by John Wilson
Christians and Politics: Truth Is More Interesting than Fiction
Since Books & Culture got rolling, more than a dozen years ago, books on Christians and politics—especially on Christians and politics in the United States—have rolled off the presses with great regularity. They've come from the leading university presses, from the trade houses, from publishers catering to evangelical or Catholic audiences, from vanity presses (more of that last category than you can imagine). In the last several years, what has long been a steady flow has become an unruly torrent, and the volume in the last few months has reached insane levels.
Many of these books are not worth anyone's time—why, you can't help but wonder, were they ever published?—but even when the dross is wept away, unmanageable stacks remain, with new arrivals coming daily. Here is the first report in a series of several over the course of this election year.
I've already mentioned Amy Black's fine book Beyond Left and Right: Helping American Christians Make Sense of Politics (Baker), but I want to draw it to your attention again, for its practical wisdom and lucidity. And coming in March from Random House, to be included in a forthcoming report, is Steven Waldman's Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, a superbly balanced account which refuses to trim the messy reality to fit any partisan agenda.
Randall Balmer's God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (HarperOne) is a slim and very readable overview by a scholar who is blessedly skilled at writing for the general reader as well as for his peers. The lesson driven home again and again in Balmer's account is the law of unintended consequences, and there are ironies on every page—a reality to which irony–deficient evangelicals especially need to attend. A moderate tilting mildly toward the left, Balmer has his peculiar emphases—here, as in his previous book, he makes much of what he bills as the real catalyst for the Religious Right, as if there were a single catalyst. (Curious? See pp. 95-101.) But Balmer's book can be read with profit by any thoughtful American Christian, whatever his or her political inclinations. And if this book whets your enthusiasm for more on the same theme, you might try Gary Scott Smith's 2006 book Faith and the Presidency (Oxford Univ. Press), which in 600–plus pages considers eleven U. S. presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush.
Another book which, like Balmer's, is keenly attuned to the ironies of its subject is Jacques Berlinerbrau's Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics (Westminster John Knox). This is a very smart, funny, and insightful account of the way in which the Bible and its authority are often invoked in American politics. Berlinerbrau sometimes slides into the smug tone of an analyst who supposes he's above the fray, but evangelicals should read his book for a reality–check from a keen observer whose assumptions about many matters (Scripture included) may differ from their own.
Even funnier than Thumpin' It, but also packing more down–to–earth political savvy than many of the books getting serious review attention these days, is Ben Shapiro's Project President: Bad Hair & Botox on the Road to the White House (Thomas Nelson). Thanks to Gary Gnidovic, the art director of Christianity Today magazine (and a good friend), for putting me on to this delightful romp, which considers such subjects as the role of height in determining our preference among presidential candidates, the appeal (or lack of same) of hair (including facial hair), and so on. Loaded with delectable anecdotes (at least of few of which, alas, wouldn't withstand scholarly scrutiny), this is a good book to keep on hand if the 2008 campaign is getting you down. You might also have on the coffee table a copy of Donald Dewey's superbly illustrated book The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons (NYU).
That's it for this time. Coming soon, in the next installment: Steve Waldman's book mentioned above, Amy Sullivan on God and the Democrats, a new edition of a valuable collection of essays on religion and American politics (co–edited by Mark Noll and Luke Harlow), and more.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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