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-by John Wilson, Managing Editor

Stranger In A Strange Land

On the eve of a presidential election for which I can summon no enthusiasm, I've been reading a wonderful book about "the political transformation of twentieth-century America": The Inheritance: How Three Families Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond, by Samuel G. Freedman (Simon & Schuster, 464 pp.; $27.50). Freedman's thesis is that the Democratic Party coalition that dominated American government from 1932 to 1968 depended heavily on immigrants and their children, especially Jewish and Catholic immigrants. And, Freedman argues, it was the large-scale defection of the grandchildren of those Catholics who religiously voted Democrat in the 1930s that made possible the realignment that issued in the Reagan Revolution and the Republican majority in Congress in 1994. (For a different, though in some ways parallel, take on this slice of history, see Lucas Morel's review of Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996, by Ronald Radosh, on p. 38 of this issue).

What interests me, though, is not so much the book's argument as the stories it tells. As in his two previous books, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School and Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, Freedman has created a powerful documentary narrative rich in individual detail. Here he tells the stories of three Catholic families, one Irish, one Italian, and one Polish, over three generations.

"The annals of politics and power rarely record such names," Freedman says of his subjects. "History remembers presidents and not the voters who elected them. Yet America bears their imprint of obscure hands, the hands even of the three families. In their story lies the essence of the century." If he lacks the virtuosity of James Agee, Freedman shares Agee's passionate commitment to reporting that is faithful to the very texture of life. This is journalism raised to the level of art.

Elsewhere in this issue, political scientist John Green (p. 20) reviews a bagful of new books (and one reissued classic) dealing with Christian involvement in politics. He casts his net widely enough to include both Ralph Reed and Jim Wallis. Even so, one essay-review cannot begin to encompass all the significant new books that consider from various perspectives what it means to be both a Christian and a citizen. Following is a brief listing of several such books (the mention of which here does not preclude a full review in a forthcoming issue).

Adding Cross to Crown: The Political Significance of Christ's Passion (Baker Book House, 96 pp.; $9.99, paper) consists of a paper by Mark Noll (the inaugural Kuyper Lecture, given at Calvin College in 1995) with responses by James Bratt, Max Stackhouse, and James Skillen and an introduction by Luis Lugo. What is distinctive about Noll's piece is his emphasis on taking seriously the doctrine of the Incarnation when we attempt to "think and act like Christians in the political sphere." Both the lecture and the responses are exceedingly sharp and provocative--you'll finish this little book with your mind buzzing--but it would have been useful to feature one nonacademic respondent who might begin to connect these reflections with the gritty (not to say sleazy) practice of actual politics as described by Freedman.

In A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society

(InterVarsity, 276 pp.; $14.99, paper), Rodney Clapp is concerned not with politics narrowly construed but with the church as "a polis, a political body that promotes and sustains a distinctive way of living in the world." When the church is seen from this perspective, as "an alternative culture," then "liturgy is a political activity." Rather than bemoan the marginalizing of Christianity in twentieth-century America, Clapp suggests that we should seize the opportunity to rescue a true understanding of our character as the people of God in this post-Constantinian age.

If Clapp represents what Ashley Woodiwiss has called the ecclesiocentric perspective in contemporary Christian thought (others engaged in this project include Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank), Robert Wuthnow represents a chastened liberalism with a strong empirical bent. In two new books, Wuthnow continues his remarkable ongoing work, combining in-depth social science research (including extensive first-person interviews) with moral exhortation. In Christianity and Civil Society: The Contemporary Debate (Trinity Press International, 112 pp.; $15), based on the 1996 Rockwell Lectures at Rice University, Wuthnow calls for "sophisticated" dialogue and engagement between Christians and groups with "different values and lifestyles." ("To be sophisticated . . . means being willing to give up some control over one's own claims to know the truth, subjecting them to self-evaluation and the critical commentary of others.") Poor Richard's Principle: Rediscovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business, and Money (Princeton University Press, 429 pp.; $24.95) contains the best account I have ever read of the role of money in American life. Read Wuthnow's chapter, "(Not) Talking About Money," and see if you don't agree.

Finally, there is This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity, by Steven J. Keillor (InterVarsity, 464 pp.; $24.99), a stunning reinterpretation of American history that will force readers clear across the political spectrum to reexamine their assumptions. Keillor is a strange new breed of historian, well-schooled in the revisionist scholarship of the last 30 years (which he appropriates with critical discernment), but also unashamed to speak of God's providence. You will be hearing more about this book, in our pages and elsewhere.

There is no consensus to be found in these books, except perhaps on one point: that Christian belief cannot be zoned off in a private sphere, separate from "politics," but should inform every aspect of life. Which is precisely what we are trying to practice in this journal.

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal

November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 4


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