-by John c. Green
The How, What, and Why of Christian Politics
By Ralph Reed
311 pp.; $25
Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics
By Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox
John Hopkins University Press
285 pp.; $32.95
A Practical View of Christianity
By William Wilberforce
Edited by Kevin C. Belmonte
288 pp.; $16.95
Who Speaks for God? The New Spiritual Politics Beyond the Religious Right
By Jim Wallis
How Right Is the Right? A Balanced and Biblical Approach to Politics
By Randall L. Frame and Alan Tharpe
206 pp.; $10.99, paper
Why the Left Is Not Right: The Religious Left: Who They Are and What They Believe
By Ronald H. Nash
222 pp.; $10.99, paper
What you most fear tells a lot about you. Is it AIDS or Alzheimer's? A mugging or an IRS audit? For many journalists, the answer would be, None of the above. What haunts them is the specter of Christians in politics: rank after rank of the born-again, marching in lockstep to the orders of Pat Robertson or some other theocratic poohbah.
Indeed, it is a terrifying thought. But as anyone who has served on a church committee can attest, there's no need to worry. American evangelicals have a gift for disagreement. From theology to manners to culture, they have a long history of disputation among themselves, and this penchant for debate is especially evident when the subject is politics. Several recent books by evangelicals from across the ideological spectrum confirm that no consensus is in sight. For readers who want to reflect on Christian involvement in politics, there is no better place to start than these books before us.
Taken together, the books highlight three important topics crucial to understanding the proper role of Christianity in democracy: practice, priority, and position. Practice is the realm of personal conduct in the political process. Should Christians be held to a higher standard as they participate in the rough and tumble of politics? Priority denotes the political agenda: Are there topics to which Christians should give special attention? Finally, position refers to the substantive content of politics: Are there specifically Christian positions that believers should take on the issues of the day?
Ralph Reed's new book, Active Faith, addresses political practice most directly--appropriately so, since Reed is the executive director of the Christian Coalition, the most successful political organization of evangelicals. As much as anyone, Reed is responsible for the clout of the Religious Right in national politics. His book combines political history--an insider's account of the movement--with an attack on the "hollowness of liberalism." Readers will learn a great deal about the origins and operations of the Christian Coalition, and they may well be surprised by the source of its influence: old-fashioned grassroots mobilization of voters.
Many readers will also be surprised to find that Reed traces the spark of the movement not to Roe v. Wade, but rather to President Jimmy Carter's attempt to have the irs investigate private schools to see if they were set up to avoid integration. That was what galvanized conservative Christian political involvement.
The biggest surprise, however, is likely to be Reed himself, who defies the common stereotypes of the Religious Right. The press sometimes portrays these activists as ignorant, unsophisticated, unreasonable, intolerant, and uncivil. Reed is none of these things: his arguments are informed, sophisticated, and reasonable, and his approach to politics is civil and tolerant. Furthermore, Reed is acutely aware that these negative stereotypes arose in part from the movement itself. He can be a scalding critic of the intemperance of Christian conservatives, from the Moral Majority to Christian Reconstructionists. He notes, for instance, that the movement's rhetoric about a "Christian nation" generated the impression that it had theocratic aims. He demands that his associates cease to refer to gays and lesbians as "perverts," and that they desist from attacking President Clinton on religious grounds. He even admits to his own costly mistakes, such as his use of military metaphors in describing the coalition's tactics.
Thus, while Reed is an outspoken advocate of traditional morality on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights, he insists on the importance of civility:
What does it mean to be a person of faith in the political arena? It is no different from being a Christian in any other vocation. . . . If he is the starting middle linebacker for a professional football team, he tries to stop the other team. Politics is a contact sport. . . . In that combat, I play hard and I try to win. But I never hit below the belt, I play according to the rules of fairness and courtesy, and after the game is over, I always help my opponent up off the turf. My faith is not a function of my politics.
Christians, like other folk, may have strikingly different political goals; a distinctive contribution of their faith, Reed suggests, should be to make the pursuit of these goals--the practice of politics--more civil and tolerant. This point underlies Reed's brief stab at a "theology of Christian political involvement" near the end of the book, where he argues that Christians should (1) be skeptical of political power, (2) take the responsibilities and rights of citizenship seriously, and (3) practice "grace and humility in speech and deed." The "active faith" Reed proposes is more an approach to political behavior than an agenda or a set of positions, although he clearly has a point of view on these things as well.
