For months, now, I’ve been waiting to do this column about Christian faith and politics. I thought of a number of less-than-edifying and less-than-clever approaches — "Hearts & Minds goes red, white and blue," or "WWJVF? (Who Would Jesus Vote For?)."
I was, for instance, at a splendid conference on the Great Awakening philosopher and preacher Jonathan Edwards when John Edwards entered the Vice Presidential race and I thought "That’s it! I’ll call my column ‘What would that Jonathan Edwards say to this John Edwards?’ But I quickly thought better of it. Partially, of course, because I don’t really know enough to say. I do know that that Jonathan Edwards was a brilliant thinker, a good-hearted servant of God who believed that Christ’s Lordship somehow extended to every zone of life in the New World. His interest in science, his fluency in philosophy, his desire to serve in higher education, his steel mind and pastoral heart, his love for beauty and his supreme message of God’s grace for broken people would make him an able civics teacher.
I wonder not only about the campaigning Mr. Edwards and what he might learn from his namesake, but also about most twenty-first century politicos, on both sides of the aisle. Few have the depth of character or intellectual groundedness of the old-timers.
A recent book, in fact, that reflects on such things is nicely entitled Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day by James Emery White (IVP; hardcover, $17.00). It is graced on the cover not only with an etching of Washington, but offers a quote from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, saying, My friend, you and I have lived in serious times. The implication, of course, is that we do as well. Lon Allison, of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton says of the book, My soul is quaking under the impact of this book. Rather than another yawning treatise on cultural demise, Jim White calls us to ‘kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.’ And the way we kick, he rightly assesses, is with deepened souls and developed minds. Would that we would have such serious people for these times. This book helps show how we can be people of that maturity, depth and care.
So, here we go a column on faith and politics.
I hope I don’t step on too many toes, and I hope these book annotations are informative and helpful. Kudos to the publishers who do such rich work, and thanks to those customers who order them from us. Even more blessings upon those who not only buy em but use them in small groups, talk about them at work, give em away to their pastors or congresspeople. We appreciate the business friends send our way as we attempt to serve folks with these hard-to-find resources. As we approach November, may your number increase, faithful citizens who read, learn, discuss and grow, also in things of public life, civic concerns and politics.
Here is what my column this month will include:
First, I will describe some titles that will help Christian reflection on our civic duties, a biblically-shaped vision for government and some handles on thinking about political issues in our post-Christian and pluralistic times. For those who are already ducking for cover, these are not titles about taking back our Christian country or those of an arrogant or triumphalistic approach which swerves toward an imposed theocracy.
As always in these pages, I offer books which we trust will help thoughtful and engaged people of faith walk a third way, seeing a Godly and biblical alternative to the extreme poles and ideologies of our cultural landscape. In the realm of politics, I’d say, we want to offer books which tend to both reject the liberal social gospel and the conservative religious right. Neither do we want to yield to the hegemony of the secularized naked public square nor revert to some insistence that this is a Christian country (an assertion which is, in any case, historically inaccurate and doctrinally unfaithful).
We really don’t care as much about partisan labels as exploring how a biblical worldview would shape our social concerns and our sense of the principles involved, and then the possible policies that emerge from those principles. I hope, regardless of your theological or political persuasion, you will find these books stimulating, thought-provoking and worth discussing with your friends and neighbors. We think that these are helpful and important.
I also list a few online resources and organizations that might help us be reflective about the quandary of this election year, politics in general, and will recommend organizations and resources for thinking Christianly about political concerns. Again, I maintain that thoughtful, long-haul civic reflections are better than shrill activist polemics (right or left) and the few resources we cite will try to illustrate that.
Lastly, offered as a case study which I hope is helpful, I’ve reprinted two recent opinion pieces which I have had published in our local newspaper. Although both were edited (especially the second one), they give an example of how Christian folk might contribute to the public discussion.
