Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review (#25 of 2011) City of Man

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner (foreword by Tim Keller).

Since I've been working through various presentations of Christian interaction with society, particularly in the economic sphere, I thought it useful to read some modern takes on Christian involvement in politics. I thought Gerson/Wehner would be a good contrast with Jim Wallis. Gerson is a former speech writer in the G.W. Bush White House and current Washington Post pundit (and occasional NewsHour fill-in for David Brooks) and Wehner was also involved in policy strategy for Bush. Both are professing evangelicals.

As Tim Keller writes in the foreword:
"(A)ny simplistic Christian response to politics—the claim that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that we should “take back our country for Jesus”—is inadequate. In each society, time, and place, the form of political involvement has to be worked out differently, with the utmost faithfulness to the Scripture, but also the greatest sensitivity to culture, time, and place."

The authors quickly gloss over a few historical strains of Christian views on politics, comparing the extremes of isolationism and efforts to create theocracy. There is a lot of room between poles on the continuum for a Christians to be.

Engaging in politics as a career can, in the strain of A.W. Tozer, be just as holy an act as sewing a tent, preparing an accounting audit, writing a sermon, or bagging groceries. So long as Christians do the work with a view to glorify God, it is holy, and none of the above are more holy than the other.

The authors look at a proper role of the state that (they hope) all Christians can agree upon while also looking at the proper role of the church within the state. They offer five precepts:
1. Moral duties of individuals and the state are different. Don't confuse Matthew 5 with Romans 13.
2. The Church as a body has different roles and obligations than individual Christians.
3. Scripture doesn't provide a blueprint for government and public policy.
(Emphasis mine):

"(T)he role of the church, at least as we interpret it, is to provide individual Christians with a moral framework through which they can work out their duties as citizens and engage the world in a thoughtful way, even as it resists the temptation to instruct them on how to do their job or on which specific public policies they ought to embrace."


Hence, the church should stand for liberty, justice, and human rights but not endorse specific bills on the floor. As C.S. Lewis believed, it's the role of the layperson and not the clergy to help the Church understand and work through certain issues of expertise. "This is where we want the Christian economist," as Lewis gave as one example that I have posted on my office door.

In stronger language:
"Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy."
What is "clearly Christian" is debatable, but I would argue that a pastor endorsing specific budget bills that contain a complex array of complicated items is problematic (more on this tomorrow).


I sent this quote to my congressman:
Yet to govern is to choose—and those in public life have a duty to develop, as best they can, a sound political philosophy, to engage in rigorous moral reasoning, and to make sure they do not become so captive to ideology that they ignore empirical evidence.
4. Political involvement of Christians depends on the context they live in. New Testament Christians accepted their non-democratic governments as given, and submitted to authorities. Through democracy, we have the ability to peacefully pursue changes in our society that they didn't have, and perhaps this obligates us to different action.

5. God doesn't deal with nations as He did with Israel. (America is not Israel. But step into your average Southern Baptist church on a 4th of July service or "God and Country Day," and you might get confused about that).

Gerson and Wehner summarize the emergence of the evangelical Christian Right and the decline of the mainline denominations, for better or worse. They are clearly not fans of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

They then shift to what they see as the proper role of government:
"There are, we believe, four categories—order, justice, virtue, and prosperity—that can help Christians think through the proper role of government in our lives...A wise government, constructed around a true view of human nature, thus creates the conditions necessary to allow the great mass of the people to live well and to flourish, to enjoy both order and liberty, to live under the protection of the state without being suffocated by it...We count ourselves conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke, who averred that God instituted government as a means of human improvement."
Basically, the classical liberal view of man's dignity but supported by a belief in man being created in God's image and undergirded by the ultimate belief in an ultimate source of Truth to provide a basis for our laws. Gerson and Wehner agree that democratic capitalism is the system that best allows man to be free and have the best opportunity to fulfill his God-given potential and creativity. "Judging by its fruit," democratic capitalism has never produced a famine and has provided the highest standard of living in terms of material wealth, liberty, and religious freedom, therefore it makes sense for Christians to promote it as a good way to order society.

The authors conclude the book with a look at rhetoric, how important it is for members of a society to have the freedom to be persuaded:
"(B)ecause human beings are created in God’s image, they are morally autonomous and free to choose. They are capable of reason, and of being reasoned with. What most separates human beings from animals is a moral conscience, the ability to engage in private and public conversations about the human condition."

They conclude with some advice for Christian "persuaders" from the viewpoint of people who were responsible for crafting Bush speeches and op-eds.

There are some real weaknesses in the book, so I give it 3 stars out of 5. It's brief, so they don't contain well-defended arguments of either political or moral philosophy. The sources they draw from are also fairly few. I'm reminded that Christians have been dealing with this for thousands of years, so it'd be better to read something written 1,000 years ago than something written last year. They also ascribe certain economic outcomes to policy they see guided by Christian ethical principles, which I find problematic as economists disagree with them based on the data. Examples: Was it welfare reform that reduced poverty or the 1990s technology boom? Was it Rudy Giuliani's policies that caused crime to decrease in New York, or did he simply benefit from a nation-wide phenomenon of widely debated causes? Economists doubt the effects of policy in these examples, but Gerson and Wehner seem unaware of that. Obviously, the Bush Administration pushing through billions for AIDS-related medicine to Africa had some great outcomes we would not have seen otherwise but other examples they give are not that clean-cut.

Major issues like taxing and redistribution are completely bypassed in this book. They recognize that Christians will debate these issues and that Scripture doesn't give us clear-cut prescriptions.

My biggest disappointment would be that it didn't deal much with the various historical approaches. I look at Christian interaction with society from what I understand to be the Anabaptist perspective (as James Halteman describes it, which differs from how Gerson and Wehner describe it): Our ultimate allegiance as Christians is to God, and not to a country. That doesn't mean that we live as isolationists, but rather that we organize ourselves primarily as a church community that serves as a model for the world and invites others to join. We don't try to force others to adopt our ways and we recognize that we cannot legislate morality, but we argue that God's order is the best order for man to fulfill his God-given potential.

The Christians and Jews of Scripture were living in occupied territories. They understood the Roman Empire both from repeated history and prophecy to be temporary, but the Church would endure forever. So, I think issues of patriotism and nationalism were very familiar to them (particularly Jews) but seen as secondary to the importance of the Church-- among which there is no distinction between race or nationality--"neither Jew nor Greek," as Paul said. As politics inherently involves or results in issues of patriotism and nationalism, it's something that Christians need to be wary about, and something that Gerson and Wehner spend little time discussing.

If the Church isn't our first and primary concern and focus, then we end up engaging in Jim Wallis-like efforts to try and make the government and the entire population do what the church should be doing. We divert Church resources to lobbying Congress instead of working to achieve the same ends they want congressional legislation to do. And we engage in endless useless debate about whether initiatives like welfare reform are biblical or contrary. That's my problem with Gerson and Wehner's ambiguity.

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