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Book Review

God and Government. Edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin

June 16, 2010 - Stanley Carlson-Thies

God and Government. Edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin

REVIEW BY Stanley Carlson-Thies


God and Government  

Edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin

This collection of essays on “God and Government” could hardly come at a better time. As Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says in the foreword, this is an era of a “deep crisis of faith in politics.” That’s true both in the U.K. and on this side of the Atlantic. Governments are doing a lot. But to what effect? Are they doing what they should be doing—and at least as important, refraining from doing what they ought not do? Certainly in the United States, there is not only deep disagreement about government’s roles, but also (not coincidentally) widespread skepticism about the government’s effectiveness.

Yet, truth be told (and rather surprisingly, given all those bold predictions not that long ago about the inevitable secularization of Western societies), the past dozen or ten years have seen an avalanche of books about religion and public life, the Bible and politics, church and state. Why should you pick up this one?

Let me begin with a Washington, D.C. event: the Capitol Hill launch of the National Association of Evangelicals’ political statement, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” and the accompanying book, Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation, Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, edited by Ron Sider and Diane Knippers (Baker Books, 2005). The political statement is a biblically-grounded appeal to Christians and others to pursue policies that honor religious freedom, strengthen families, safeguard vulnerable human lives, lift up the poor and neglected, protect human rights, seek peace, and protect the creation. The book is a worthy collection of essays by noted Christian scholars that supplies the rationale for the policy recommendations.

So far, so good. For the launch, a noted and dedicated Christian politician was charged with speaking to the significance and value of the statement and book. He began—according to my fallible recollection—by saying something like this: “It’s an honor to be invited to comment on these policy recommendations and on the book. And yet as Christians, including Christian politicians, isn’t God’s call on us really simply to be his witnesses in the world, witnessing to the Gospel, helping the poor? That’s the heart of the Christian political responsibility.”

And then he was off on a loose narrative about Christians being good neighbors to the needy, having in effect dismissed all the hard and prayerful work of the NAE to discern and describe how, politically, citizens and officials can be actual good neighbors to the needy. Intent and heart commitment not only trumped but rendered irrelevant specific guidance. This was definitely not a close encounter between biblical teachings on politics and the practice of politics.

So it often goes: thinkers about biblical politics, on the one hand, and political doers who confess allegiance to the King, on the other, often seem to be disconnected. Great thoughts are separated from political action; energetic political action is unconnected to careful Christian thinking.

God and Government is intended to bridge those two sides, or rather to offer political theological reflections that will engage political practitioners and become fruitful through their political practice. Interestingly, cunningly, the approach is neither the usual string of imperatives (Christian politics means doing justice, eliminating poverty, rejecting war, saving the unborn) nor the less common detailed prescriptions (a Christian policy on the fiscal crisis, the biblical approach to telecommunications regulation). Rather, the book is a thoughtful and thought-provoking set of chapters that reflect on the Bible’s broad political themes—what co-editor (and Cardus Senior Fellow) Jonathan Chaplin calls biblical “core principles” for government.

The chapters are from a range of Catholic and Protestant theological thinkers (including N. T. Wright) and cover a range of topics. Some systematize biblical teachings, others remind us of how Christians over the ages have wrestled with “God and government,” and still others take up particular themes: What is the common good? How much of the good that should happen has to be accomplished by government itself? Yet each wrestles in its own way with one big question. That overarching question, in the words of co-editor Nick Spencer (of the think tank Theos), is this: “[W]hat, according to Christian theology, is the proper function of government? What, in other words, should those Christians engaged with politics . . . be aiming to achieve through their engagement?” 

For the goal of the book, as Chaplin says in his concluding overview, is to provide materials, perspectives, foundations that can deepen the political wisdom of politically active Christians. Good political action—just and redemptive, God-pleasing political action—whether by citizens or by office holders requires not only good impulses, a sure command of the facts and circumstances, and a menu of useful policy options, but also—and critically—biblically informed wisdom. Wisdom for political life requires, beyond or underneath the specifics, a deep sense of the right direction to go, a deep sense of what government, in this broken world that is yet caught up in the story of redemption, ought to be about. The book is designed to provoke and guide reflection on that fundamental matter.

