New books on Christians and politics

Those that know us here at Hearts & Minds know of our firm conviction that Christ is King, and that, therefore, His reign, truth, grace, and ways apply--in one way or another--to everything in life, both personal and social. I noted in my February 8th blog post about the new N.T. Wright book, Surprised By Hope, that there are cultural and social implications of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christ. These are, in many ways, the upshot of Wright's book on the creational restoration promised in Christ's resurrection plan--and why he links our view of heaven, the notion of a restored physicality in resurrection, and the mission of the church. Of course, we could make such claims based on the very doctrine of creation (this is, all of it, God's world, so art and arcihtecture, sex and soldiering, business and baking, play and politics--okay, you get the point, I'm sure--can be done to God's glory and in Christ's Spirit.) Also, we can make the argument for social engagement from the doctrine of incarnation--God did invade and bless this world when He came to Earth in the person of Christ. And certainly, many, many obligations and implications flow from our doctrine of mission: Christ calls us to disciple the nations in His ways, not just save souls; wholistic mission, really, leads to Godly service in every area of life.

And so, selling books about and helping people of faith consider the cultural implications of faith for the fields of work and science and family and entertainment and such has been our passion, in many ways that which makes our store most distinctive. We are very ecumenical, to be sure. We stock a blend of religious publishers and general market books, which I hear is rather rare. We have authors that are serious and light-hearted, we promote academic and popular level titles. Yes, we'd like to think we have an interesting mix, but this notion that God's Kingdom is wide-as-life and our vocation is to serve Christ across the totality of life, in thoughtful engagement with the issues of the day, that is what brings coherence to our sometimes maddening inventory selection. Call it a Christian worldview, or an "all of life redeemed"  perspective, call it "reformational"  or culturally-engaged or wholistic. People tell us it sets our selection apart, and causes us to stock books that you don't see in most Christian or theological bookstores.

***

As I write this, we are in the throes of heated and interesting political primary races, campaigns in which Christian faith--and, more generally, the relationship of any faith and the public square--is being talked about more (and in more interesting ways) than ever before in my memory. And so, the social context of this month's column includes the breakdown of the religious right, the clear testimony of Christian faith among both democrats and republicans (indeed, the way candidate Obama, especially, has made clear his own faith, and the way some Republicans have not) and the debate about the justification of theological tests for candidates (did Romney's Mormonism matter? Does Huckebee's fundamentalism?) These are interesting times. 

Into this setting comes a whole batch of brand-new books about faith and politics. Thank goodness for some very, very good ones--the best I've seen in years, to be honest, for the casual Christian reader. (I've mentioned three great new ones already in my blog post of January 10, 2008.) We have often noted in this column enduring, serious books in political science before. (Paul Marshall's God and the Constitution is still, despite it's hardback price, and slightly mis-named title, the best introductory book on the subject, and David K's serious rejection of the ideologies that undergird and shape both liberals and conservatives is found in the mature, and very important, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies.) Still, for those who want new, thoughtful, accessible and important resources on conscientious citizenship, this is fabulous season for Christian political books.

If you, like me, have ever worried that there would not develop a consensus on the need for a balanced, non-partisan, radically Biblical view of citizenship, we can begin to set those fears aside. I pray--I really do--that these books will help shape the worldview and cultural attitudes, the politics and citizenship habits of the people of God this year. I am sure that most rank and file church members, mainline or evangelical, haven't given adequate thought to this, and I am sure that they will resonate with these kinds of books if they ever discover them. Given that ordinary folks don't frequent seminary bookstores and that ordinary mom and pop "Christian bookstores"  may not promote these titles, it will be imperative that those of us who care about this agenda of a uniquely Christian political viewpoint promote these books any way we can. Using them in book clubs, Bible study groups, adult education classes, writing blogs and op-ed pieces in your local newspapers may be ways to tell others about these treasures of the new year. I'd even invite you to copy this column and pass it on. We've got to get the word out about these sorts of books.