The ideal of a civil politics by religious people will seem old hat to many readers, of course, but it is still not widely accepted among the people Reed seeks to mobilize--or among the liberal media. He is speaking in large measure to political neophytes when he argues that one can be both a Christian and politically active. At the same time, he is reassuring outsiders that they have nothing to fear from the religious aspect of such politics.
Reed's sweet reasonableness is winsome but not entirely persuasive. To begin with, friends and foes alike are bound to be disappointed by the lack of religious justification for either his priorities or his positions on the issues.
It is not clear, for instance, if the social-issues agenda of the Christian Coalition derives from moral imperatives or if it merely reflects the personal preferences of its members. Why are issues such as poverty and racial reconciliation given lower priority? Does God really have a position on abolishing the Department of Education or the capital gains tax? And when Reed claims that Christian conservatives are motivated by "compassion" and "justice," what exactly does he mean by these terms?
Such questions direct us to the trenches of activism illumined in Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics, by political scientists Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox. (The first coming? That was Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, which also originated in Virginia.) This book combines analytic social science with vivid case studies, adroitly mixing survey data with personal interviews. Focusing on the 1993 state-level and 1994 federal elections, with a particular emphasis on the senatorial campaign of Oliver North, Rozell and Wilcox cogently assess the strengths and weaknesses of the movement.
If Second Coming provides a contemporary context for Reed's manifesto--how does "active faith" work in practice?--a recently reissued classic offers a valuable historical perspective. William Wilberforce's A Practical View of Christianity, edited by theologian Kevin Belmonte and introduced by Charles Colson, was one of the earliest calls for evangelical involvement in public affairs, and its arguments have lost none of their power. Wilberforce is best known for his struggle to outlaw slavery in Great Britain--a campaign that he led for several decades from his seat in Parliament. In his time, as it is today, the notion of bringing religious values into politics was anathema to many people; but Wilberforce persisted, helping to inaugurate a period of sweeping social reforms.
For a vivid contrast to Reed's politics, see Jim Wallis's new book, Who Speaks for God? Where Reed emphasizes political practice, Wallis emphasizes priorities. A community activist and writer who helped found the Sojourners Community in 1971 and Sojourners magazine shortly thereafter, Wallis is one of a number of evangelical leaders who issued the "Cry for Renewal," a statement calling for a new political vision beyond the standard ideological distinctions in American politics. That was followed by the founding of Call for Renewal, a network of local activists dedicated to implementing the vision articulated in the statement. (Documents relevant to both are included at the end of the book).
Who Speaks for God? thus develops further the line of thought that Wallis explored in his previous book, The Soul of Politics (New Press/Orbis, 1994), where he sought a "higher ground" neither Left nor Right, neither liberal nor conservative: a genuinely Christian political vision. Wallis succeeds only partially in realizing that ambitious goal. Although he criticizes religious liberals and secularists for rejecting a role for religion in politics (in Active Faith, Reed quotes with approval an earlier Wallis comment on this very point), Wallis's fire is largely directed at religious conservatives, specifically Reed and other evangelicals in the Christian Coalition. Indeed, the rhetorical question in the title of the book is a rebuke directed at them for "claiming to speak for God." Wallis answers his own question thus:
Is there a reliable guide to when we are hearing the voice of God, or just a self-interested or even quite ungodly voice in the language of heaven? I think there is. Who speaks for God? When the voice of God is invoked on behalf of those who have no voice, it is time to listen. But when the name of God is used to benefit the interests of those who are speaking, it is time to be very careful.
In Wallis's view, Christian conservatives are committed to serving the interests of the rich and powerful to the detriment of the poor and powerless. He claims that another "voice" is needed to speak for evangelicals in politics to counter the Religious Right.
Self-consciously adopting a prophetic style, Wallis attemps to provide this voice. And like the sweeping judgments delivered by prophets of old, his arguments are at once exhilarating and irritating, one moment bringing tears to one's eyes and the next filling one with outrage and anger. But at every turn, the reader is forced to ask: What does the Lord require in politics?
Wallis is aware that his probing questions will be controversial. His special concern for the poor and oppressed can only disturb the complacency of many deeply committed Christians who have given up struggling with these difficult issues. "We must neither simply destroy welfare" he argues, "nor keep defending the welfare state." His challenge to the powers that be is equally trenchant: "The biblical tradition says that the poor should have as much clout as those with money and power." In these ways, Wallis calls the Christian Coalition and other evangelicals to account for their politics.