The book is full of engaging ideas. For instance, Tom Wright points out that while Jesus’ kingdom is not “of” (doesn’t derive from) this world, “it is designed for this world.”  Among other things, this means that it is not government, but God, who establishes his kingdom; yet government acts on God’s behalf by establishing necessary order and some approximation of justice; and one task of God’s people is to help hold government accountable, kept in its place as a servant, not tyrant.

Clifford Longley articulates one of the most challenging issues of religion and politics in this way: “How to organize the government of a secular society without making it aggressively ‘secularist’ and therefore anti-religious.”  Christians must not dominate government, but neither should they be shoved to margins, their faith privatized. What’s needed is a developed “theology of religious and moral pluralism, showing how religion can remain as important as its adherents can make it, but without either suppressing the rights of others or being suppressed in turn.” 

A modest suggestion: the Kuyper tradition of principled pluralism has much to offer. But this tradition, too, can usefully ponder Longley’s questions: “Can a state remain officially indifferent to religion while society continues to take it seriously? Or does indifference by the state lead to indifference by society?” Isn’t one response this: the state should be engaged with religions and with deep secular convictions—but in a pluralist way?

Several of the chapters discuss the disputed question of whether the state is the result of the Fall, and thus has a mainly corrective task of holding sin in check, or whether it instead can be seen as part of the dynamic and (in principle) good creation, like the family and universities, and thus might have legitimate positive and constructive tasks. The latter view, Chaplin points out, could lead to a far more expansive view of government than seen as right by the corrective view. And yet, he stresses, the difference is not that substantial, for adherents of the directive or positive view know that government cannot be unlimited: “The responsibility of government does not extend to the whole of the common good.” Other institutions and persons are co-responsible. “Not only can government not save us; it also cannot exercise our varied social responsibilities on our behalf; it can only create the conditions in which we can exercise them. Viewed in this way, the difference between the corrective and the directive views of government begins to narrow.”

One final of many jewels: Elections are a way to keep government accountable to the citizens, and they are an avenue by which we make known to government our interests and views. But Chaplin says that, in Christian perspective, elective politics is about more than this. Elections and the resulting elected assemblies are “avenues for the people’s active participation in discerning the common good.” That is, democratic mechanisms reflect the “corporate responsibility” of Christians and others “to take up the task of deliberating on what the common good requires.”  At election time we should ask, “What does the public good require?” And yet, as he goes on to say, for democracy to work like that, we need more “conviction politicians” and more “conviction parties”—politicians and parties that can render a good answer when asked, “What do you intend to do with political power? Why should we regard that to be a good use for that power?”

Beyond those, and many other, specific points of interest, God and Government is especially noteworthy for an overall quality that gives it special value to Christians engaged in thinking about politics and to Christians engaged in doing politics. The contributors come from a variety of Christian and political traditions and have varied specific concerns and expertise. So it is striking to see throughout certain common themes—“core principles” in Chaplin’s terms: principles that have developed over the centuries of Christian engagement with political life but that appeal to us, not because of tradition, but because of “their evident rootedness in biblical revelation.” 

The principles include these: government is legitimate and plays vital roles in society, and yet, marred by and prone to sin, it must be kept bounded and accountable. Politics should foster the common good, not narrow interests or even just what the majority desires, and yet the common good is not the preserve of government nor can it be achieved by government alone: everyone and every institution also has a calling to contribute to the common good. Thus a good politics respects, safeguards, and lifts up civil society institutions. Moreover, while political authorities are, in their own way, ministers of God, their authority is not infallible but must make way for conscience, religious freedom, and the prophetic voice of the church.

From such themes or convictions practicing politicians should take both a deep conviction of the value of their work and a sobered wisdom about the limits of what government can rightly do. Thanks to the evident failures and inadequacies of many private institutions, we live in an era when it is tempting to stress the action of government rather than its necessary limits. A reflective reading of this thought-provoking book will help guard against that grave mistake without undermining the nerve and creativity that servant-politicians must have.

Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a Washington D.C.-area non-partisan think tank.

Posted in Globalization, Religion.

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