Richard M. Gamble
Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, by Lisa Sharon Harper and D. C. Innes. Boise, ID: Russell Media, 2011, 263 pages, $22.99.
Co-authors Lisa Sharon Harper and David C. Innes stand on opposite ends of American evangelicalism’s political spectrum, but they find enough common ground to debate the implications of Christian faith for current public policy. Their apt subtitle is “evangelical faith in politics,” a promise to the reader that this book will not weigh in on the long historic struggle between church and state but rather address the more general problem of Christian action in the public square. Read ironically, the subtitle can also raise the unintended doubt about just how much faith evangelicals attempt to put into politics. Regardless, the book offers a lively rhetorical joust between two modern evangelicals, one from the more Democratic, social-justice, welfare-state side of the family and one from the more Republican, libertarian, minimal-state branch. In pairs of short chapters ranging from health care to abortion to foreign policy, the two authors advocate competing visions for an applied Christianity. In doing so, they follow the trajectory that evangelicals have followed since long before the social gospel of a century ago and that they travel along to this day.
Despite real differences in theology and political ideology, Harper and Innes at the outset acknowledge their family resemblances. They are right to do so. We ought to take this starting point seriously because it provides the key to the book’s ultimate significance and why Reformed pastors and elders might want to think twice about heeding the advice of either author. They begin their analysis from a set of shared assumptions that reflect evangelicalism’s trademark mix of Christian faith and practical politics. Both authors identify themselves as “values voters.” Both believe that the gospel has “implications for politics.” Both emphasize Christianity’s transformational, even revolutionary, divine mandate. In doing so, both adopt evangelicalism’s longstanding habit of gliding effortlessly from the church (and Israel) to the modern nation-state, all the while downplaying or ignoring the role of the institutional church in the right ordering of faith and politics for the believer. And both interpret the American founding in a way that serves more to justify current policy proposals (whether liberal or libertarian) than to account for what was actually going on in the lives and thought of British colonists two and a half centuries ago.
Of critical concern for the readers of Ordained Servant ought to be the authors’ tendency to generalize the Bible’s specific instructions to Israel and the church into prescriptions for society at large. Harper and Innes routinely handle verses in isolation from the context of Israel and the church and outside the framework of redemptive history. Harper’s way of doing this will be familiar to anyone who has read her mentors Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and Jim Wallis and knows their proclivity for invoking the ancient prophets to indict modern consumer society. She moves seamlessly, for instance, from Moses’s commands in Leviticus regarding the alien to America’s need for an open immigration policy, and from the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount to enacting “God’s ways” in American law and achieving “shalom.” But over on the right, Innes distills public policy from Scripture in much the same way, connecting his own set of verses to his own preferred policies. And because his self-described “conservative” agenda will likely appeal to many in Reformed churches, his handling of key New Testament passages calls for careful attention.
Innes returns often to Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–15. Both of these passages provide fundamental apostolic instruction to the persecuted church. Both passages command faithful believers to pay taxes and to submit to earthly rulers, even (or especially) “evil and unbelieving” ones, as Luther and Calvin emphasized in their commentaries. Christians obey those in authority for the sake of conscience and to silence those who would speak evil against the church. In the context of these directives, Paul and Peter mention as “givens” the tasks God has ordained for earthly government, among them, to punish evildoers and to reward the good. From these indirect and subordinate points about earthly magistrates, Innes extracts God’s mandate for good government. But the question at stake in Romans 13 is not whether government is doing what God calls it to do (that’s assumed), but rather whether Christians are glorifying God by humbly submitting to their rulers. Likewise, removing three verses from 1 Peter (in the midst of what is a profoundly non-transformational chapter) and turning them into political principles renders the larger teaching of the epistle invisible. Peter wrote to encourage an exiled people, scattered in Asia Minor, who suffered for the faith. The epistle as a whole urges those under political and spiritual oppression to endure their hardship. Peter’s words cannot be construed as contributing any justification for a modern American version of minimal government, free-market economics, a strong national defense, and conservative social policy. To do so distorts and misdirects a precious reassurance given to a sojourning church.
Innes’s handling of 1 Peter 2 also raises another recurring problem. He obscures the vital distinction between the church and the world by using the pronouns “us” and “we” and “our” in ways that are correct when applied to the body of Christ but absolutely erroneous when it comes to the American polity or any earthly power. A case in point is his political interpretation of verse 15. “After specifying what government is to do,” he claims, “Peter states, ‘This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.’ ” But then in the next sentence Innes turns this apostolic command into a civics lesson: “God’s will is that you, the private citizen[,] whether on your own or with others, do good.” Somehow the Christian has become the citizen and the command to the church has become a principle of public welfare. Further down on the same page (62), Innes takes the specific instruction of Paul to Timothy that the church pray for earthly rulers (so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life”) and turns it into merely good advice for the polity: “God’s purpose for civil government is that it provide an umbrella of protection for person and property that frees people to go about their business undisturbed.” At a stroke, the precise “we” of Scripture mysteriously becomes the “people” of libertarian public policy. Regrettably, Innes’s political theology relies on this dubious method of exegesis from cover to cover.
Harper and Innes also display a troubling disregard for the institutional church, preferring to talk instead about “faith.” Faith is less precise and easier to apply than theology, and this may be the advantage in making an argument for Christian political engagement. To take one example, the early chapter in which the authors establish their “common ground” tells the story of creation, fall, and redemption without once mentioning Israel or the church (speaking only of the kingdom of God). This is an unfortunate omission because a proper political theology can emerge only from a proper ecclesiology. The church is central to the Christian life through the ministry of Word and sacrament. There is no way to sort out the right relationship between faith and politics without first acknowledging the church’s unique and exalted role in the history of redemption. And it shares that calling with no other institution. The church, not America, is God’s holy nation, chosen people, and treasured possession (1 Pet. 2). With this distinction firmly in hand, it would be impossible to misapply apostolic teaching outside the bounds of the church and to turn true kingdom ethics into social ethics. The Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism, moreover, describe the intimate relationship between the triune God and the church in words that could never apply to the nation-state. The visible church is “under God’s special care and government” and “protected and preserved in all ages” (LC 63). The church is “the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (WCF 25.1). It is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God” (WCF 25.2). Only with the church in its fullness and glory fixed in our view can we hope to think rightly about how to enter into the political sphere with a due sense of proportion, modest expectations, and the transience of earthy accomplishments, and armed with the means to combat any confusion between God’s purposes for the church and the nation.
Politics is an important but temporary and ordinary thing. Like economics and war, and the arts and sciences, politics belongs to the common life that Christians share with Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and atheists. American Christians are at liberty to vote their values, run for public office, campaign for the party of their choice, subscribe to policy journals, serve in the military, and lobby for or against legislation. But they do so, if they choose to do so at all, as citizens of a particular nation at a particular moment in time and under historically conditioned circumstances and institutions. Paul and Peter offered first-century Christians scattered in the Roman Empire no advice on how to do this. The apostles did not address themselves to the government. They had no Word from God for it. By trying to stretch the Bible to apply to all of life, Harper and Innes end up inadvertently showing how little practical advice God’s Word really gives about politics, economics, and foreign policy. Instead, the Bible teaches pastors, elders, deacons, husbands, wives, children, masters, and servants their duties and privileges within God’s household. It calls an exilic, suffering people to conduct themselves in a way that honors Christ and his gospel. On that pilgrimage Christians might live under a government that accords them safety, the rule of law, prosperity, and freedom of worship, and maybe even the opportunity to participate in politics. But they may not be so blessed. And if not, their faith endures.
Richard M. Gamble, an elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Professor of History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August 2012.