The first is an article that responds to quite a few previous ones that unfairly (in my opinion) caricatured those who opposed the war. I offer my input, inviting readers to consider the claims of Christ in this area and scolding an earlier writer for a very nasty piece she wrote. The second references a high-decibel local debate about Darwinist hegemony in biology textbooks used in a local school district and the desire of some to have the school teach creation science. Let me know what you think.
So, this month we’ve got short book reviews or essential titles, a couple of organizations and newsletters listed, and a pair of op-ed editorials. I hope and pray that these are useful in some way. And that we can sell some books to help us better become the kind of serious people whose lives matter, such as those described in the aforementioned Serious Times, White’s moving collection of stories of people who helped shaped history — from William Wilberforce to Saint Benedict, from Saint Patrick to Deitrich Bonhoeffer, from C.S. Lewis to Mother Theresa. While most of us will not have quite the impact of those he so engagingly writes about, we can all pass on their heritage, kicking at the darkness, til it bleeds daylight. * Read on!
* Thanks to White for citing Bono. And thanks to Bono for swiping the line from Bruce Cockburn, which originally appeared in the song "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" from the True North recording, Stealing Fire.
If one has read or thought little about this topic, I would firstly recommend clicking on the Hearts & Minds website section called Books By Vocation. Scroll to and click on the section named Politics and you will find there our favorite, best books on this topic. Here is our essential library for this topic (you know you can find similar lists in other categories science, art, psychology, urban studies, business, etc.). For political science majors, serious-minded thinkers, local activists, it is a good list, really, and briefly describes some standards. Feel free to print it out and pass it around. Click here to read the reviews (and then come back and read about some newer titles, below).
Here are a few newer titles that we also feel strongly about. These are too new to be on that list.
Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith & Citizenship by Diana Butler Bass (Jossey-Bass, $23.95). This is the book I most enjoyed and truly appreciated the most this spring, and I have been telling many friends about it. It is part memoir, part reflection, covering biblical material on violence, the call of God’s people to be peacemakers, and on questions about the role of the state. It also gives very good historical notes about the unfortunate rise of Constantinian civil religion (the section on the history of the idea of a chapel is brilliant and provocative).
These critical insights are powerful and they are clearly told; we need to hear them and learn. I am grateful for Bass’s prophetic call for the church to stand over and against the worldliness of our idolatrous esteem of the state. (Many prideful nations have this concern, I suppose, and the Bible warns against it, but it is widely known that we Americans have a particularly strong version of it in our hymnody, the flags in our churches, our sense of being uniquely chosen, and such.) It is essential to admit that the U.S. is not a Christian country and Bass helps us understand this and the subsequent evangelical predicament. Oh, how I wish more readers would struggle through this topic.
Sojourner’s editor Jim Wallis nicely summarizes her concern for this wrong theology about our nation in his forward:
Rather than taking a global view of God’s world, it asserts the newest incarnation of American Nationalism by confusing nation, church, and God. In effect, it places us above the Scripture’s assessment of the human problem of sinfulness. It becomes a priestly civil religion rather than prophetic religion. A religion that invokes God’s blessing on our activities, agendas, and purposes; rather than one that invokes the name of God and faith in order to hold us accountable to God’s intentions.
Diana Butler Bass suggests that for Christians, a posture of repentance and humility before God, which she titles Broken We Kneel would be a more appropriate response. That prayerfully singing Amazing Grace is better than triumphantly singing God Bless America.
The strong narrative of the book, though, is as instructive as her wise teaching. Bass, as you may know from her wonderful Strength for the Journey (which we raved about here a year ago and is happily now out in paperback), has a rare knack for reflectively sharing her own faith journey by telling the story of the parishes of which she has been a part. That book was a beautiful book, a wonderful description of her journey and maturity, packed with observations about congregational life.
