Love Your Enemies - A Review

Publishing tends to go in trends, which is not unexpected since contemporary events tend to drive the topics of discussion and publishers are attempting to gain revenue by producing quality content that deals with the themes everyone is discussing. One of the recent, recurring themes is the divided nature of our political climate. Ben Sasse’s book, Them, is a recent entry on the subject. Arthur Brooks, former president of American Enterprise Institute, has recently published the fruit of some of his research on the topic in a book entitled, Love Your Enemies.

Brooks is an economist who has spent his academic career researching happiness and charitable giving. His recent books have dealt with the idea of compassion and social healing, as in his book, The Conservative Heart. The message that Brooks comes back to is that having an ideological bias does not require despising the other side. In fact, this book highlights the reality that holding others in contempt is a recipe for continued discord and personal unhappiness. Brooks sets out in Love Your Enemies to show the science behind finding common cause and engaging in respectful dialogue. This is needed not just for personal happiness, but to help heal the bleeding wounds in the American civic culture.

The book opens by describing the culture of contempt. Brooks makes the case that this is not just a culture of disagreement, but that an essential characteristic of the political wrangling is that it hopes for the destruction of those who hold opposing views. Our political opponent is not just wrong, but also morally evil. This attitude has taken over the culture because of the popular misconception that seeking the obliteration of those that disagree is the only possible solution. In Chapter Two, Brooks shows that this just isn’t true; nice guys do not finish last necessarily, whether in love or politics.

Our political discord is significant because it largely inhibits any progress toward a common vision of good. This leads people that want action on some front or another to see authoritarian leadership as the only possible way to achieve results. It is no accident that the abuses of power in recent presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump) are increasing in magnitude and divisiveness.

Finding a way to respect people who disagree ideologically is needed, so Brooks explores some of the concepts of moral structures, drawn from Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable book, The Righteous Mind. This research is invaluable because it helps unlock the reasons why people come at moral questions from diametrically opposed perspectives. While this doesn’t lead to agreement, it at least enhances understanding. This understanding will, in turn, help readers to begin to deconstruct irreconcilable ideas about identity, so that we can recognize the goodness that comes from identity and differentiation, but also avoid the trap of making personal identification the only significant aspect of our interactions.

Brooks also deals with the importance of stories, noting that personal stories help to break down divides, emphasizing the humanity of the individual. As Brooks notes, stories motivate compassion, statistics convince the already converted. He goes on to deal with the popular (particularly on the left) misconception that competition leads to division. Brooks astutely notes that competition nearly always requires cooperation: this is true is sports, where the rules of the game are an essential bedrock that enable the competition to exist. Politics, too, would benefit from more competition. The polarization of the two major US parties is largely due to the fact they do not have to compete for geographical regions, but can head for extremes to please the tail ends of the ideological spectrum. Brooks then concludes the body of the book by arguing that he really wants healthy disagreement in society, because it is the best way to hash out ideas and pursue the common good.

Based on his research, Brooks closes the book by proposing five rules to help undermine the culture of contempt, which I will cite here, because they are so helpful:

Rule 1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.

Rule 2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect.

Rule 3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.

Rule 4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.

Rule 5. Tune out: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

Love Your Enemies is not an epoch shaping book, but it is a timely, important discussion of a major problem of our day. This is a book that should be read by people on both sides of the political spectrum, because no one (besides the cable news networks and our global political adversaries) are really happy with the status quo. The best way out of the eternal cycle of bickering we are presently experiencing is for a critical mass of individuals to begin to adopt some of the principles Brooks outlines in this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Why Liberalism Failed - A Review

I think there are probably a half dozen people in the world that think things are about as good as they could be. They are probably either in a coma or eating ice cream at the moment. For the rest of us, it is pretty obvious that something stinks in the kingdom of Denmark.

In the United States and across the Western world, liberal democracies are teetering on the edge of populism. The levels of misery are climbing in areas of the United States as more and more people are dying “deaths of despair,” often by overdosing on opioids in an attempt to dull the ache inside.

Where did we go wrong? What happened to the home of the free and the brave?

For some, the growing sense of dis-ease fuels a call to return to some earlier state of supposed greatness. This is a call to turn back the clock to halcyon days when contentment was higher (in some circles) and the stressful influences of social isolation were much less prevalent. For others, the same conditions are cause for increasing centralized government control, increasing redistribution of wealth, and passing laws to make people conform to the sort of behaviors that are deemed beneficial by the people that really know. Both of these call for variations of a sort of social liberalism (distinct from progressivism). Patrick Deneen argues that the best remedy for what ails us is moving away from liberalism, because the populism and dis-ease we are experiencing is a feature, not a bug, of the liberal political order.

Although the meaning of the term “liberal” or “liberalism” has changed over the years and is often used to denote progressivism, liberalism is a broader political philosophy that includes both classical liberals (i.e., conservatives) and progressive liberals (i.e., progressives). As a definition of the term, Deneen writes, “Liberalism was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control.” This led, in its early application, to a representative democracy in the United States with assurance of free speech, the freedom of religion, and robust property rights. In its early implementations, liberalism was supported by the premodern political order that still believed in virtue as a necessary and worthy human ideal.

