In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin 2006), Pulitzer winning American historian Gordon Wood makes the bold assertion that we are not going to get leaders like the founders again, and for this he gives a provocative and, at least to me, convincing reason: that the forces unleashed at the founding have in effect prevented that we’ll again get leaders of the quality of the founders. These forces democratized politics, extending them to the “common man,” and in so doing they deteriorated the discourse – and with this the ideas – with which men like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams engaged.
On the book itself, I heartily recommend it. It is a learned and highly readable collection of brief biographical treatments of the founders, including the black sheep Aaron Burr and that genius pamphleteer of a Brit, Thomas Paine.
“If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves” (28).
1. Jefferson’s Books by Douglas Wilson
I picked up this monograph at Monticello, and at least for this lover of books, it was delightful. Douglas Wilson shows us the founding father as reader and book collector, featuring images of his reading lists and diagrams classifying types of knowledge (Jefferson was a great list maker and was perhaps most himself when classifying things). This treatment of Jefferson and his books was generally educational, practically instructive, historically interesting, and above all, fascinating. “As Jefferson’s library revealed,” Wilson writes, “books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (See my blog post on this book here.)
2. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
The eminent political scientist of “End of History” fame does it again. Here he traces the development of political institutions through world history, beginning with our hunter gatherer ancestors and showing how the first modern state developed in China, rule of law in India, and an accountable state in Europe. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious, drawing on disciplines as varied as anthropology and evolutionary biology to offer a unified theory of state formation and political stability.
3. Gilead by Marylinne Robinson
Everyone and their aunt had recommended this novel to me, so I finally read it, and I was captivated by its penetrating beauty. Robinson masterfully gives voice to a Midwestern preacher in the last days of his life who is writing to his young son, offering an account of his times that showcases Robinson’s eye for the terrible beauty that imbues so much of the ordinariness of life. The Washington Post was right in saying of this book that “one feels touched with grace just to read it.” This is a generations-spanning family drama that does the soul good. (See my blog posts on Gilead here, here, and here.)
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If nothing else, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fearsomely powerful writer. His June 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” sparked a national conversation on the notion that Americans need a reckoning with the legacy of racism and injustice against blacks. Between the World and Me is a harrowing meditation on what it means to be black in America and what this says about America. Coates’s words are a cry of protest and an indictment on our nation, which he says was built on the backs of blacks, whose “bodies,” as he so frequently writes, remain completely unsafe from the depredations of a thoroughly racist system. (See my blog post on this book here.)
In this book Trueman, a British transplant and professor of theology and church history, skewers Left and Right as he calls on Christians to engage politics intelligently and responsibly. A pro-life, pro-traditional marriage supporter of stricter gun control and universal healthcare, Trueman brings the valuable perspective of a foreigner, one who is also a careful thinker and is concerned more with responsible Christian engagement with political issues than with who is up or down in the perpetual war between Democrats and Republicans. At least for this lover of all things political, this book is a helpful tonic that cuts both ways and encourages me to engage more thoughtfully, carefully, and even lovingly.
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.