In a sense, Broken We Kneel is a continuation of Diana’s testimony: God is leading her in (with or without, because of or in spite of, but always in the context of) her own church community. Here is a well-told story I found nearly heartbreaking because of the horrible truth of it, not because of any maudlin sentiment in her writing. Bass found herself increasingly at odds with the over-blown patriotism in her Episcopal parish, among her friends in the pews and among her professional colleagues and co-workers in ministry. What inner turmoil and struggle as she tried to be humble and open-minded, yet faithful to her own understanding of the gospel, especially as it relates to political concern. She finally found it necessary to resign her role as spiritual director for the parish and leave the fellowship of that congregation. The pride and wealth and power and unquestioning support of American nationalism war prayers and flags in the sanctuary finally
became more than she could bear.
Agree with her or not, it is a riveting moment of conscience and a moving story of someone needing to make a change to be true to her own sense of self, her theology, her convictions, her very heart. Have not many of us been there?
Bass’s journey would prove helpful, I think, to anyone doing soul-searching about a job or church. She would be a tender and understanding friend for any who feel like their political views are uncommon in their church. It would offer good hope for any of us who worry that the Christian right has hijacked evangelical faith (and poorly represented Christ’s ways in the public eye). University of Chicago scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain (who would disagree with Bass on the question of warfare, by the way, and has herself written an important justification for the war in Iraq in Just War and Terror which, too, is just now out in paperback) was greatly impressed with Broken We Kneel. She explains,
[It] is a personal reflection on public matters. Written in a beckoning style, Diana Butler Bass calls upon all of us to consider public issues from a stance that is prayerful, humble, and engaged. Those who agree with her, and those who disagree, will alike find much to enlighten and to edify.
Another helpful quotation that asserts the importance of this book comes from Princeton scholar, Robert Wuthnow:
Since September 11, 2001, our nation has been torn between testy self-doubt and a new self-congratulatory jingoism. In this highly personal book, Diana Butler Bass offers a constructive lament about what has happened to our understanding of citizenship and faith and, in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, calls people of faith to renew their commitment to a vision of prophetic realism. I highly recommend Broken We Kneel both for personal reflection and for congregational discussion.
Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis (IVP, $18.00, paperback). The other truly great new book for political junkies which I’m recommending these days is this remarkably, serious-minded work by a professor from Redeemer University College (in Ancaster, Ontario). Having earned his PhD in political theory from Notre Dame, and having spent time at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies, Koyzis is well-prepared to weigh in on a broad approach to understanding the history of various schools of political theory. For those who follow such things, this book is written explicitly from a perspective which the CCO often talks about and that I regularly lift up here at our bookstore, sometimes known as Dutch neo-Calvinism. Such a perspective has given us the helpful worldviewish work of Al Wolters Creation Regained (Eerdmans, $10.00
, paperback) and the very important new book by Nancy Pearcy that I noted briefly last month, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, $19.95, hardback), and a renewed interest in recent de
cades of the work of turn-of-the-last-century Prime Minister of Holland, theologian and statesmen, Abraham Kuyper.
Most of the talk these days about uniquely Christian theories, worldviews, integrating faith and learning, emerges from the influence of this broadly Kuyperian vision of a pluralistic social order, gently organized around the restoration Christ is bringing in every sphere of life. Koyzis has immersed himself in Kuyper’s theories and now offers this remarkably insightful contribution.
Political Visions and Illusions is a serious, rather scholarly book and would be very important for older political science majors after tackling a few of the foundational ones I mentioned in my Political Science bibliography mentioned above, such as the fabulous God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics by Paul Marshall (Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95, hardcover). It is also useful for pundits who more deeply want to understand the ideological lay of the land or for Christians who are deeply committed to finding a non-partisan third way between the right and left. Few authors can so helpfully explain the historical roots of the convictions and policies that emerge from various schools of thought about politics, and hardly any recent Christian book has attempted such a sweeping project. It isn’t an easy read, but I assure you, it will be well worth the time invested, whether you are a politico or not
Some of us find ourselves longing and praying for politicians, statesmen and political discourse that is aware of the profound weaknesses and dysfunctions (idolatry, even) of the current political thinking. We call ourselves radical, not in homage to counter-cultural uprisings of the old or new left, but because the Greek word, radix , implies a study of roots, of first things, suggesting a deep and profound analysis. We are troubled by mere moralism which offers band-aids and the failure to get at the most basic ideas and forces that have served as engines of Western culture and which have shaped political assumptions, including the liberal vs. conservative continuum that everyone uses to assess and place candidates and policies.