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For all the benefits of liberalism (and there are many), it has within it the seeds of its own demise. Liberalism lacks the ability to reproduce virtue, because its foundation lacks substance. Liberalism is something of a content-free philosophy. It functions more as an organizing framework for other substantive philosophies. However, this contentlessness quickly becomes its own content, much like Seinfeld, a show about nothing, had a strong satirical message that tended to deconstruct social norms. Just as Seinfeld worked because it borrowed the substance from the world and made it appear irrelevant, so liberalism has worked borrowing from the substance of other philosophies.

That’s all fine and well until there are no other philosophies broadly held by a culture that are strong enough to support liberalism. According to Deneen, that is what we are experiencing. Thus, we have an anti-culture that really serves as a reaction to whatever came before. We have a progression toward dis-integration of social structures to the point that even obvious realities like maleness and femaleness are up for debate, or, in truth, considered to be forms of violent oppression by an elite, but culturally powerful minority.

Deneen’s book is a bit jarring in its pessimism, but there were few points that I could find strong counter arguments. If anything, I think he may simply be a bit more negative about our chances of maintaining the goods of liberalism than is really warranted. Time will tell. I still think that Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West may be the better path, where we push toward a more beneficent version of liberalism. It is, as Goldberg argues, very hard work, but I think it may still be the way to go.

Still, Deneen’s proposed path forward, which he does not bring up until the conclusion of the volume, is worth considering. He argues that we need to move away from liberalism to something new. He proposes three initial steps:

1.       First, acknowledge the legitimate achievements of liberalism. There is no question that our material condition has benefited greatly from the advancement of philosophical liberalism, with the ability to move, to innovate, and to retain more of what we produce.

2.       Second, he argues we must “outgrow the age of ideology.” This will require us to “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” I think what this means in context is focus more on people than on big ideas and grand restructuring of the world.

3.       Third, we must implement the first two steps, by building on and not abandoning the good things that have come before. This is the least clear of the three steps, but I think Deneen is calling for progress that does not try to begin de novo, as the Enlightenment project of liberalism. The hope is that we can use the positives of liberalism in combination with the treasures of ancient wisdom to forge a more humane future.

Why Liberalism Failed deserves to be read and the ongoing discussion that has spawned from Deneen’s work is worth the attention it has received. Nearly everyone agrees that something is wrong. The two main answers we have in the US in the DNC and GOP do not seem have anything like a realistic vision for future flourishing. A healthy conversation about what society ought to be and how it ought to be shaped is a necessary and worthy endeavor.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law - A Review

There are some who have the impression that C. S. Lewis was a non-political thinker. After all, this is the man who stated that he didn’t read the newspaper (others would tell you the most important events) and who once wrote: “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” (“Membership”, Weight of Glory, 109)

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If one takes in only Lewis’ book-length works, it is easy to maintain this opinion. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Lewis had a lot to say about politics and had some clear views about what politics ought to be about. At the same time, Lewis generally wrote at a conceptual level, though he occasionally had something say about particular political propositions. However, in these cases, he focused on the issue, with its supporting arguments, rather than the people and power structures involved.

In their recent book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, Justin Buckley Dyer from the University of Missouri and Micah J Watson at Calvin College have worked to offer a systematic presentation of Lewis’ writing on politics and natural law. Although Lewis wrote a great deal about politics and natural law, he did not write a single reference volume. Thus, the work that Dyer and Watson have done contributes to both political science and Lewis studies.

This brief book has seven chapters. It begins by debunking the misperception that Lewis was not political in Chapter One. In the second chapter, the authors summarize the pattern of the Christian worldview–– Creation, Fall, and Redemption––which is always present and often overt in Lewis’ writing. Chapter Three puts Lewis’ work in contact with some of the significant criticisms of natural law theory, particularly the critique of Karl Barth.

In the fourth chapter, Watson and Dyer focus on one of Lewis’ most important works for both ethics and political science, The Abolition of Man. In that chapter they outline some of the many changes in culture that Lewis was responding to in that short volume. Chapter Five contains the most debatable proposition of the volume, where they argue that Lewis’ held to a form of Lockean Liberalism. There is evidence to support their case, though Lewis never cites Locke; the authors remain on safe ground by arguing that Lewis and Locke shared many tenets in their political philosophy. In the sixth chapter, the authors discuss some of Lewis’ writing on political discourse and the place of Christianity in the political sphere. There is much to be learned from Lewis in this regard. The book concludes with Chapter Seven, the authors summarize their arguments and urge the reader to continue to engage contemporary issues through the work of C. S. Lewis.

At times, given the amount of secondary literature on C. S. Lewis, one wonders whether there is much more to say about him. Whether academic studies of Lewis will run their course remains to be seen, but Dyer and Watson have demonstrated that there is still more to be gleaned from the voluminous work of C. S. Lewis. This book adds to the ongoing conversation about political theology, political science, and the work of C. S. Lewis.

A significant danger with dual-authored volumes is uneven writing styles, which can make them difficult to read. This volume, however, has a consistent flow throughout and is a pleasure to read. C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is a book that has potential to be a ready resource for years to come.

