It is Election Year in the United States, and many Christians are heavily engaged in supporting candidates in their race to the White House. Naturally, on talk shows and in interviews, political pundits are pontificating about the role evangelicals will play in the political process this year.
I have a few questions of my own about evangelical engagement in politics:
- How can we as Christians display our commitment to the flourishing of society and also demonstrate our higher allegiance to the kingdom of God?
- What are evangelical Christians known for in politics? What aspects of this reputation are good? What aspects need to change?
- Should Christians have high hopes and expectations from political candidates? Or should Christians be more chastened in hoping for cultural transformation through politics?
None of these questions can be answered in a sound bite. In fact, they can’t be answered merely with words. The answers must be fleshed out in the actions of devoted Christians across this great land.
And so we find ourselves on the threshold of great opportunity, as well as danger. For, even though we may try to represent Christ well in the political sphere, we can unintentionally damage our witness to King Jesus through unthinking or unprincipled involvement.
- What if we are formed more by what we watch on the news than by the good news of Jesus Christ?
- What if a cause displaces the cross as the uniting factor for a church?
- What if our perspective is more informed by today’s pundits and commentators than by the theologians and thinkers who have reflected for centuries on how Christians can best serve in the public square?
To aid us in this task of enduring an Election year and engaging the political process well, I’ve selected five books as “recommended reading.”
I don’t know what Noonan’s religious beliefs are, but I find her to be articulate and winsome, even when I disagree. Patriotic Grace appeared in 2008, while McCain and Obama were duking it out for the presidency. It is a brief book that calls Americans to courtesy and civility as a way of showing our respect for this remarkable Republic we have inherited.
Some writers force a dichotomy between partisanship and civility. Noonan does not. Instead, she warns that when politics replaces religion (whether for those on the right or the left), we are inclined to drive out the “heretics” who differ with us.
Eight years later, Noonan’s call to patriotic grace is even more needed – “a grace that takes the long view, that apprehends the moment we’re in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them.”
Throughout history, Christians have debated the appropriate posture toward the public square. This book includes representatives from five influential streams of Christian thought:
- The “separationist” view of the Anabaptists
- The “paradoxical” view of the Lutherans
- The “prophetic” view of the black church
- The “transformationist” view of the Reformed
- The “synthetic” view of the Roman Catholic Church.
This book serves as a worthwhile introduction to the major views of political engagement. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with much of the Anabaptist chapter (we need their emphasis on ethics and the political witness that comes from the church being the church!), and I’m inspired by the hurdles overcome by the prophetic witness of the black church. Overall, my position is closest to the one presented by James K. A. Smith (the transformationist view), which is why the next two books on my list build on that particular perspective.
Vincent Bacote, professor at Wheaton College, has written a brief book on why and how Christians should be involved in politics.
I enjoyed The Political Disciple primarily because of its autobiographical dimension. Bacote is an African-American evangelical theologian, and this book includes both his story of migration between political parties and his discovery of Abraham Kuyper’s theology of common grace.
I appreciate Bacote’s call for Christians to pursue both private and public holiness, as well as his encouragement to Christians to persevere no matter how long it seems to take to achieve results.
Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo take the Kuyperian approach to politics, explain it, and then apply a Christian worldview to some of the pressing issues of our day.
Even if you do not agree with all of Ashford and Pappalardo’s prescriptions, you will benefit from the framework for political involvement that they provide.
Books like this one transcend the polarities of “right and left,” or “conservative and liberal,” which indicates that there is an appeal to biblical principle here, not just to a party platform.
Russell Moore’s new book is a manifesto for Christian action as a distinct minority within an increasingly hostile culture. Moore cautions against dangers on both the right and the left, and he encourages evangelicals to not sacrifice our prophetic voice by aligning too visibly with any particular politician or political party.
Christianity Today named Onward their book of the year and the best representation of “beautiful orthodoxy.” Read it, and you’ll see why.
What about you?
What books on religion and politics would you recommend this election year?