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics Ronald J. Sider (Baker) $15.99 You should know, if you've read this column for long, that I esteem Ron Sider immensely, that I appreciate his commitments to the Bible, and his humble spirit. I've read every book he's written, almost, and am continually amazed at his hopefulness, evangelical zeal, and tireless efforts to get Bible-believing Christians to think faithfully about global realities, societal reformation, and public justice. His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has been cited often as one of the most important books of the 20th century, and it has been my privilege to host him here in York, and to be with him at numerous events over the year and I view him as a cherished Christian brother. Sider is not nearly as "single-issue"  or extreme as some presume he is. (One of my favorite essays of his was about his joy of fishing and feasting on vacations, despite his reputation for living a "simple lifestyle."  I read and re-read his essay in Prism about the aging of his pious father, after his elderly mother had died.) That he has been called a Marxist is one of the dumber things that critics have written. He grew up a Brethren farm boy and surely doesn't want the government running everything! He does attend, though, to clear Bible teaching about the authority of the state to pass laws regarding social welfare, an exegetical debate that he wins "hands down"  (even if there are legitimate quibbles about how to best enact such normative directives into contemporary policies.) 

This new book, then, as we have come to expect, passionate and balanced, significantly informed by a variety of Christian perspectives and views. Sider's fluency in, for instance, the Anabaptist peace witness, the evangelical mainstream, progressive two-thirds world evangelicals, the Reformed/Kuyperian worldview thinkers, and the mainline/ecumenical contribution, makes him positioned to offer a bird-eye view of the topic. (A year or so ago he co-edited a very important book, with a rather conservative colleague and friend, the late Diane Knippers, about the NAE public policy statement, which he helped draft, "For the Health of the Nation"  which epitomized a wise, multi-denominational view.) When he calls for a faithful methodology he has a keen sense of what that may mean, and shows us clearly. 

While this book begins by looking at the ways in which evangelicals have, in previous decades, ignored the Biblical commands about justice, the poor, peacemaking, the environment, and the like, his goal is to help all Christians develop a solid, Biblical framework and agenda. As one with conservative theological views, he takes seriously pro-family matters, is clearly pro-life, and has deep concerns about the erosion of traditional sexual ethics, of course, so he does not abandon that in favor of other concerns; he is not a partisan "leftist Christian"  instead of a Republican Christian. No, this is more of a call for a "third way"  beyond or other than the typical sides of a bi-polar continuum. This is his call to develop a comprehensive and coherent public philosophy, a comprehensive and coherent view of the state rooted in the Christian mind and a distinctive political philosophy, and, finally, a grace-filled, yet urgent, prophetic witness and action plan for working in favor of God's ways for public life. It may appear to liberal for some, it may appear to conservative for others, but that may be because our political imaginations are constrained by these worldly categories and partisan positions, neither of which do full justice to a truly Christina view and have foundational loyalties to views and values that are not necessarily Biblical. My, my, this is without a doubt the most thorough study I've yet seen of a Biblical view of the state and a Christian view of politics for the average reader. 

The scandal of The Scandal of Evangelical Politics is, then, that the politics of at least the spokespersons for the evangelical movement have not been evangelical enough; that is, conservative Protestants have largely not in their political lives been guided by the first things of the gospel, and their positions have not been truly Biblical. Even if you aren't interested in the specific matter of how and why evangelicals focused so exclusively on abortion and homosexuality, say, and why the far Christian right is not adequately guided by the whole counsel of God, this book is a must-read. It is, actually, less a critique of the Christian right or recent evangelical failures than a vibrant and urgent and persuasive call to get our politics from a coherent and sane and honorable reading of the Bible. It may be one of the most important books of the year, if it can convince a new generation of evangelical folk to "think Christianly"  and commit to a truly Biblical civic agenda. It is surely the best book to do that, one of the best books for Christians of any stripe. 