What could a friend mean when he called me me, profoundly pro-life, an anti-porn crusader and conservative Calvinist, a pro-family guy at that a flaming liberal, apparently for praying for victims of war during worship? And what good does it do to pigeonhole current candidates on that continuum when neither of the majors are particularly clear about their guiding principles, except on specific topics or issues? How does one place the unique and important authors who have served as mentors for Koyzis, authors and activists that are clearly neither liberal nor conservative, such as former Dutch parliament member, Bob Goudzewaard (author of the classic Capitalism and Progress) or James Skillen from the respected civic think-tank, the Center for Public Justice? Or the influential ICS professor and CCO instructor, the late Bernard Zylstra? These are names that mean so much to me, and I am glad to recommend a book whose author has drunk deeply from
many of my own heroes and esteemed friends. I am glad to commend a book that is gaining such commendation from world-class authors such as Mark Noll, who called it a first-order contribution to Christian political thought. Or from Fuller Seminary’s President, Richard Mouw (read anything he writes, I say!), who says this about Koyzis:
[He] not only helps us to see the basic worldviews that give shape to a variety of political perspectives he makes a solid case for a uniquely Christian perspective on these matters. This excellent book is a much-needed discerning tool for understanding the basic issues of political life.
Or, again, listen to human rights activist and popular author (Heaven Is Not My Home), Paul Marshall:
This book shows clearly and in detail how biblical insight into idolatry and ideology illuminates the most concrete dimensions of political life in a way rarely grasped by more secular political scientists.
Or, lastly, this powerful quote from CPJ President, Jim Skillen:
David Koyzis has produced a truly original book illuminating the landscape of modern political ideologies. His approach is distinctively Christian, giving him a standpoint from which to critique liberal as well as totalitarian ideologies. Moreover, the book is up to date with the post-Cold War world. This is the place to start for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of ideological conflict in the world today.
Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage by Meic Pearse (IVP, 13.00, paperback). For those wondering about foreign policy concerns, this brand new book of immensely rich insight, written nicely by a learned and penetrating thinker, may be the best Christian reflection on the deeper questions around globalization, global culture wars and the great clash of civilizations I’ve yet seen. With blurbs on the back from important international scholars such as Philip Jenkins (The Next Christendom) and Roger Scruton (The Rest and the West) this is a respectable and solid contribution. Why the Rest Hates the West is indeed a serious call to consider the impact of Western modernity on the Third World.
As much a cultural critique (looking at the impact, say, of Western sexual immodesty, the routine compartmentalization of faith from public life or the social disruption imported along with the spread of fast food outlets) as a study of politics proper. Still, foreign policy debates must be informed by this sort of socio-religious analysis. Passionate, unnerving, surprising, this is a valuable and wide-ranging book. If you’ve only got time for one book of this sort, pass by Chomsky and Perle. Skip narrow-minded ideologues like Michael Moore and Ann Coulter. Although I think Thomas Friedman is helpful, Bernard Lewis important, Benjamin Barber’s Jihad versus McWorld fascinating (and I love Tom Sine’s passionate call for Christians to serve as healing and hopeful salt and light in this era, bravely called Mustard Seed versus McWorld ), I’d still say read Meic Pearse. He is a thoughtful Christian who brings theological acumen a
nd global sensitivities to his critique of modernity, and offers profound Christian insight as he unpacks the deep divides between the West and the rest.