The power of Wallis's argument comes from its close identification with the biblical tradition, especially the Old Testament prophets Amos and Hosea and the teaching of Jesus regarding the poor. From these texts, he develops three principles of "spiritual politics" that can serve as tests for the priorities of Christians: compassion, community, and civility. Compassion is the best developed of these principles and underlies the remaining two. His definition is worth quoting: "The word compassion means literally 'to suffer with.'. . . True compassion has less to do with sympathy than it does with empathy. . . . [C]ompassion means to recognize the kindred spirit we share together." Community is the real-world expression of this empathetic connection, which eventually includes everybody: "The moral and political foundation for community is that, fundamentally, we need each other. " Civility is putting community into action: " 'Civility' is really about two things: the quality and integrity of our public discourse, and the level and depth of citizen participation in political process."
So Wallis's argument, in contrast to Reed's, is fundamentally about the purposes of politics and less about its specific procedures or policies, although he has a point of view on these matters as well. Wallis and Reed both emphasize the importance of civility, but they are not really talking about the same thing.
In Wallis's view, a Christian politics begins and ends with God's demand for justice. This uncompromising insistence that Christians focus on "what really matters" is almost the opposite of Reed's stress on Christian practices in politics.
There are, however, very real limitations to a prophetic style in politics. By its nature, rebuke is abrasive, and it is very difficult for prophets to be reconcilers. Wallis shows little compassion for his conservative opponents and is often uncivil toward them, undermining his stated goal of building a "moral center" from a "new dialogue embracing all sectors of the religious community." Prophetic politics also falls short on practical details. Once one gets beyond the question of priorities, Wallis's policy proposals tend to be rather modest. In fact, a list of these ideas reads remarkably like those suggested by Reed.
Similarly, prophetic politics can be ineffective. The topics Wallis cares so deeply about must ultimately be addressed by mainstream political institutions, the very "partisan politics" he decries at every turn. His discourse contributes very little to this difficult task. Finally, any set of priorities can be questioned: Wallis gives much less attention to issues such as abortion, which may have as much warrant for Christian concern as poverty.
Where should Christians stand on the issues of the day? Reed and Wallis clearly have policy preferences, but their views hardly exhaust the scope of debate over how Christian values should be applied to issues. Just in time for the political season, Zondervan has published two books that together provide a good outline for considering this topic.
The first of these, How Right Is the Right?, by journalist Randall Frame and Alan Tharpe, dean of Eastern College, surveys the issues from a moderate to left-of-center point of view. Frame and Tharpe begin with a broad look at the political situation of American evangelicals today, including a review of the Christian Coalition, the unique mission of Christian churches, and what they call the "pathology of ideology." The second half of the book is a topical review of the key issues before the nation, ranging from welfare to abortion.
Frame and Tharpe fill in many of the arguments advanced by both Reed and Wallis. First, their "ten commandments for moderate political behavior" amount to a fuller exposition of Reed's Christian practice, amended to include Wallis's prophetic priorities. Second, in their concluding section, "a political agenda for evangelical moderates," the authors give some substance to the new vision of the Call for Renewal, spiced with an emphasis on Christian involvement in mainstream politics.
The second of these books, Why the Left Is Not Right, by Ronald Nash, a theologian at the Reformed Theological Seminary, looks at many of the same issues from the right side of the political spectrum. This book has a very different structure, however, focusing on describing the Religious Left (where Nash locates Wallis and others associated with the Call for Renewal). Nash makes a number of solid criticisms of the issue-positions of these writers, particularly the influence of the secular Left on some of their thinking. Unfortunately, the book is seriously marred by mean-spirited attacks and allegations that are poorly substantiated and in some cases demonstrably untrue (such as the claim that Wallis was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union).
These lapses undermine an otherwise useful exposition of conservative views on the issues of the day. Even if one grants the prophetic priorities of Wallis, conservatives have a lot to offer in the search for solutions to poverty, racism, and crime. Conservatism need not be an inflexible apology for the powers of the Earth, and it can answer to biblical imperatives as well. The book ends with a plea for Christian practice, entitled "Love Your Enemies (Even If They Are Conservatives)." Given Nash's strident tone, the attempt at irony backfires.
These books point to the value of vigorous political debate in Christian circles. Frame and Tharpe's call for a careful weighing of argument and evidence in arriving at issue-positions is in many respects a model for disputation among Christians. If there is in fact a correct Christian point of view on a given issue, it can only be discovered by a balanced debate managed by fair-minded participants. Readers who find that prospect utopian must be reminded that God is not finished with us yet. In this sense, the penchant for disagreement among evangelicals is a gift to the nation.
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal
November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 20