The Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.

The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.

These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.

Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.

The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.


The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.

The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:

“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)

If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.

The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.

Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.

Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.

The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.

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.

Public Faith in Action - A Review

If this election cycle has revealed anything, it is that there is a drastic need for improvements in the way public dialog occurs. It has also revealed the need for Christians to engage in political discourse in a distinctly Christian manner: informed by Scripture, reasonably argued, and carefully expressed.

Miroslav Volf often exhibits the gracious demeanor in public discourse that is exemplary for Christians. His recent volume, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, offers an example and encourages such political engagement. The book was co-written with an associate research scholar at Yale, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, based on a series of Facebook posts Volf published.

The book claims to be non-partisan. That claim is fair, though it is clear that the political leanings of the authors are center-left. In most cases the positions presented are well-reasoned and have the reasoning explained. Each topic is put forth with some foundational discussion, followed by some proposals for non-negotiable points for Christians, and then examples of points that are open for debate. Notably the authors provide no non-negotiables for the topic of marriage and family, since their position reflects a revisionist concept of those institutions. For the most part, however, there is a pattern of consultation with Scripture, tradition, and reason.

One major concern that this volume creates is that the authors call for greater government intervention for nearly every social issue. There are times when more laws and additional spending are necessary. However, one of the solutions for most of the problems they discuss is more government funding. At the same time they call for a wise stewardship of both personal and national finances. The necessary conclusion is that increasing taxes is necessary for justice. This is an opinion that many contemporary Christians on the left and center-left share, but the continual growth of the government is not necessarily the only Christian response to these difficult issues.

It is possible that this volume will find readers who already lean left and convince them that Volf and McAnnally-Linz present a case that is truly reasonable to all Christians. This risks continued ostracization of right-leaning Christians who are unwilling to accept some of the authors’ supposed non-negotiables, though they may resonate with the need to deal with the issues. This perception is aided because nearly all of the recommended resources of the volume are from sources that range from center-left to radically left in their politics and theology. There are only a handful of conservative sources offered, only increasing the false perception that right-leaning Christians are not discussing some of these issues.

These concerns aside, the volume is valuable. The tone of the volume is reasonable and non-accusatory. The authors have succeeded in presenting their case in a way that is inoffensive and engages the big ideas in culture without demeaning people that do not hold the same positions. The style of communication is exemplary for real public discourse.

One of the keys that makes this volume helpful in creating legitimate dialog is that for each chapter Volf and McAnnally-Linz explain the question they are seeking to answer. Public discourse often falls into shouting matches exactly because participants do not define their terms or engage the same question. This book is to be commended for seeking to diagnose and respond central questions related to significant public concerns. In the case of marriage and family, the integrity to identify the questions they are addressing and the vision of the common good they are pursuing make clear why they arrive at a revisionist answer.

Another strength of the volume is that it works from the understanding that the Christian worldview touches every aspect of life. Much of the discourse in the public square seems to be divorced from the notion that Christianity has anything to say about the common good. Although their solutions are often based on philosophical and political predispositions that are not distinctly Christian, their identification of the problems and the need to respond reflect the influence to a holistic Christian worldview.

This book is worth reading and sharing. Although some of their conclusions are debatable, the general approach to each topic is exemplary. This volume will not end the discussions, nor be the foundation for a definitive Christian approach, however it is a worthwhile example of faithful engagement of important issues in a non-contentious manner.

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

Three Political Dangers of Moral Relativism

There are three political options that offer strong temptation on a regular basis in a relativistic world. For individuals whose morality is unpinned from an objective reality, these are logical possibilities not temptations. In other words, these three political options are viewed as a menu of choices rather than a list of dangers when relativism is the accepted epistemological basis for morality.

As we sort through the muddle of mixed morality, we need to recognize these dangers for what they are. Until we recognize them, we can take no positive steps to avoid them. I have been helped recently by reflecting on the moral situation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as it reveals much about contemporary politics.

Lesser of Two Evils

The first political danger is to choose the lesser of two evils.

In a fallen world, sometimes we do need to accept proximate justice. We must work toward what good we can accomplish, recognizing there is much good that is left undone. Such compromise is necessary sometimes, but not always. There are times when we must reject false dichotomies and choose a third option.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 Used by CC license.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 Used by CC license.

In the case of politics, this sometimes means that we attempt to impact the future by voting for a cause that is certain to fail in the present. This is why there is a case for a write-in ballot or voting for a third party in an election. It is unlikely that such a candidate will win in our present circumstance, but it gives evidence that we will not be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. In politics, we will never choose perfectly nor have perfect options to choose from, but sometimes the two options presented by our system are simply unpalatable.

