In her terrific Democracy on Trial (1995), the late political theorist and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain (whom I had the privilege of having as a professor as an undergraduate – she was one of Georgetown’s best-kept secrets!) reflects on the ills afflicting American democracy, among them the obliteration by both Left and Right of the private-public distinction (e.g. feminists’ 1970s slogan “the personal is political,” or conservatives’ attempts to involve the government in private sexual lives) and what identity politics, where groups such as women and ethnic minorities militantly pursue a politics revolving around a perceived victimization demonize the “oppressor” to the point that any meaningful dialogue, one of the currencies of democracy, is ruled out or made impossible. More importantly, in this book Elshtain reminds us that true democracy is not just a system of government but also a set of “democratic dispositions” among citizens that enables them to debate, compromise, and respect their fellows as they seek, not utopia, but a “more perfect Union,” as Lincoln so aptly put it.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Elshtain recounts her response to a radio broadcaster’s question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” She “stammered and mumbled for a moment before I got my bearings and responded”:
It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious – as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are – and yet united in a spirit that’s a spirit more of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means that one can expect some basic sense of fair play…I think Americans are committed to a rough-and-ready sense of fair play, and a kind of social egalitarianism, if you will, an egalitarianism of manners. I think that’s the best I can do. (35-36)
In his politically challenging yet refreshing Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R, 2010), church history professor Carl Trueman recounts how he – a classically liberal Brit who supports universal health care and gun control – found himself “politically homeless” when the Left discarded its traditional concerns for material issues dealing with oppression for “identity politics,” where the notion of oppression was “broadened to include the psychological realm”:
“This psychologizing of oppression, combined with postcolonial thinking and postmodernism, has led the organized Left to adopt some strange positions that once would have been antithetical to its philosophy. For example, it has often been the case that the most intolerant groups with regard to homosexuality are working-class; the issue of gay rights is, by and large, the preoccupation of the middle class. So in advocating gay rights, the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help.
“Further, while the Left in origin was supposed to provide a voice to the voiceless, the link that has been forged between abortion and women’s rights has meant that the most voiceless of all – the unborn – are those most vigorously silenced by those who should be speaking for them… The anomaly is most embarrassingly obvious at international congresses on women’s rights, where women from poorer countries who struggle daily with issues such as clean water, food, female circumcision, etc., often seem bemused by the obsession of the materially well-off women of the West with the matter of abortion. This hijacking of the Left by identity politics means that the current struggles in which the Left are engaged are not of a kind my grandfather would have recognized, and represent rather a betrayal of the Old Left.
Trueman concludes by noting that “once the concerns of the Left shifted from material, empirical issues – hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease – to psychological categories, the door was opened for everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big One for this generation.” (12-13, 17)
In 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned on a domestic agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” which he said would not “balance the budge on the backs of the poor.” This sounds good, doesn’t it? It softens the stereotype of mean and rich Republicans out to cut back on government spending left and right and establish fiscal order at the expense of the neediest Americans. Yet, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate‘s Reihan Salam argue in their thought-provoking and important book, Grand New Party (Anchor, 2009), this language in fact perpetrates the notion of a class dependent on the hand of government to survive that is so antithetical to what is at the essence of the American story. This philosophical stance that resists big government largesse and encourages self-reliance and -drive to achieve upward mobility is actually one of the key principles that, in my view, defines what it means to be a conservative.
“While his [Bush’s] instincts were sound, the language of compassion strikes the wrong note. It speaks to upper-middle-class empathy, not to the aspirations of poor Americans with the drive to succeed. For a generation, anti-poverty campaigns have fallen into this trap too often, emphasizing pity over self-help, framing government interventions in terms of charitable outreach, and poor-mouthing the prospects of the very people they set out to help. In the process, they have created an assumption that the poorest Americans simply aren’t capable of the kind of drive, ambition, and zeal for self-improvement that defines the American character.” (194)
For too long, too many in the Republican Party have neglected or failed to adequately address the issues affecting the American working class. This is the argument – which many thoughtful Republicans and political observers consider critical – made by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate columnist and National Review executive editor Reihan Salam in their 2008 book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. These two writers, along with several others, advocate a vision for conservatism dubbed “Reform Conservatism,” which Douthat explained more carefully here. To get a glimpse, however, here’s a notable passage where the authors answer the charge that Republicans have cynically exploited “culture war” issues to pull working class Americans to their side:
“The ‘social issues,’ from abortion and marriage law to the death penalty and immigration, aren’t just red herrings distracting the working class from their economic struggles…Rather, they’re at the root of working-class insecurity. Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity, and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working-class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy, and upwardly mobile. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain – which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass” (7-8).
Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne offers the following excellent, basic distillation of the principle of religious freedom as it ought to be applied in the United States. This distinction is too often blurred, or simply omitted, by those who would remove all reference to religion from the public square in the name of the legitimate principle of separation of church and state, which addresses institutions. As Benne notes in the last sentence, thoughtful Christians will inevitably, and legitimately, engage their faith in the world of politics and policy:
“The state should not confuse separation of church and state, which deals with institutional relationships, with the separation of religion and politics, which deals with the interaction of religious values and perspectives and the political process. The latter is protected by the First Amendment, whose first freedom enables religious persons and institutions to bring their religious values to bear in the political process. Further, such interaction is inevitable when Christians take seriously the comprehensive scope of God’s sovereignty and their duty to that sovereign God” (55-56).
In his tremendously helpful Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne lays out the two main ways to wrongly relate religion and politics – separationism, which calls for a strict removal of faith and religious values from the public square, and fusionism, which seeks to marry religion to politics in a way that has repeatedly proved toxic and destructive for religion itself. Benne then argues for “critical engagement,” whereby Christians critically participate in politics by seeking to move from the “core” insights of their faith (e.g. the fallenness of man, or the dignity of life in all its forms) to public policy, allowing for sincere disagreement on certain trickier issues.
In the excerpt below, on the problems of separationism, Benne shows how many of us do this – compartmentalize faith – in other areas of life besides politics. The right approach, he argues, and I would heartily agree, integrates faith in a way self-critical, thoughtful, and sensible way to all areas of life. But separate it must not remain, for if Christians had always practiced this – keeping religious values out of various spheres of public life – we wouldn’t have the likes of Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, and Eric Liddel, whose Christian faith spurred their historical achievements in the fields of science, politics, and sports, respectively.*
“The vast majority of separationism…is not driven by faulty theology. Most is a product of practical tendencies to separate religion from ordinary life – Sunday from Monday through Saturday. People don’t have to be sectarians or dualists in theory; they just think and act in ways that separate religion and ordinary life, including politics. One major reason for such dualism is that since the coming of modern times…each sector of life is increasingly divided from other sectors of life, each being purportedly guided by its own autonomous principles. So practical wisdom gives the verdict that ‘religion and politics don’t mix.’ Religion and science don’t mix. Religion and business don’t mix. Religion and art don’t mix. Religion and sport don’t mix. So Christians segment themselves according to the sector of life that they inhabit at the time. They are bifurcated or trifurcated Christians.
“While there is some truth to this segmentation – there is a tentative autonomy to these various sectors – there is no final autonomy. From a Christian point of view all sectors are under the sovereignty of God, and he is active in them… There can be no areas that are free and clear from the presence and commands of God. Practical separationism is as bad as theoretical separationism. Both must be rejected by serious, classical Christians” (23-24).
* Wilberforce was the 18th-century British politician who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and Eric Liddel was the Scottish runner and missionary who famously refused to participate in an event at the 1924 Olympics because it would have forced him to compromise his Christian convictions (the film Chariots of Fire was based on this).