Time to catch up around here on some book reviews! I haven’t completely fallen off the reading wagon (bookmobile? :)) but I am obviously behind on any reviews!
In February, I read the book Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners by Philip Yancey. I have read other works by Yancey and had him, generally, on my reading list. When I saw this title I was intrigued. I’m *not* very into politics. I understand why some Christians feel compelled to be very involved, and I understand (and very much relate to) many of my peers’ disenchantment with American government. So I just sit in the middle of the apathetic and the passionate, thoroughly educate myself when it comes time to vote, and vote. Then move on.
Yancey writes wonderful things about grace and pain and disappointment with God. I hadn’t heard him speculate on hot-button politics, at least not directly. So what would he have to say?
It turns out, he writes wonderful things about politics, too. He won’t tell you exactly what to vote in the next election. He won’t denounce democratic presidents past and present any more than he will glorify their republican counterparts. Instead, he writes a challenging-but-inspiring look at how we should approach the political arena as a whole.
He begins by talking about our history with politics – that the Moral Majority wasn’t a thing until the 1980’s, and that unfortunately, as Christians have become more involved in politics, “the more negatively they are (generally) viewed by the rest of society”. Interviewees expressed Christians as “antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, not accepting of others, confusing”. He goes on to say, “I wonder how we can continue to act as salt and yeast in a society that views us so negatively.”
Hmm. Really good question.
Yancey then talks about five approaches to how church and state might relate to one another: Christ above culture (i.e. Europe during the Holy Roman Empire), Christ against culture (i.e. Quakers, Amish, Mennonites), Christ transforming culture (John Calvin’s model adopted by Puritans – bring culture in line with Jesus’ teaching as far as possible), Christ in paradox with culture (i.e. Martin Luther’s idea of the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world, each with its own authority), and Christ with culture (i.e. Social Gospel movements). He points out that one could find positives and negatives – even biblical examples – of each concept.
Next he takes a brief walk through history, and how many examples of these ideas have come to fruition. Jesus accepted most of the religious culture around him but made a few important exceptions (ate with unclean sinners, broke Sabbath rules, etc). Paul worked closely with the state, even when Rome was far from a Christian entity (example: murdering full-term, delivered babies? not illegal). He had a lot to say about the way Christians were behaving, but spoke little about what choices the government was making around the church. Most of the twelve disciple died as martyrs. Emperor Constantine granted Christianity protected status and called it the official state religion; the United States established a wall of separation between church and state (to protect freedom of worship, at least initially). In some nations, it is a capital offense to convert to Christianity. History isn’t any clearer on the issue.
He points out that “the modern secular world, which no longer looks to religion for moral guidance, faces a dilemma. On important ethical issues – social justice, sexuality, marriage and family, definitions of life and death – society badly needs a moral tether, otherwise our laws and politics will become increasingly arbitrary.” Yet many deadly historical events prove that “religion allied to closely to the state leads to the abuse of power”.
Confused yet? Right, this is why many of us quit politics 😉
But this is where he starts to shed some light on what might be our real purpose after all. “The gospel grows best from the bottom up, rather than being imposed from the top…. Personal religious convictions of individuals, freely gathered in churches.. would gradually and necessarily permeate society by persuasion and example.” Places like Africa and China are proving that this still “works”. Jesus spoke so often about the way we are to interact with our neighbors – often in small, meaningful ways like being salt of the earth.
In a more narrative turn, Yancey describes his interactions with President Bill Clinton – and the hateful backlash he received from certain evangelical circles when he interacted with him at all. The conversations he had and the research he did, though, with regards to these meetings, were really eye-opening. To be clear, he never excused some of the President’s choices or even some of his political leanings. He simply talked about and to him as an individual with a full life in and out of, before and after the White House, and came to one conclusion: “I got a strong sense for why the world does not automatically associate the word ‘grace’ with evangelical Christians.”
Read this one for yourself; I think you’ll like it no matter where you lean on the political spectrum. He aligns with social conservatives on many things throughout but comes back time and time again to this – “moral values alone is not nearly enough. Moralism apart from grace solves little”.
“Our real challenge should not be to Christianize the United States (always a losing battle) but rather to strive to be Christ’s church in an increasingly hostile world.”
The five conclusions Yancey gives regarding the clash of moral issues and politics, how we should fight battles (because some should be fought), and how we should treat people with whom we disagree are outstanding. I’ll likely be reading this one again when the next presidential election rolls around and I need a reminder or two 🙂
So… what do you do when it comes to politics? Are you passionate one or do you avoid all conversations like the plague? No judgement here 😉
Anita Davis Sullivan
I avoid as much as possible- because I am a Christian who sees the moral majority like most non-Christians do, and want to avoid that association as much as possible. It’s not so funny to me that by even being a left leaning Christian that other Christians say ugly things and say that I can’t be a real Christian.
From your review, it sounds like one I’d love my right wing Christian friends to read too.