There is justification for choosing the lesser of two evils in some cases, such as amputating a limb instead of starving because a hand is pinched in a rock. Before we get to that point, however, we should consider whether there are other options.

Without a thorough acceptance of the existence of objective good, it is unlikely that someone will look past two mediocre options to find a third option that better matches the moral order of the universe.

This danger can be witnessed in Saruman’s alliance with Mordor in an attempt to defeat Mordor. On the one hand he saw a total defeat of good by Mordor if he did not establish his own empire. On the other hand he could see that he would have to use many of Mordor’s methods to build an empire capable of resisting. The lesser of two evils seemed to him to be to turn Orthanc, his little kingdom, into a mini-Mordor in hopes of achieving the lesser of two evils.

At some point, he made a logical choice in his own mind, but it becomes clear later in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings that he did not sufficiently consider a third option that was not evil at all. This led him to use Mordor’s tactics to fight Mordor, and ultimately corrupted any good he could have hoped to accomplish.

When in Mordor

The second political danger that regularly presents itself is to use unwholesome tactics simply because the opponent uses them. This approach recognizes that evil will be done through the unwholesome tactic, but the abuse of power is justified for some later good.

Tolkien captures the essence of this error in his classic work. The One Ring offered such a draw it leads to the corruption of the formerly good Saruman. The desire for power turns him to corrupt means to gain it, supposedly for the common good.

It was, arguably, with the intent to do good (as he understood it) that Saruman sought power. There were justifiable motivations for Saruman’s alliance with Sauron. Power, if used well, can lead to doing good. But such power when concentrated in the wrong hands, is a danger in itself. It proved to be too great a lure to Saruman. His invitation to Gandalf to betray his friends reveals the dangerous trajectory of the utilitarian logic of such political alliances:

“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. . . . This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand, and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the power grows, its proved friends will also grow and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evil done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs only in our means.”

In his attempt to draw Gandalf to join him, he offers the lure of power through the One Ring:

“The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

But Gandalf recognizes the problem with such a quest for power, even if it was intended to be used for good. The good that is done via evil means, in this case through the use of the One Ring, would turn to evil. The goodness of the result would be diminished and ultimately corrupted because of the unwholesome means that are used to reach the desired goal.

A moral relativist will be unlikely to recognize this, because when there is no objective good there can only be a calculus of benefit for a majority. In such a calculation, the inconvenience of a few is less significant than the relative good of a larger number.

Redescription of Good

A third political danger is to redescribe something that is evil as good. This is the ultimate fruit of moral relativism as it is being fleshed out in our society.

Saruman did not see his own corruption. He had not only assumed the end justifies the means, he had begun to redefine a negative end as good to cover his immoral actions.

Thus even after sending his armies to destroy and enslave his neighbors he still tried to lure Gandalf in to his plot to gain power. He still couched his goals as being for the ultimate good. Saruman saw his perverted domination of Middle Earth as a moral good. As he said to Gandalf after being unmasked as a traitor,

“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you.”

But Tolkien provides a foil to that relativism in the character of Gimli the dwarf:

“The words of this wizard stand on their heads, [Gimli] growled, gripping the handle of his axe. ‘In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, this is plain.’”

In this passage, Saruman is demonstrating a consistent postmodern epistemology and Gimli recognizes it. He has redefined “help” and “saving.” Gimli, being grounded in an objective epistemology, recognizes this and calls him out. Simply by changing the terms evil did not become good, though things can be made confusing through that process.

The Present Context

I realize that I demonstrate a degree of nerdliness in using the Lord of the Rings to illustrate my points. However, this is the purpose of good literature. It delights and instructs. It tells us something about who we are as humans and not simply what is happening in a fictitious world. In this case, it helps us recognize some of the dangers of relativism.

Our world is swimming in a relativism that is largely unrecognized. To many people, the acceptance of any sort of non-relativistic understanding of morality is a form of violence. We may have reached a critical mass of relativism where a plea to the self-referential incoherence of absolute relativism is incomprehensible. It seems to me that this is so.

Despite this overwhelming relativism around us, we cannot fall prey to it. In order to remain faithful to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, we cannot use the means of the world to stand our ground. We need to be aware of these political dangers and stay away from them. There is an objective moral good in the universe. We need to avoid compromising it by using flawed methods to achieve a supposed good.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. Relativism provides an easy path to self-justification. It does, however, leave one exposed as an evildoer in the presence of a real, holy, and objective God. We need to remain faithful to our objective epistemology and avoid these three pervasive political dangers.

Choosing Our Battles

The days are too short for me to get everything done that needs doing. I have a job to do, a family to love, a church to be, a God to serve, a dissertation to write, and a weird desire to read and write a lot.