This volume presents Lewis fairly and thoroughly and it makes it clear how Lewis can be helpful for Christians. One area that deserves further exploration is how Lewis and natural law can be helpful in building a common understanding beyond the ranks of the redeemed.

The more Lewis I read, the more I find him helpful. Dyer and Watson’s book both supports that sentiment and deepens it. They have done excellent work in producing a readable volume that is both illuminating and applicable.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law
By Justin Buckley Dyer, Micah J. Watson

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Banality of Systemic Injustice

People expect evil to come with horns, pitchforks, and an obvious bent toward cruelty. That is, when we meet someone who has done or approved of great evil, we expect them to be obviously angry, psychotic, and express delight in their vileness.

Real evil in our real world is seldom like that. Our villains seldom arrive dressed like Cruella Deville or Sauron. But we still expect those that participate in something really bad to be obviously evil. Wicked people who do wicked things rarely have the flair we expect, which should teach us something about the nature of evil.

Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, helps undermine the expectation of an entertaining bad guy. She does this by presenting a portrait of perhaps the most boring and petty man in the twentieth century who orchestrated some of the most unquestionable evil in the history of humanity.

Who is Arendt?

Others are much better equipped to give a more detailed history of the life and work of Hannah Arendt. This BBC interview of a scholar who has studied Arendt offers a decent overview.

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Arendt was herself born in Germany and was a Jew. She left Germany in 1933 ostensibly to study, but eventually emigrated to the United States, where she remained a citizen until her death in 1975. It is for good reason, then, that Arendt felt a keen interest in the Holocaust.

She is best known as a political theorist, though her work is more broadly philosophical than most political discourse of our day. She was also a journalist for the New Yorker, who happened to fund her trip to Jerusalem to see the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The book that resulted from her trip to watch the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, caused a significant controversy in that day, with apparently coordinated efforts to undermine its spread. The main thrust of the controversy was Arendt’s indelicate handling of the apparent Jewish cooperation with the Holocaust.

That claim, even in this post, is somewhat remarkable and needs some nuancing, but it plays into the general idea of the banality of evil.

Arendt argued that the Jewish community participated in their own extermination because they largely cooperated with the beginning stages of the Holocaust. This sounds like victim blaming—and perhaps it is to a certain degree—but reading the book, that does not seem to be her intention.

What is true is that the Jews in Germany and the other occupied nations rarely resisted the ever-increasing encroachments on their liberty and deprivations of their rights. The community, by virtue of being administratively linked through and led by the synagogue, had recognized structure that often worked with the Germans, always hoping that cooperation at each stage would end the problem.

In some sense the Jews did cooperate in their own demise, though it is not clear whether overt resistance would have been successful. Arendt’s intention does not appear to criticize the Jewish community for their cooperation, but to explain why the mild-mannered Adolf Eichmann was able to help murder millions with little or no violent effort.

I leave final resolution of that controversy to others, but believe Arendt to be helpful on some points even if she is outrageously mistaken on that one.

Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann is the stereotype for the mid-level bureaucrat who is exceedingly efficient at making things move without understanding what exactly what was happening or why it could possibly be bad.

Based on Arendt’s description, which begs to be believed on the grounds of credo quia absurdum if nothing else, Eichmann had little animus toward anyone. He was a boring man, who lived a boring life, and did extraordinary evil because it is what the boring system he participated in required for “success.”

While the world—Arendt included—expected a slavering war criminal spewing anti-Semitic epithets from the witness stand, what they saw was someone who did not believe himself to be a war criminal because he was simply doing his job. Arendt reveals Eichmann to be a splendid manager but a terrible human.

The unthinking reader might succeed in passing over the horror that Arendt depicts, but the observant ones will recognize that Eichmann is frightening because he is so ordinary.

Why does ordinariness frighten? In this case because he managed to participate in such unthinkable evil with such a clear conscience. It is clear from Arendt’s description—which is corroborated by other historical sources—that Eichmann did not consider himself guilty of anything in particular.

In other words, Eichmann’s banality is frightening because we are so susceptible to it.

Systemic Injustice

Eichmann shows us what it is like to participate in systemic injustice with a clear conscience.

I recommend Arendt’s book to readers—particularly contemporary evangelical readers—because it shows without question the power of an unjust system, the difficulty in extricating oneself from it, and the importance of resisting such systems.

Eichmann saw himself as an idealist. According to Arendt, “An ‘idealist’ was a man who lived for his idea—hence he could not be a businessman—and who was prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody. . . . The perfect ‘idealist,’ like everybody else had of course his personal feelings and emotions, but he would never permit them to interfere with his actions if they came into conflict with his ‘idea.’” (42)

Though Eichmann was aware of the Final Solution, which he knew included killing the Jews, he had absolutely no sympathy. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (49) He was fundamentally a man that saw serving the system as the highest end, regardless of the cost.

The inability to speak Arendt refers to is that Eichmann was unoriginal in his thought patterns. He knew talking points and catch-phrases but was blissfully unaware of the conflicts internally between them and did not understand the enormity indicated by his language. This was facilitated by the Nazi efforts to sanitize language and speak of things bureaucratically—using boring systemic language to mark overt evil.

