Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith For the Common Good, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.
Summary: Argues that the religious right has taught its constituency to misread the Bible, portray those advocating for the marginalized as anti-biblical, and the need to listen to these communities as part of recovering a biblical commitment to the pursuit of justice for all for the common good.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was a child of the culture wars. He grew up in a white, Southern Baptist culture that saw “biblical and traditional values” under attack from progressives concerned to advocate for the marginalized and the vulnerable. Then he met some of those people, also believers, and saw them read the same Bible very differently. As he dug deeper, he discovered a strategy of reading the Bible going back to the slavery era and the religious resistance to abolition that characterized abolitionist opponents as “anti-biblical.”
He began to recognize that the dark side of advocating for a pro-life stance, for the traditional marriage and family, and for religious liberty, was that this became associated with efforts to maintain white ascendancy, the use of “law and order” and voting procedures to limit the growing number of people of color from fully participating in society, the raising of barriers to immigration, including refugees (despite the abundance of biblical references to welcoming the stranger), the subordination of women, the exploitation of the environment, and militarism.
Wilson-Hartgrove elaborates both how the Bible has been appropriated by the religious right and in subsequent chapters both offers historical and sociological background and personal narratives showing how other communities have been marginalized. He also shows how scripture has shaped the self-understanding, resistance, and engagement of believers in these communities. Perhaps one of the most striking personal narratives was that of Alicia Wilson Baker, a pro-life evangelical Christian who was abstinent before marriage. She learned on the eve of her wedding that her insurer would not cover birth control, leaving her with a $1200 medical bill. She subsequently testified at the hearings of a supreme court nominee who indicated he would uphold such exemptions for insurers. She told the author, “I’m still for life…but my understanding of what that means has expanded. As Christians, we should work for policies that protect life from womb to the tomb.”
That spoke deeply to me. I’m tired of the rhetoric that brands me anti-biblical if I signal that I care for refugees whose lives are in danger, if I express concern for the unwise ways we are using God’s creation that may threaten all life on the planet, at very least the most vulnerable, if I express concern that life expectancy shouldn’t be a function of our zip code and our ability to afford health care. I’m tired of the partisan binaries that force me to choose between religious liberty and the liberties of all when scripture teaches me about justice, especially for those most vulnerable to be treated unjustly, of love for neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and, yes, for the sanctity of life from conception to death for all people.
At the same time, there were things that troubled me about this book. Foremost was the lack of acknowledgement of the rhetorical strategies used by those Wilson-Hartgrove would term “progressive.” Wilson-Hartgrove does not equally critique the rhetoric of the left that has made “intolerance” the worst form of sin, and “inclusion” the highest form of virtue, the use of public shaming for violations of speech codes, or the statist pretensions often concealed in progressive policies. He does not acknowledge the intolerance of tolerance experienced by religious people. Furthermore, I don’t see Wilson-Hartgrove disavowing culture wars, but just changing sides. This book feels partisan to me, speaking against the policies of the current administration, while mute about the previous one.
I’m troubled by the failure of this book to transcend the partisan binaries that have so divided us into progressive and conservative camps. It does helpfully deconstruct the religious right’s reading of the Bible. Years ago, Os Guinness described Christians as “third way” people. Mary Poplin called my attention to the numerous warnings in scripture to veer neither to the left nor the right. While Wilson-Hartgrove rightly calls out the white nationalism that runs as an undercurrent through our national narrative and helpfully listens to and amplifies voices often lost in our political debates, it feels like all I’m left with is a posture of progressive resistance when I had hoped for a call to reclaim our public square from the extremes of left and right, to offer a third way that doesn’t set fetuses against refugees, entrepreneurship against the environment, ethnicities against each other, or religious liberty against liberty for all. That would be a revolution.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.