A Christian Hope for American Politics
Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo
176 pages; Hbk; ISBN 9781433690693
In the introduction to the book, Ashton and Pappalardo pose some pertinent questions: ‘How can we navigate between the dual extremes of political withdrawal and political salvation? Can we really engage in politics responsibly, confidently, graciously—in a word, Christianly?’ The latter may give the impression that a Christian approach to politics is a moral infusion to a secular politics. But that is far from the perspective that the authors take.
As they maintain ‘Most are confused, wanting to rightly relate their Christianity to politics and public life but not knowing how.’ The aim is that this book will help such people.
The context is that of North American politics, but the underlying principles they write about are relevant to any place. In Chapters 1-6, they deal with overriding themes and principles before in Chapters 7-13 dealing with the following topics: abortion and euthanasia, marriage and sexuality, economics, the environment, race and immigration, and war. A final chapter looks at Augustine.
Chapter 1 draws on Vollenhoven’s distinction, made popular by Al Wolters, between structure and direction: 'In the aftermath of the fall, the political realm remains structurally good but has been corrupted directionally' (loc 257).
Chapter 2 looks at four competing views between nature and grace: grace against nature- a plague on the political sphere; grace alongside nature — bottom-floor politics; grace alongside nature — politics and pastors as dual ministers of God ; and the one they favour grace renews nature — a political preview of a coming kingdom (an approach flavoured by Kuyper and Bavinck). In Chapter 3 and 4, they examine the role of the gospel as public truth and the relationship of the church with the state. They make an excellent point: ‘If religion shapes a person’s core beliefs and values and cultivates their dispositions and patterns of action, then how could it not affect their political views and public interactions?’ (loc 523). This, however, as they carefully point out, drawing on Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty, doesn’t mean that all spheres of life are subservient to the church: no one sphere is sovereign over another. As they put it: ‘the church should not seek to control the government. But on the other hand, the government should not seek to control the church’ (loc 740).
Chapter 5 examines the case for pluralism. They advocate a form of principled pluralism. This, of course, derives once again from Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty. Drawing on the excellent discussion in Mouw and Griffioen in Pluralism and Horizons they identify six models of pluralism, we can illustrate these in a two-way table:
All options comport well with a Christians position apart from the directional normative version of pluralism. They then expose the myth of a naked public square - a public area where values and beliefs are put to one side. Instead they cogently argue for a confessional public square.
The remaining chapters then follow a similar format - they start with a biblical perspective on the subject, then look at some key proponents or supporters of the positions. These include a look at the debate between Pete Singer and Richard John Neuhaus on - here Ashford and Pappalardo analyse how Neuhaus responds to Singer and draw relevant insight on how Christians can behave in the public square. A similar analysis is taken on the writings and responses of Rosaria Butterfield on sex; Francis Schaeffer on the environment, Martin Luther King Jr. on race, Barrett Duke and Russell Moore on immigration, and Daniel Heimbach on the just war question. Each of these chapters close with some helpful discussion questions as well as some suggestions for further reading. This makes the book a good choice for group discussions.
My only reservation with the book is primarily the chapter on economics. Here they utilise the work of Michael Novak and Jay Wesley Richards to defend capitalism as a Christian position. I would have liked to have read a more trenchant, or as Kuyper’s puts it an ‘architectonic’, critique of capitalism along the lines of Kuyper’s Problem of Poverty or in the work of Bob Goudzwaard. How would a Christian approach to economics based on the stewardship model differ from that based on capitalism?