By the way, Ron has another brand new books out, released by Herald Press, entitled I Am Not A Social Activist, ($16.99) which is a fantastic collection of his short pieces that have been in the ESA journal Prism over the years. I have read and re-read some of these and we are so glad that these inspiring essays are now in one volume.
***

The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America Jim Wallis (HarperOne) $25.95 Well, what to say about this amazing, inspiring release, which is soon-to-be a best seller? I have to say that if you know much about Wallis, you will understand that he has been saying the same thing, in one way or another, for decades. He was once--along with Sider---what the media termed a "young evangelical" ; he and a few comrades got booted out of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for protesting the war in Viet Nam, and networked with others who were conservative Protestants, a new kind of evangelical, reading Bonhoeffer and King and Ellul and Merton. Such socially engaged and counter-cultural evangelicals created Sojourners and The Other Side and Evangelical for Social Action's Prism and supported civil rights (think of John Perkins, say) and evangelical feminism (see, now, the group Christians for Biblical Equality) and a host of anti-poverty, peace and social justice ministries, even as they formed communities and called their fellow evangelicals away from civil religion and a middle-class personalized piety. They stayed true to the evangelical call to honor Christ, to do evangelism, to be guided in personal practices of prayer, holiness, worship and spirituality, but with an eye to social action and with less hostility towards other faith traditions (like mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics and the ever-inspiring Mennonite/Anabaptists like John Howard Yoder..) Although Wallis never quite appreciated it when he was called a leader of "the Christian left"  it was clear he was the most important spokesperson for those who were not the Christian right. He ended up debating Falwell on Nightline and standing with Desmond Tutu in South Africa, and was deeply involved in the base communities of Central America. He convinced his elders Campolo and Sider and Perkins to do civil disobedience in the U.S. Capitol to protest budget cuts that hurt the poor. Wallis drew ecumenical associates--Catholic nuns and liberal mainliners and African American church folk---in a way Sider did not, but he still called himself an evangelical and a preacher. He has written a string of books saying that God's concern for the poor is the number one Biblical value by which the public order can be evaluated; his community time and again insisted that no matter what party was in power, they would stand against an increase in arms, any support for dictators of the right or left, and, consistently, stood for aid to the poor and American's urban centers. These books have nourished me over the years, even though they have all been very similar. I still recommend his second book, Call to Conversion, as one of his very best.

God's Politics, however, really did seem to come at the right time. Wallis was no longer quipping against Falwell on talk shows, he was leading justice rallies and street marches and teaching classes at the Kennedy school in Harvard and doing op-ed pieces for the Washington Post insisting that "the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it."  He showed how this consistent ethic of life, a moral vision for "higher ground"  and a passion for the disenfranchised and military restraint could shape the public discourse, as more and more citizens became disillusioned with the shallowness and stridency of the Christian right. (And, with Robertson saying increasingly loony stuff, and guys like James Dobson relentlessly polarizing, his call to "God's politics"  defined more broadly then that, really took off.) God's Politics and a subsequent study guide, Living God's Politics became New York Times best-sellers and international hits. Wallis was as popular as he has ever been, going on exhausting book tours, movement rallies and building momentum for a new kind of discussion about the relationship of faith and politics.

Now, we have the book I think I've been waiting for from Jim: The Great Awakening is in many ways a sequel to his last several in that it tells the stories of those who are living out this vision, and makes the case for the kinds of religious commitments and spiritual renewal that will be necessary to sustain a new kind of politics. As E. J. Dionne (who himself has a very thoughtful new book out, by the way) has said, "No one has done more than Wallis to transform, advance, and enrich our country's conversation about faith and politics, and no voice has been as powerful or prophetic as Wallis' in advancing the cause of justice" "  Even Joel Hunter (whose excellent book A New Kind of Conservative I posted about in a blog review last month) calls him "one of the great moral voices of our time."  He continues, " This book is a path to our spiritual maturity and our country's moral progress."  Robert Franklin, president of the historic black college, Morehouse, says, "Wallis is the most influential and visionary religious leader of our time. His broad appeal and impact are reminiscent of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only has he provided clear intellectual direction for our political, cultural, and spiritual renaissance, he has launched a movement to renew the church and our democracy." 