One might consider examples in U.S. history such as the idea of “Indian removal,” “separate but equal,” and “reproductive rights” to see how terrible evil can be masked by euphemism. This system can roll right over conscience by convincing the actors they are simply scheduling train cars and not facilitating the deaths of millions of innocent people.

Conclusion

Arendt’s account of Eichmann is sobering in our world filled with systems and euphemisms.

While some of the pleas about systemic injustice are little more than complaints that life was not unfair in favor of a particular group, conservative Christians have for too long ignored the reality of systemic injustice and our own participation in it.

In many cases, we unknowingly participate in such systems and in others we lack the requisite compassion to see the impact of our participation. Eichmann in Jerusalem should cause readers to ask what ideals they are pursuing to the detriment of others and recognize that if that ideal cannot be achieved without the injustice it is not a worthy ideal. The ends simply do not justify the means and they never can.

The Danger of Politically Motivated Eisegesis of Scripture

In a somewhat amusing, but unsurprising effort to raise public resistance to the recent tax bill that is before Congress, the leftist Christian magazine Sojourners is Tweeting out in a string of Tweets a large number of verses that they believe unquestionably support their view point.

 

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Sojourners trying to shape the public debate in their favor. And, to be fair, there is a lot in the current bill to be concerned and unhappy about. This post is not about a right to political speech by a non-profit organization or the merits of the bill.

It is, in fact, about the question of hermeneutics and assumptions.

On questions about which Scripture is quite clear—especially topics relating to sexual ethics that challenge contemporary social norms—Sojourners finds the Bible impenetrably confusing. However, on questions that are largely prudential and not mandated clearly in Scripture—e.g., the role of the government in redistributing wealth—Sojourners seems to believe they have the inside track on epistemically certain interpretation.

This is, to understate the reality, amusing to many of who have read the Bible and are familiar with the issues under debate.

What is amusing here is that in an effort to be prophetic and take a stand against the coopting of Christianity in America (this is a paraphrase of a popup on their website from a few months ago), particularly by the Religious Right, Sojourners has come to align themselves with the political Left almost without exception.

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Aside from a cautious ambivalence toward abortion, Sojourners and the religious Left consistently parrot the talking points of Democrats and sometimes lean toward the Left end of the spectrum, particularly when it comes to advocacy for heavy handed government involvement in economics. The Religious Right has clearly fallen into this pit trap on different issues, especially in recent years. As Russell Moore eloquently argued last year, the Religious Right have become the people they warned us about.

There is little question that in history, socialism has very seldom gone well for anyone except the ruling minority. Norway seems to offer some hope for young Socialists, as that resource-rich nation has been able to fund a strong welfare state for decades with their mixed economy. However, the evidence of Venezuela, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Bloc, North Korea, Cuba, etc., seem to indicate that socialism tends to go poorly, especially for the disenfranchised.

Given the weight of historical evidence, Christian advocates for socialism, like those at Sojourners have turned to Scripture to support their advocacy for greater limits on private property rights and increased efforts by the government to redistribute wealth according to their preferences. The latest Tweet storm by the social media account of Sojourners is just another evidence of that advocacy.

The trouble is that the verses Sojourners is so boldly throwing out into the internet as proof that the proposed tax cuts are immoral don’t support their position. They could, in fact, support the opposite position. The difference is what economic and political assumptions the reader is making.

The basic assumptions that Sojourners appears to be making is that:

1.      Scripture demands that government redistribute wealth according to the vision of the people at Sojourners, which, as they describe it, is for the benefit of the poor.

No Christian should argue with the proposition that the government has the obligation to ensure justice for its citizens, and particularly for the poor. However, one must also suppose that wealth redistribution is a legitimate means for rectifying the supposed injustice of economic inequality. In reality, unless the religious Left is willing to accept government policing of sexual ethics according to the law given to the Israelites, then they have no basis to make that argument. Unless, of course, they make a second significant assumption that:

2.      Economic inequality is intrinsically unjust.

There are obvious problems created by extreme forms of economic inequality. The convergence of corporate power into fewer and fewer hands and the subsequent conglomeration of wealth has made it possible for a small number of people to heavily influence politics and society. This is particularly augmented by the growing inability of many citizens to recognize and resist propaganda from the Right or the Left. This is not a good thing, and is something that we ought to work to mitigate through legitimate means.

However, inequality is not fundamentally unjust according to Scripture. In fact, there is evidence that in some cases God deliberately causes inequality. Inequality is never the major issue in Scripture, but poverty is certainly a problem along with the injustice that often falls against the economically disadvantaged.

There is, however, another side of the story. As some advocates for Free Markets, such as Arthur Brooks, argue, the rise of most of the world’s population out of poverty is a result of Free Markets, not government redistribution. So, it seems, that there might be alternative perspectives on alleviating poverty than simply assuming that an ever-increasing role for the government in people’s lives through the redistribution of wealth may not be biblically mandated.

This is where the crux of the hermeneutical problem of Sojourners resides: They assume that their method of alleviating poverty is the only possible method, therefore everyone who favors a different method is sinning or advocating injustice. In other words, anyone who opposes the perpetual expansion of the welfare state is a big, mean, evil jerkface. Or something like that.