The reality is that we can’t have it all. We can’t get everything that we might want to get done in life finished.

Used by creative common license from

Used by creative common license from

In fact, if you’re able to get through your to-do list in a year, it’s probably a reflection of low aspirations and not effective use of your time. If you are okay with that, then I’m okay, too.

The negative side of this is that I have to make choices not to do things that I would really like to do more of.

I have to balance learning a language with working out. I have to weigh the value of getting my dissertation done a little faster versus playing with my children. I have to consider the cost of writing another blog post against the possibility that it might help someone or I might become a better writer through the process.

I have to make choices and limit myself in order to do what I have time to do reasonably well.

The positive side of my finiteness is that I have to make choices not to do things that I really shouldn’t be doing anyway.

There are some crazy people running for President; I don’t have time to research every stupid thing everyone said. There's already enough information to know who the train wrecks are.

In other news, public figure got drunk, got arrested, and said some awful racist things. A movie was lewd and misrepresented Christianity. Some people said some theologically stupid things and some other people tried to explain it to them (or really to the people that already agreed with their disagreement). I can’t really make a difference by focusing on any of those things.

I have to make choices and so I’m learning to let some things pass me by. This is a good thing, I think.

There is only so much life to live. I’ve got to figure out how to use it as well as I can. I’ve only got so many bullets to fire and the enemy is surrounding me. I’d better shoot well and have some ammunition to last me through the battle.

The same thing is true with all of us. We only have so many bullets to fire. So what kind of shots are we taking?

Are we focused on promoting the gospel or are we focused on justifying our perspective on everything? Sometimes our perspective lines up with the gospel. At other times our perspective is consistent with the gospel, but the gospel can march on even if we don’t get our way.


Take, for instance, the issue of gun control. The Constitution is a good thing because it limits the governments power. Lord Acton was just about right when he said that thing about power corrupting. However, the gospel will march on whether the government respects the second amendment or not.

Do I think that increasing federal gun control laws are going to be helpful for reducing crime? Probably not. Sin permeates the human heart and there are many other ways to kill people singly or in groups.

But I do think I might alienate someone and keep them from hearing the gospel because I’m shouting too loud about something that really won’t matter for eternity. Heaven will stand whether I carry a pistol in this life or not.

These few statements will lead some to argue that I’m forgoing my responsibility as a citizen. No, that isn’t quite the case. I still vote. I periodically write letters to elected representatives. There are civil issues on which I may take a public stand yet.

The question is whether the present issue, whatever it happens to be, is worth a bullet. I’ve only got so much time to read, think, and write. There’s only so many times someone who disagrees with me will consider my opinion, unless we have a really special friendship. So I need to make my disagreements matter. I need to make my research and writing matter.


Basically, this all comes down to my realization that life is short and I need to make sure I get the important things done before I meet Christ face to face.

My suggestion is that the world might be a happier place and the gospel light might shine a little brighter if more of us remembered why it is that we’re here and what really matters for eternity.

Christian First, Not Republican

As we try to figure out just what is going on with the political right and the GOP implodes after what should have been a layup to nominate a true political conservative for President of the United States, Francis Schaeffer’s political analysis from the early 1980s offers some explanations of our present situation.

Even four decades ago, Schaeffer saw the fractures in the political right. The stress of the ongoing election process is revealing the fault lines just about where Schaeffer predicted them to be. In light of this, his advice for the faithful Christian to hold political relationships loosely is sound.

A Profile of the Silent Majority

Schaeffer’s argument was basically that the political right, which included the so-called “silent majority” was really a complex confederation of loosely affiliated segments. Although there was some cohesion, there was little commonality between the various segments of the “silent majority.”

[One] factor to take into consideration as we look at shifts in the culture is what in the 1970s was called “the silent majority.” That silent majority, we must understand, can still in the 1980s elect to office anyone it wants to elect. But it is imperative to realize that the silent majority is divided into two parts—a minority and a majority. Unhappily, today’s politician who wants to get elected has pressure on him to appeal to both.
The minority of the silent majority are, first, Christians (and therefore have absolutes and real principles on which to base their actions and judgments) and, second, those who have at least a Christian memory and still believe in absolutes, even if their basis for those absolutes is inadequate. However, the majority of the silent majority are those who really live in a post-Christian world. They may or may not go to church, but they have no real absolutes in mind and they have only two values—personal peace and affluence. Personal peace is not to be equated with pacifism. Rather, it is the attitude: “Let me alone; don’t let trouble at home or abroad come near my door. Just give me peace, personal peace.” And then there is the affluence: the more of everything the better. So with the majority of the silent majority, what we have is not a theoretical materialism but a practical materialism.

