Wednesday, September 7, 2016

review of "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics"

Here's my review of Ashford and Pappalardo's One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics... (I just received and will probably soon read Kevin Kruse's book by the same title.)

Ashford and Pappalardo (AP) open with a quote from Chesterton that points to the perception that government is "a necessary evil" (1). Instead, government should be seen as a tool. Of course, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then trouble is likely to follow. One sees this with politics from many angles-- from the narrow idolatry of the Religious Right (on certain issues) to the broad idolatry of Statists (as a general approach). Government has its vital place-- and government reforms can forward the pursuit of justice. But when we see government as a primary provider of sustenance, security, and solutions, we're in a gray area or beyond. When one sees (and sells) the benefits of government without even imagining its (large and typically larger) costs, then poor policy analysis is a given and poor policy is likely. 

That said, political withdrawal is not the correct general solution either (at least when one can influence politics to some extent at reasonable costs). Government as savior is one error; needless withdrawal is an opposite error (2). AP poke at Thomas and Dobson's (TD) book, Blinded by Might, arguing that TD push for withdrawal. I've read that book and commented on it in my own book on Christianity and public policy, TNRNL. In a word, I think this is an understandable but incorrect reading of TD, which is, in essence, a (proper) critique of the Religious Right. Because TD is light on a positive approach-- where government could be embraced for justice reasons-- it can be read as a negative critique of (all) Christian engagement with public policy. 

So, what do we do with public policy, particularly in a post-Christian era (2)? AP are correct in cautioning us to put the cart of analysis before the horse of a good framework (5). In TNRNL, I do something similar, also relying on a distinction between justice and morality that allows one to distinguish between legislating against various sins. (For example, we don't legislate against X because it's a sin, since we don't, can't and shouldn't legislate against all sin.)

In Chapter 1, AP provide a version of a popular and helpful Biblical "framework": Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. Broadly, this framework is helpful for trying to figure out anything within a Christian worldview. In this context, let's start with an overlooked but important point: because politics precedes the Fall, it is not inherently evil-- and is, in fact, required to fulfill the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1. The questions, then, are how it was corrupted by the Fall and what can be done to work for its Redemption-- or more to the point, how to use Redeemed Politics as a means to the glorious ends of fulfilling the Creation Mandate. 

After the brief discussion of the framework in Chapter 1, AP lay out short, concise, helpful chapters to develop the framework. The second half of the book is a set of useful primers on key topics and examples of people who have made a difference in each realm. (Of these, the details in Chapter 7 on "Life and Death", and in Chapter 8, on "Marriage and Sexuality" were most helpful, at least to me.) 

AP are helpful in describing the necessarily public nature of the Gospel-- even when faith is seen (even by many Christians) as a "private matter" (48-51). Those with an allergy to religion will often single out public exercise and influence of certain religions, somehow imagining that "religion" is unique in this regard or should be treated specially. But the fact is that our private beliefs and preferences-- from wherever they originate and develop; whether they are overtly or implicitly religious or merely "religious"-- will have a necessary impact on public behaviors. 

The question, rather, is what to do with those personal (not "private") beliefs, Biblically-- and the extent to which this lines up (or not) with pluralism. As I develop in my book, a Biblical understanding of such things will find much common ground with nearly-universal ideals of justice and will leave matters of "morality" outside the realm of public policy. As it turns out, such a view fits rather easily within a robust sense of tolerance and pluralism. Along the same lines, AP argue that Christianity is uniquely qualified to handle pluralism well (46, 47).

AP are very helpful in describing Christianity as a key part of the nation, but also represented as a heavy dose of "civil religion" (43-44). AP discuss the role of "sphere sovereignty" a la Kuyper (or its close cousin, "subsidiarity", in Catholic social thought). Spheres have their realms of sovereignty which should not be casually over-run. 

I found AP provocative in quoting NT Wright on the political nature of Christ's ministry (33-34): 

"Jesus' message was after all inescapably political. He denounced rulers, real and self-appointed. He spoke of good news for the poor. He led large groups of people off into the wilderness, a sure sign of revolutionary intent. He announced the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem temple. At the start of a festival celebrating Israel's liberation, he organized around himself what could only have looked like a royal procession. And he deliberately and dramatically acted out a parable of the temple's destruction, thus drawing on to himself the anger of the authorities in a way which he could never have done by healing lepers and forgiving prostitutes (though we should not miss the revolutionary note in his offer of forgiveness, whose real offense lay in its bypassing of the temple cult)...He died the death of the lestai, the political insurrectionists (Barabbas, and the two crucified with Jesus, were lestai). How could he not have been 'political'?"

I thought all of Chapter 6 was wonderful. AP lay out six principles, all of which are helpful: 1.) Seek the good of the city; 2.) live realistically between the now and the not yet; 3.) an emphasis on righteousness and civility; 4.) aim for a longer/broader view of things; 5.) choose "thick descriptions" which rely heavily on context (i.e., know your audience and vary your approach, appropriately!); and 6.) go appropriately political from the pulpit. 

In Chapter 7's discussion of abortion, I appreciated the passing point that "no child should be punished...for the sins of his father" (70). In Chapter 8, they have some really nice points: "Discussions of sexuality that focus exclusively on biblical prohibitions while disregarding the biblical design are bound to become muddled and arbitrary." (77) AP note that the "committed relationship" argument cuts both ways, biblically: "Homosexuality in the ancient world manifested itself in many forms, including committed, lifelong, same-sex partnerships. Paul [and God!] could have distinguished between appropriate and inappropriate homosexual behavior, but he opted instead for the blanket prohibition." (78) AP take the labels "gay" and "straight" to task: Gay "implies a happy life, but..." and straight "implies normalcy, but this is misleading too, since we all are bent, crooked, broken." (80)

Two small beefs: AP find a (very) limited role for government (40). But in making this point, they take an ignorant poke at Libertarians, confusing us with anarchists. And in their discussion of euthanasia in Chapter 7 (70-71), they needlessly conflate categories (or over-estimate the ethical slippery slope) between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia.

Finally, AP close with Augustine as a useful and cool example. The mini-bio of Augustine points the way toward negotiating the challenges of politics and society in a fallen world-- with intellectual integrity, righteousness and justice, grace and tact.


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