Well, all of this may be a bit overstated, the hype of the back-jacket blurb. But I have met Jim on numerous occasions, have read his many Sojourners columns over the years, and while I may sometimes wish he would say something a bit differently, or re-emphasize something in slightly other ways, I have few qualms about recommending this book to anyone. It is chock-full of great stories, introducing us to a movement that is brewing across our land. It is inspiring and fascinating reading, upbeat and positive, serious and urgent. It's view of "awakening"  isn't exactly what those of us who study Edwards--the Great Awakening theologian, Jonathan, not the recently-withdrawn candidate, ---would hope for, but his passion so see deep religious faith shape our public life is clear, plain-spoken, and bridge-building for many in our culture. Who wouldn't affirm the need for a moral center for the common good? (Calvinist Edwards wouldn't deny the need for some common language for our civic concerns and even Methodist Stanley Hauerwas has a very intense and scholarly book just out which is a conversation with a non-Christian political philosopher about how faith can fund radical democracy.) Wallis' book will take us a good way in the right direction.

I love this Bono quote:

I had always been a skeptic of the church of personal peace and prosperity" of righteous people standing in a holy huddle while the world rages outside the stained glass. But I've learned that there are many people of the cloth who are also in the world---from dept cancellation to the fight against AIDS to human rights, they are on the march. Jim Wallis isn't just part of this movement---he's out front carrying a bullhorn.

The Great Awakening isn't exactly a bullhorn--- it is less noisy than that. It even has moments of good humor (and a few stories from his time coaching his little son's baseball team.) Come one, folks, let's get in on this. Buy and talk about this book in your neighborhood, library, school, civic group, or workplace. 

***


Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy Steve Monsma (Crossway) $16.99 Monsma was himself an elected official (in Michigan) and he has impeccable theological and political chops--he taught political science at Pepperdine University. This guy knows his stuff, is balanced, thoughtful, Biblical, and fair-minded. Here, he weighs in on a handful of specific issues, offering up a Christian framework, and a Biblically-shaped perspective, that would help make sense of various views and topics. It is ideal for an adult Sunday school class, with great discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

The first part is foundational, and I appreciate his Reformed worldview, that suggests the need for a balanced view, the Christian mind, a faithful set of assumptions about God's world and the nature of political life. Here, he teaches us about justice, solidarity, the civil society and other key notions that can inform our vocabulary and thinking. With endorsements from folks as diverse as Ron Sider (Evangelicals for Social Action) and Joel Belz (World magazine), Chuck Colson and David Gushee, many distinguished evangelical scholars have raved about Monsma's wise guidance. That he starts with this great foundational section is very, very helpful.

In the next several chapters, Dr. Monsma applies this balanced framework to a handful of complex and controversial issues---from national defense to human rights, the "life"  issues to domestic poverty, from matters about taxation to principles for creation-care. Here, he is very helpful, insightful, and altogether humble. He knows all about jurisprudence and church/state legislation, but I find his views to be modest and clear. It offers more substance than the previously mentioned books, even as he admits to not having the only true view; he is not partisan and he is not strident. And, frankly, I think he is mostly right.

A DVD featuring a 10-minute introduction to each chapter of this book is available from the publisher (www.crossway.org) or from the think-tank at which he now works, the Carl Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics (www.calvin.edu/henry .) Why not start a small group or class at your church using this fine resource? 

*** 

The Case for Civility (And Why Our Future Depends On It) Os Guinness (HarperOne) $23.95 Okay, let me say this as clearly as I can. I have raved about the above books--Christian thinking about political life, getting involved in a campaign of social justice-minded activism for the common good, developing a faith-based perspective on various issues of the day. These three books are all very, very useful, and I couldn't be more excited than to use our little spot here to promote them, and help launch a new level and sort of discourse about civic life in our time. Yeah for Sider, Wallis, Monsma.

However. Please understand that even with my vigor for this kind of social action, I am equally concerned that we not take this more balanced and justice-oriented perspective, and rail about it in the public square in the way the Christian right has. One of the distinctives of a Christian worldview--even if we need to take a prophetic stand sometimes---is humility and decency. Our methods of persuasion need to be as Christ-like as our agenda. Os Guinness has long been a reminder of this, one of the most eloquent reminders, and he has given us a great, great gift in this thoughtful, careful, well-crafted work. Alongside any of the new crop of Christian books on faithful citizenship, The Case for Civility is doubtlessly a must-read.