In short, Sojourners has fallen into the same trap that the Religious Right has: reading their political preferences back into the Bible and judging everyone else based on their assumptions. (As a side note, a few months ago I saw a very conservative pastor be accused of rejecting inerrancy on Facebook because he raised questions about the 2nd Amendment. This is one of the most egregious examples of misreading Christianity through a political lens.)

The reality of the issue is that I can read the Sojourners Tweet-storm and affirm the content of all of those verses, but then put them in a context that affirms the dignity of humans as produces and see that changes to various Welfare programs are not, ipso facto, unjust or unbiblical after all. In fact, I can read some of those verses and point to particular programs that should be eliminated because they violate the dignity of the poor and engender long-term, unjust dependence.

When Christian outlets or people cheat arguments by assuming that certain passages support their policies, they subvert legitimate debate. Before we can argue about whether the current American welfare programs are just or unjust according to Scripture, we need to have a deeper discussion about what role for government is authorized and/or mandated by the Bible. If we can’t come to an agreement on that issue from Scripture itself, then it becomes fairly clear that the argument is prudential and not one that Scripture can adjudicate with a handful (or even a couple of thousand) proof texts.

This means that we need to rely upon Scripture, which is the ultimate authority for the Christian life, but that we need to be aware of our presuppositions. We should allow Scripture to speak to our context, not attempt to treat it as a marionette for our chosen cause.

As a result, Christians are right to ask whether proposed policies are, in fact, just. They should also ask whether those policies are likely to engender social conditions that improve the lot of the poor (especially for the long term).

Christians are not, however, authorized to assume that proposed policies are unjust simply because they do not pursue a Scripturally mandated end by one particular means, which happens to be favored by a particular political party. That debate about methods is one that should rely on evidence and arguments based on the best data available. Such methods will often be shaped by Scriptural norms, but rarely can they be directly derived in every detail from Scripture.

Our debate in the public square will continue to be anemic and unhelpful as long as groups on the Right and the Left fail to discuss issues carefully. As Christians, we will continue to be at odds with others as long as we mistreat the common source of our moral norms, namely, Scripture, by reading back our political and economic assumptions into the text.

Perhaps if we spent more time arguing about those justified ends that we can agree upon, such as the alleviation of poverty, we could have meaningful debate and compromise on policies across political party boundaries.

The moral of the story is that we all need to have a hermeneutics of suspicion toward our own interpretations of Scripture.

Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.

Political Church - A Review

As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” By this metric our society is very diseased. Even given the special focus on politics caused by it being a Presidential election year, society is excessively focused on politics because our society is a festering wound of dislike and division.

One might think a book on political theology would simply contribute to the excessive focus on politics and the sickening mix of politics and religion that we are seeing with the Religious Left openly lobbying for their flawed candidates and the Religious Right arguing for theirs, too.

However, in the hangover from this election, the church will do well to pick up Jonathan Leeman’s recent book, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. This is the book on nutrition for the glutton suffering from indigestion after binging on junk food.

The thesis of Leeman’s book is that “the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographical space but from across eschatological time.”

This would be a dangerous theory if Leeman were arguing that the church has the same political purpose as a parliament or congress. There is a difference between the church and the state; they have overlapping magisteria but different means of influence. Leeman’s vision of the church and the state is not of two kingdoms, but of a single kingdom with state and church reflecting the authorities of the current kingdom and the future kingdom, respectively. Leeman stands well within the Augustinian tradition via a deep interest, though not uniformity, with Oliver O’Donovan.

Summary

This is not an introductory volume on political theology. Leeman’s discussion is a distinct approach to the place of the church in contemporary politics, but understanding this volume requires a fair understanding of the various political theologies that he is critiques and is building upon.

At the same time, Leeman’s volume begins a step before many others do by addressing some of the basic questions that one must understand before attempting a political theology. The first two chapters of the volume address the important questions, (1) What is politics? and (2) What is an institution? The various meanings of these terms are discussed in some depth before moving on. Though Leeman leaves some flexibility in the terms for his own use, his discussions of historic definitions provide context for the remainder of the book.

The next four chapters outline a positive political theological using a biblical theology as a foundation. The chapters run along the progression of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

The chapter on creation places God at the center of all politics. He made this world and is the just and righteous judge of all things. It is his authority that is represented through the work of both the government and the church. The nature of politics is shaped by the nature of the creator God.

In dealing with the fall, Leeman goes beyond the actual original sin of the primal couple to discuss how falleness has influenced all human interactions since that time. Leeman walks through the biblical storyline to show how sin has influenced government and increased the need for its justice.

The chapter on the politics of the new covenant focuses on the ongoing need for the work of the cross to be done in public. This means repentance, forgiveness, and good natured striving for the common good. Leeman is careful to distance his view from theonomy. In fact, he notes that attempts to bring about the eschatological kingdom on earth now never end well. Instead, Christians should work to apply the gospel as much as possible to earthly situations as one would expect of citizens on the new covenant kingdom.

The last chapter deals with the politics of the kingdom. However, this doesn’t refer to the eschatological kingdom, but is an especial focus on the polity of the local congregation. Leeman exercises his Baptist muscles in talking about the importance of church membership, credo baptism, and right practice of the Lord’s Supper. These are elements of the church that prefigure the coming kingdom. By being faithful to justly administer its own borders, the church stands as witness to the kingdom that is to come. The church is a political body because its policies and ministry influence the world, though it begins at a very local, individual level.