The calculation has shifted in the thirty years since Schaeffer wrote, but his analysis is still helpful. Now, in the minority of the silent majority are the Christians, who we see voting for legitimately conservative candidates in the 2016 Presidential primaries. Most of these folks recognize bluster when they see it and understand the cancerous danger of a lack of integrity, so they look for a candidate who has firm values, demonstrates character, and represents himself reasonably.

The other sliver of the former minority, are the sort-of Christians, many of whom identify as evangelical—a term that seems to have lost meaning—but rarely attend church. This second group has some Christian memory and usually a belief in absolutes of some sort, but has little basis for it. Therefore, when a candidate promises, however disingenuously, to serve their interests, they claim Christianity and deny the principles of their supposed religion in pursuit of their own interests.  This group has become a part of the majority of the silent majority. In many cases there is a conflation of nationalism and pseudo-Christianity among this group, which leads to a civil religion that inspires allegiance but often falls short of orthodoxy.

The largest portion of the so-called silent majority lack an absolute standard grounded in an infinite God. However, they feel economic pressure, perhaps due to foreign trade, and are concerned about safety due to immigrants and radical terrorists. For these individuals, the key is to gain power in order to stem the tide of compromise and the maintain a rough status quo that will allow for a continued prosperity or recapturing the sense of prosperity from a few years ago. The slow creep out of the economic slump of 2008 has fueled a continued dis-ease and desperation in this group who really just want personal peace and affluence. This group is more concerned with gaining power than being faithful to principles.

As I see it, this coalition has been shredded by this recent presidential election. One group has sought a compassionate, conservative vision for the future of the nation. Another group has sought rigid adherence to principles, not always recognizing that the expression of those principles may change somewhat when the surrounding culture changes. A third group has sought a strongman to bring them power so that they can return to a former sense of well-being; the principles of conservatism are of little consequence. And thus the political Right is fractured by potentially irreconcilable factions.

The Mushy Middle

Somewhere in the middle, between the political Left and the so-called silent majority there is another pool of unpredictable voters. These are the former rebels who, having found continued unrest and revolution unsuitable for long term prospects have settled down to seek affluence and personal peace, much like the people in the majority of the “silent majority.”

Although these individuals may vote for the political right at times, Schaeffer argues that they do not have values consistent with traditional forms of conservatism. Instead, they are simply seeking comfort, ease, and rest after the turbulence of their youths.

They are not really “conservatives”; they only want their piece of personal peace and affluence. If they do not get what they want in regard to these, there will be a swing of the pendulum. Neither the majority of the old silent majority (the old bourgeois), nor this New Bourgeois (nor the two together) is a base for a stable society.
They may for a time be cobelligerents with the Christians (the minority of the silent majority), who base their votes and their discussions on absolutes, on biblical principles and values. But we must not confuse either the old majority of the silent majority (the old bourgeois) nor the New Bourgeouis as true allies, or as those who can, or will, provide a base for a stable society.
 Essentially, as far as the sociological realities of the time in which we not live are concerned, the New Bourgeois substantiates and reinforces the old bourgeois. Of course, often they do not like each other, and there are and will continue to be tensions between the two; but as far as their sociological results are concerned, there is no essential difference between them.
The New Bourgeois usually couldn’t care less where the affluence comes from. Many would just as soon get a job from 9:00 to 5:00 to pay their bills. So long as they can do whatever pleases them, that’s enough. The utopian visions of Henry David Thoreau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have disappeared.

Here in the mushy middle, this group is again pursuing comfort, though typically in a different manner than the majority of the silent majority. However, principle is not the clear driver for this group either, unless it is the principle of self-interest.

When the consensus of culture points in a vaguely biblical direction, this group can be expected to support it as long as they are basically left alone. However, when social pressure is exerted, they will quickly abandon contested positions for another position and join in criticizing those who adhere to some sort of absolutes.

Cobelligerents, Not Allies

The willingness of the mushy middle to bolt when the winds of consensus appear to be shifting explains why, in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, Schaeffer writes:

Christians must realize that there is a difference between being a cobelligerent and an ally. At times we will seem to be saying exactly the same thing as those without a Christian base are saying. If there is social injustice, say there is social injustice. If we need order, say we need order. In these cases, and at these specific points, we would be cobelligerents. But we must not align ourselves as though we are in nay camp built on a non-Christian base. We are an ally of no such camp. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is different—totally different; it rests on the absolutes given to us in Scripture.
My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told, “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.”