Guinness brings his British insight to one of the glories of the American experiment, and this is, of course, the way our Founders crafted the Bill of Rights. Our first Amendment, you surely recall, allows for freedom for and freedom from religion. In one genius stroke, the Fathers strike down the extremists of the secular left and the religious right (no matter how they both claim to be the most faithful patriots.)

Guinness, being an evangelical, is, perhaps, harder on the Christian right here than he is on the ACLU-type secularists. Still, his balanced critique cuts many ways, and all are called to a more civil approach in our public discourse.

Guinness, as those of us who have heard him know, is a masterful communicator, an elegant and eloquent leader. He is on that short list of authors that I would buy any book he releases. And he is on that list of authors I read more than once. His wit and storytelling and deep historical insight shows up here, of course, but so does his own civil approach; although he is often perplexed by wrong-headed tendencies and foolish, he rarely names names, he is polite and courteous. He wants a culture of civility, and his critique of culture wars approaches is done in a manner worthy of his principles.

I find it fascinating that Guinness, here, and in most of his work, is rarely identified with the political left or right; he has endorsements from first amendment specialists, mainline denominational folk, Islamic scholars and secular journalists. (How nice to see an endorsement on the book by a prominent professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York beside pastor Rick Warren, who calls it a "prescriptive masterpiece." 

If you are not swayed by a mega-church dude saying it is great, how about this, from one of the most prominent sociologists of our time, Dr. Peter L. Berger, of Boston University, "Guinness makes an eloquently argued case for overcoming the culture wars and creating a culture of civility. The Case for Civility is a brilliant analysis of our situation and a possible remedy."  

This is work that Guinness has been doing for years and years. You may recall that he spearheaded a major project in the 80s, drawing together Supreme Court judges, most living Presidents, politicos and pundits and scholars across the ideological spectrum called "The Williamsburg Charter"  which was a celebration of the First Amendment. Out of that statement---considered controversial by a few on the Christian right who didn't want a respectful call to a pluralistic culture---came a remarkable book that Guinness co-edited, Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy (which we still stock, by the way.) That fairly academic contribution is an extraordinary contribution and vital resource, but Case for Civility has the potential of being widely read, and widely discussed. It takes the fruit of his decades-long commitment to thinking about public matters, and shares it with clarity and passion.

Two chapters will give you a hint of his balanced and helpful approach.  The Case for Civility goes beyond being a scolding for being belligerent, to offer a (modest) proposal, a compact, for ways to live with our deepest differences. Chapter Four is entitled "Say No to the Sacred Public Square"  and it is particularly hard on the agenda of the Christian right (or any other religious group that may want to impose it's views on the commonweal.) Chapter Five, though, is called "Say No to the Naked Public Square"  which (using language coined by Richard John Neuhaus's famous book) chides those who would want to forbid faith perspective from fair treatment in the public debate. If he advises a rejection of both a faith-ruled public square and a secularized one as well, what approach does he favor? This is the burden of the book, and it is well worth studying, and studying well. It is spelled out with greatest clarity in a chapter that is called "A Cosmopolitan and Civil Public Square."  It is, as he says, a "true remedy"  as we relish our diversity, invite fair treatment for all perspectives, and honor the best ideals of American democracy. 

The hard-core secularists will not like this proposal, but neither will the Christian fundamentalists, I'm afraid, although anyone can benefit from reading this suggestive work. Still, it isn't just extremists who need reminded of the ways of civility, but all of us. I suspect that Hearts & Minds readers are neither secularist nor fundamentalist, and most of us don't get too cranky in our public discourse, but we will all be pricked and challenged, our most basic attitudes reformed and our deepest convictions clarified, as we read through this new Guinness manifesto. Can we call a book about civility a manifesto? Can we be passionate about values as moderate as toleration? Ahhh, that is another of the brilliant strokes of this book. Without being melodramatic or exceedingly rhetorical, The Case for Civility allows the reader to come away with fabulous history, enlightening insights, innovative political philosophy, and renewed hope for the fabric of our society. And, importantly, we come away ourselves renewed and restored to an urgent task. It is, as the subtitle reminds us, something upon which our very future as a civilization may depend. Read this book with care, and allow it to shape our attitudes and actions. It is the way of dignity and of honor and of authentic social progress.