Analysis

Leeman’s book is a helpful approach to political theology because it begins with the narrative of Scripture and asks what the text says about the church’s political engagement. By beginning with the ideas of Scripture and working out, he formulates a much more distinctively Christian political theology.

In other words, political theology generally begins with a vision of what good is, which is often derived from an interpretation of Scripture. However, most political theologies then apply an extra-biblical method to achieve the desired goods.

For example, the Social Gospel movement sought (or seeks) to bring about the kingdom largely through a Rawlsian approach to government that favors strong individualism and a preference for government engagement in solutions at nearly every level. This approach then creates an implicit need for the church to pursue justice by seeking greater government control and introducing more radical human freedoms. The church’s main role in this vision of political theology is as a lobbyist to influence the state’s earthly authority.

A similar criticism could be levelled against movements that are more theologically conservative, as well.

The point is that Leeman’s volume offers an approach that is designed to constrain the Church to her proper role in pursuing a right polity within her own area of influence. The message of the gospel as it is preached in the church should affect all of life, but the authority of the Church in the present age is somewhat limited. Leeman’s biblical theological approach to political theology helps to keep the church in her lane, and rightly focused on the gospel.

Leeman’s point is that the church is an inherently political institution. When it is functioning well, it cannot help but influence the world around with the message of the gospel. If the church fails to equip people and influence communities toward justice, as it is biblically defined, it has failed in its mission. However, when the church begins to engage in politics to increase redistribution of wealth through taxation or enforce certain moral codes through judicial means, then the church has exceeded its authority. Between these failures is the proper political role of the church.

This is a helpful resource for those who are familiar with the general content of political theology. Leeman’s approach is innovative and fresh. It is distinctly biblical. As such, it is a useful resource for those seeking to live rightly in our fallen world.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Evangelical Politics - A New Hope

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that politics are messy.

All political systems bring together with differing opinions into coalitions designed to pursue an agenda. This means that careful thinkers often find themselves pushing for candidates that represent them in some areas, but not in all. It means sometimes accepting the lesser of two evils, as long as neither evil is that bad.

Christian engagement in politics is even more difficult than for the general population. Our integrity as Christianity is moored to eternal truths with contemporary applications. This means that in some areas compromise is impossible. It means that we will (or should) find ourselves pointing to good things on both sides of a political argument.

Scott Sauls’ book, Jesus Outside the Lines, discusses this conundrum of trying to be gospel-centric and truth-centric instead of power-centric. Contemporary American politics (and all politics, to be honest) have become especially divisive because power has become a greater concern than truth in the postmodern era.

Many times these political divisions split congregations and even individual the viewpoint of individual Christians. A Christian can be both for racial reconciliation and believe the free market is the best option for an economic system. The same Christian might also be confident in the importance of protecting the environment while being certain that abortion is a moral evil. These are all issues that can be supported with reasoned arguments and reconciled with a Christian worldview, but which have tended to fall on either side of the American political party divide.

The lowest of lows of our American political scene, with two intolerable candidates for President from the major parties, may be the source of renewed gospel-centric cooperation between Christians. Instead of insulting someone for a D or an R on their voter registration card, the fact that both parties have played their voters for fools has potential to bring Christians together across previously insurmountable political divides.

A team of socially conservative Christians, with voices from both major political parties, have united for a new attempt to engage American politics with a distinctly Christian voice. The website, Public Faith, represents a hopeful attempt at renewal of evangelical moral witness in politics.

Their vision statement affirms a positive hope of a better political future with an authentic voice for the faithful:

“We invite all Christians and those of good will to join us as we advocate for a perspective that challenges political parties with a better vision. We call on Christians to work within political parties to advocate these essential ideals and to change parties or create new ones when reform is no longer feasible.”

A movement for the common good among Christians is an excellent thing. Let the faithful be for the good of all, not the power of some. It’s early in the history of this new evangelical organization, but I’m hopeful it can begin to give a voice to many of us who have been publicly embarrassed by the compromise of so-called progressive evangelicals who butcher Scripture as they cave to culture on every issue of contention and the embarrassing cavorting of self-described evangelicals like Jerry Falwell who have become Donald Trump supporters.

My greatest concern for this organization is that its founding documents area bit lean on theological content. They affirm a “commitment to orthodox Christian faith” but that is left somewhat loosely defined. I recognize the difficulty in laying out a sufficient theological vision to accompany the high quality political vision, but since theology precedes politics, the statement is very important. Time will tell whether there is sufficient theological cohesion to support this movement’s political vision.

In the meanwhile, I am encouraged by the start and hopeful for the movement’s future.

Speaking of Ethnicity

Race relations in the United States is becoming a third rail topic. Better to discuss politics and religion than to suggest there might be ongoing patterns of systemic racism in some circles.

If social media is any indication, some groups seem to think that by even discussing racial differences, others are fomenting and accentuating racism.

In extreme cases this is true. However, in most cases, the people discussing racial issues are dealing with the real difference between the minority and majority experience in the United States.