The failure to understand that allegiance to a party should be held lightly in comparison to allegiance to the persons of the Triune God explains much of the handwringing among conservative evangelicals over which president campaign to support, if it comes down to a choice between two nearly equal evils, or whether a third party candidate is an option.

The so-called silent majority has fractured as the culture has shifted. The biblical memory of the culture is fading or entirely lost. The faithful Christian must now choose, and the choice in this election may well be to cast a protest vote. Such a vote in some cases may be naïve idealism, but faced with a choice of two significant evils, Schaeffer is right to argue that it may be necessary to pick a third alternative.


It is eerie at times how Schaeffer’s diagnosis from three or four decades ago seem to be playing out in real life. His predictions of the so-called culture of death are a reality. No less prescient are his premonitions about politics, particularly in the U.S. In many ways, we are where he thought we would be. In the face of that, Schaeffer’s continual hope in the goodness of God should encourage us to live life faithfully.

The hard choices of this time are nothing new under the sun. However, this is largely uncharted water for the cultural memory of orthodox Christians in the U.S. If the choice in November is between two nearly equally corrupt individuals, then a third party may need to be an option. We can be cobelligerents with the world, but never allies.

Note: Since I wrote this, Trevin Wax has posted along the same lines. His is, no doubt, better. It is certainly worth reading: 

Secularism is not the Answer

NOTE: This is not a post about Islam. Although the story that inspired this post was about opposing Islam with secularism in France, this is not a commentary on the validity of various forms of that religion.

I listened to an NPR story the week before Christmas that piqued my interest. The story was about an important issue in light the contemporary debate about religion, terrorism, and the public square. It dealt with an attempt by one French woman to promote secularism to young Muslims in France. 

The whole thing is about four minutes long and is worth a listen.

While the author of the article, Eleanor Beardsley, doesn't provide overt commentary on the woman's activity, this is an article that is promoting a particular view of religion. The activist, Ziaten, is promoting secularism and Beardsley is implicitly lauding it.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript that illustrates the argument:

Amand Riquier, the principal of the high school Ziaten is visiting in the northern suburbs of Paris, says so far, no students have radicalized. But teachers are always looking for the signs, such as a sudden and zealous display of religiousness.
Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty. In French schools, neither students nor teachers can come to class wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim veil or the Jewish skullcap.
Riquier says Madame Ziaten's visit is important.
"She'll be able to explain to them that secularism in schools is not meant to constrain their faith, but is a necessary principle for us all to live together in harmony and equality," he says.
Ziaten tells the students how she moved to France from Morocco at the age of 17. She tells the kids this country gave her — and her French-born children — every opportunity.
She says boys like Mohamed Mehra, and those who attacked Paris this year, were abandoned by their families and society. She says they are utter failures who know nothing about Islam.
Islam is not at war with Europe, Ziaten emphasizes. She tells the students that some are trying to turn Islam into an identity. But it's a religion, she says, and it's a private matter.
"Your identity is French," she says. "And you have a future to build in France."

Enforced Secularism

Based on this worldview, religion is a private matter. It doesn't belong in the public square. 

The argument here is that banning religious expressions in public is necessary for living together. The signs of trouble are when students begin to live religiously.

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

In other words, religion is ok unless you actually live like it's true. The only forms of religion that are acceptable, by this standard, are those that don't make a difference in the way that you live.

Unfortunately, that defies the very nature of religion. Every meaningful religion makes demands. Sometimes those are consistent with the standards of the world and at other times they are not. Telling people they can't live out their faith is telling them that their faith does not matter, and that their religion isn't true. That is problematic.

In this case, it makes the assumption that the values of secularism are superior to all other religions. 

The Values of Worldviews

There is no such thing as a neutral worldview. Every worldview has values.

Beardsley acknowledges this in her article, "Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty."

The naked public square isn't naked; it's filled to the brim with values that make totalizing demands on life. In this case, one of the most significant values is 'secularism,' which in this context appears to mean denying the significance of religion.

So secularism is making religious claims, but without the argumentation. This doesn't promote liberty, it promotes a tyranny of the mind and soul. It makes absolute claims on every part of life, but without the warrant for it.


I've heard it said that Europe is usually a generation ahead of the US culturally. Many people make moral arguments based on what Europe does, especially about social policies. The assumption appears to be that they are doing it right and the US is dragging behind. However, before we support the tyrannical secularism that France has, we need to consider whether true religious liberty should be sacrificed for that purpose. Not allowing people to practice their religion openly and being overtly hostile to public demonstrations of faith may make it easier to live together, but it may make it harder to live.

While France's anti-religious policies may limit the radicalization of Muslims in public, it may also override the basic right to a freedom of conscience. That seems a high price to pay for peace.