Citizenship Papers by Wendell Berry (Shoemaker & Hoard, $24.00 hardback). Here is another recent book by a very, very important writer that often makes his way into our conversations. Wendell Berry, as you surely should know, is an esteemed Kentucky farmer, poet, novelist, and essayist. He has written wonderful prose and letters for decades now, and has an abiding conviction that our commitment to a sense of place and properly stewarding the land shapes our fundamental values and practices. My friend Steve Garber, who claims to have read nearly everything Berry has written, insists that he is truly one of the most important writers of our era. A new collection of his pieces is always a cause for celebration; it is clear that I am not alone in this as his reputation as an important writer and prophet is huge his celebrity status among writers we respect grows with each passing book. Did you see his cover story in Sojourners last month
? Very nicely done.
This new collection of essays combines what are nearly random pieces, but, as do all of his anthologies, they hold together. Plain-spoken and direct, he uses his fine vocabulary and exceptional awareness about God’s world to weave together a vision, a fabric, a picture of life lived intentionally, caringly, ethically, as neighbor and steward. There is goodness aplenty here, and gravitas.
After 9-11 and the subsequent military responses to terrorism, many American intellectuals and writers weighed in through public magazines, online journals and speeches. Berry’s important essay, "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, " appeared in the wonderful online journal Orion and then appeared in the New York Times. We have proudly stocked a little hand edition of this essay, along with two others, all of which are now found in this lovely hardback. His equally famous "In Distrust of Movements" is here, as is an often-copied article called "The Prejudice Against Country People." The deep essay, "Two Minds," draws a poetic and thoughtful comparison of two ways of knowing, epistemologies he refers to as The Rational Mind and The Sympathetic Mind. While I am glowing with insight gleaned from this excellent piece, there are lines and notions that strike me as foolhardy. I would like to argue with somebody about
a few of these and hope that readers are seriously debating his ideas.
All of his work even his brief essay, "Let the Farm Judge," which is about animal husbandry and sheep farming, a topic most of our readers know little about shows forth clear prose and a vigilant and alive stewardship, which always makes for enjoyable reflection. Not at all comic (like the extraordinary new David Brooks book Driving Through Paradise that I commented on last month), these are slight and a delight to the eye and mind. And his commitment to hard work at the local level is instructive, hinting at what the best politics is about.
Pondering some of his specifically political essays reminds us of our American obligation to be critical of the government (that phrase, by the way, Berry tells us, comes from Mr. Jefferson himself). And, also, that true patriotism must involve a deep love of one’s land. This isn’t a basic Christian study of a biblical view of statecraft or a theologically-based reflection on justice, political theory, or Christian involvement in government. But one who desires to be well-read and thoughtful about these sorts of matters could do far worse than spending a few days with any of the works of Wendell Berry. His newest book is certainly a very good place to start.
The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in America by Os Guinness & Karen Lee-Thorp (NavPress, $16.00). Few authors are as stimulating to me as Dr. Guinness and his work a few years ago uniting activists, judges, religious and civic leaders, past Presidents and pundits around a celebration of the first freedoms of the United States the document was called The Williamsburg Charter was brilliant. There, Os offered a uniquely American insight about the freedom for and the freedom from religious faith in a God-inspired, pluralistic framework. (His interview in a PBS feature on church/state issues not long ago was similarly cogent and insightful.)
Os, through his work at Trinity Forum, has edited a collection of handsome studies, drawing upon primary source materials, offering guided readings and discussion questions that invite serious seekers and others of faith to struggle with some of the best writing and ideas the world has to offer. This one, obviously, is a curriculum on political concerns (others are on the search for meaning, responding to God’s call and purpose, one is on finances and giving, others are excellent studies on virtues and vices). We highly recommend these for thoughtful groups that tire of the same old small-reading-group format or whose biblical basis is solid but who long for deeper questions, framed from a Judeo-Christian worldview. This one, arranged in five units on topics of civic concern, is a fabulous resource collection of short readings for personal use, even if you can’t find a group to go through it with you. Highly recommended.