The Myth of Color Blindness

One of the arguments against discussing race is the argument that society should be “color blind.” The term means that we should not consider the color of people’s skin when making evaluations of people and their work.

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license,  http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

I believe that most people engaged in discussions of race relations see “color blindness” as a desirable outcome in the long term. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, part of his dream is that people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Someday a future generation may reach that point.

Despite the desire to have a world in which skin color does not matter, that world does not exist now. We have a world in which ethnicity and skin color still do matter much more than they should.

At this point, there are some who will swoop down onto my argument like a vulture to point out certain statistics. What I’m speaking of here is more than just statistics—whether the statistics support certain percentages of killings by ethnicity or disparate academic outcomes.

I’m speaking of the observed reality that my middle-class, professional, African-American friends have on average been pulled over many more times than I have for no more apparent cause. I’m speaking of the reality of my own observations of minority males of color being treated differently than me by authorities even while we were both in uniform. I’m speaking of the internal impulse in my own mind to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance.

I like statistics (in fact they are a fun part of my job), but they don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a different story than reality.

To claim that skin color does not influence societal evaluations is foolish. It’s like a person ignoring an infection in a limb.

Our Wounded Reality

Imagine if you get a cut in your finger while working a dirty job. You ignore the pain and keep working. You tell your hand that it is OK and that it is just like your other uninjured hand. Both hands are equally valuable to you, therefore it should stop hurting. Meanwhile it gets infected. However, you don’t clean the wound or treat it. You tell your hand that the cut was inflicted a couple of days ago and that it hasn’t been cut recently, so it should stop aching. Slowly the infection may heal, if conditions are right. Or, quite possibly, ignoring the legitimate needs of your hand could cause the infection to spread and perhaps even blood poisoning to set in.

At best, the neglected hand heals itself but may scar significantly or take longer to fully heal due to the lack of medical care. At worst, the blood poisoning spreads and kills the individual with the injured hand. In both cases consequences could have been avoided by taking timely, appropriate action.

Few people would ignore an injured hand. Instead, most people react to a cut by getting first aid, keeping it clean, and treating the injured hand differently for a time. The common sense understanding is that the wounded hand may have different needs for a time.

There is wisdom in recognizing there is a difference between the hands and taking care of the wound.

Our contemporary reality of race relations is something like this analogy.[1]

The Reality of Injury

To provide just one example, African-Americans were economically and socially harmed by American society by being enslaved and later by unjust laws that were in place in the middle of the last century. There are enough evidences of ongoing negative racial bias that we need to accept that such bias continues to exist in some cases. (See: the alt-right movement)

There has been legitimate injury done that will necessarily take time to heal. It may also take focused attention to promote healing, which includes at least being free to talk about racial differences without being accused of fomenting division.

Until healing occurs, we need to recognize that there are differences in society between the experiences of people of different ethnicities. Stereotypes built on generations of observed behavior, depictions in entertainment media, and self-selected identities all impact the experience of people in the United States. It takes time to change these deeply seated societal ideas, but the first step is to recognize they exist. Someday we may be able to be “color blind,” but we aren’t there yet. In many cases we really aren’t that close.

Moving Toward Change

We should long for the day when ethnicity is a point of interesting difference, like discussing where people grew up and what their favorite home-cooked food is. However, the experience of racial minorities in the United States is often significantly different than that of the majority. If you want to know what sorts of differences exist, talk to a few minorities. Their experiences will be unique, but some common patterns will tend to emerge if the sample size is large enough.

Unless we address the injustice of some of those differences, the healing process will not progress very quickly. Unless people are free to explain what is wrong without being accused of hate and division, we can never have meaningful conversations.

We can certainly have meaningful discussions about the best ways to deal with our differences. There is no simple solution for undoing the intentional harm inflicted in and by previous generations. There is no single, easy method of eliminating the often obscure, but deeply seated biases of contemporary perceptions.

However, until people are allowed to have open, charitable conversations about the existence of differences because of ethnicity, society will be unable to move to the next phase of healing.

[1] The analogy obviously breaks down at some point. I am not inferring that racial minorities are somehow infected limbs that should be removed from society. Quite the reverse. I am hopeful that this analogy will illustrate the interconnectedness of society and the value in promoting social healing for overall health. Just as one does not blame the hand for being wounded, we should not blame minorities for past ills inflicted by society.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

One of the biggest problems facing Christians in the United States is a decreasing tolerance for religious viewpoints. More precisely, there is a decreasing tolerance for people actually living out the religious viewpoints that they claim to believe.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.  http://ow.ly/1ddp300xhpi

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio. http://ow.ly/1ddp300xhpi

Part of the growing pressure on religion is the fallacious assumption that religious thinking is somehow in a different category than non-religious thinking. This assumption is based on a naturalistic worldview that assumes that anything religious is inherently fictitious and therefore arbitrary.

The denigration of religious freedom because of a dismissal of religion as a category fails to recognize the significance of freedom of conscience. It threatens the ability to live in a pluralistic society because it values one totalizing worldview over all others. Opponents of religious freedom think that infringing on the conscience of believers will make the world a better place, but they fail to recognize that religious freedom is simply a subset of freedom of conscience.

