than good when comes to our perception of our nation. To help correct our view of our nation, while still maintaining a high view of it, I’d recommend working through Wilsey’s book this political season.