The Unfounded Assumption

Making the unfounded assumption that religious thought is somehow inferior to supposedly non-religious thought allows people to argue there is no valid basis for declining to purchase potentially abortion inducing drugs or distribute them to others. When someone makes the assumption that religious thought is purely fiction, then there is no basis for not preferring the supposedly non-religious thought that is dominant in society.

By this way of thinking, religion is just make believe. Therefore, if someone bases a moral determination about a medicine which terminates a pregnancy on that religious foundation, there is no reason to honor that belief. After all, morality based on the make believe doesn’t really count, does it?

But this sort of argumentation—more often assumed than stated—begs the question.

In other words, instead of considering whether someone may have a legitimate basis for choosing not to purchase drugs that may end the life of a child, it merely states that any grounds that do not support unrestricted abortion are illegitimate because they have a religious foundation.

There are several problems with this sort of argumentation.

What’s Wrong With Discarding Religious Reasoning

First, it is incorrect to assume that only religious arguments can oppose abortion. For example, using a basic Kantian categorical imperative, an argument can be made that abortion is wrong because if everyone killed their children, then the human species would die out. Unless that is a desired end, then there is a case to be made in opposition to abortion on non-religious grounds.

There are other cases than abortion inducing drugs in which arguments made on religious grounds could be made on non-religious grounds. The fact that many irreligious people have accepted the dominant worldview that truth is merely a social construct limits the number of people making reasoned arguments contra the current societal consensus. However, unless one assumes that the dominant social construct is always correct, there is little reason to reject all other thinking (religious or otherwise) based on the popularity of post-foundational epistemological assumptions.

Second, simply because an argument has a religious foundation does not necessarily mean that is invalid. In order to rationally hold that belief, one would have to first prove that the religion itself is invalid. While some are convinced that all religion is false, the vast majority of humans in the history of the world (including most currently living) do not agree.

However, the invalidity of religion is exactly what so many contemporary moral arguments in the public square simply assume. This allows people to reject arguments they find inconvenient based on the genetic fallacy, without considering the merits of the opposing position or whether there may be legitimate grounds for dispute. In other words, religion is false, therefore any arguments based on religious principles must also be false, therefore do what popular opinion in society demands.

This is Too Important

If these were merely internet chatroom arguments about the existence of God or the eternal nature of the human soul, then the fallacious argumentation wouldn’t be as dangerous. But the problem is much more significant.

The coercive power of the United States government has grown to the point that it is impacting life or death decisions. The current administration’s regulations that require the purchase of drugs that may cause the termination of pregnancy make a huge moral statement and place a grave moral burden on many believers.

This issue is not one of trivial concern, since it is literally a life or death issue. Those that hold that terminating a pregnancy is a moral evil have reasons for objecting on the deepest level to purchasing or distributing the means by which a life is unjustly ended.

But arguments that hold that abortion is wrong are most often framed in religious terms. In the contemporary social milieu, the assumption is often made that religion is fiction, therefore religious arguments are unimportant. Therefore, any accommodation for faithful religious practice that excludes the purchase and distribution of abortion inducing drugs is invalid.

This sort of argumentation is narrowly circular and fails by being insufficiently self-reflective.

What if every religion isn’t false? What if every belief system isn’t merely a social construct? What if the question of life and death is so important that there needs to be room for dissent, especially in favor of not contributing to needless deaths? What if the social construct that assumes that religion cannot represent truth is incorrect? What if religious and supposedly non-religious thought are in the same category?

These questions are typically not asked, nor permitted to be asked in public debate. Supposedly non-religious thought has gained the ascendency in popular discussions and religious liberty has been pushed into the corner. And yet, religious liberty is nothing more than freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience requires that we do not coerce behaviors when there is a reasonable basis for objection. This is what allows someone who is a non-religious, consistent pacifist to be excused from military service. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the person’s thought, but freedom of conscience requires us to leave room for those who have reasonable objections to live consistently with their convictions. There are cases to be made for exceptional circumstances, where someone might need to be coerced, but those are exceptions to a general practice.

Freedom of religion is simply freedom of conscience built on a reasonable basis that is not purely naturalistic. Just as those who believe that eating meat is murder should not be forced to purchase meat for the office barbecue, those who believe terminating a pregnancy is murder should not be forced to buy abortion inducing drugs for their employees. Similarly, those who believe that some religious services denigrate their religion should be permitted to decline participation in those services.

Religion is not another category of thought from non-religious thinking. At least, it is not for those who actually believe what their religion teaches.

This raises an important concern. Couldn’t someone falsely claim their conscience did not allow something simply because of personal dislike or bias? Yes. However, just as we must allow for some abuse of the welfare system to occur so that a necessary safety net is available for those that actually need it, we need to allow for some abuse of freedom of conscience due to irrational and unjust biases.

This is part of the tolerance needed to live in a pluralistic society. There needs to be room for people to disagree with us, even if we don’t like the basis of their disagreement. This is especially true when it comes to issues of prime significance, like desacralizing religious ceremonies and issues of life and death. If people are not free to disagree in those significant issues, then there really is no room for freedom of conscience.

We need to learn to disagree with respect, but there needs to be room for open disagreement if we are to have any legitimate freedom at all.