Review: What Are Christians For?

What Are Christians For?, Jake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An argument for a Christian politics that recognizes the goodness of all creation including all peoples, that rejects the manipulation of people and places and our own bodies that disregards their nature.

Jake Meador begins this work with the story of Father Ted, who helped a journalist covering apartheid South Africa, escape house arrest and the country. He represents to Meador a kingdom politics committed to life for the whole of life. Meador argues that much of American Christianity divorces faith from creation, from our embodied life, and other human beings, all for our own political and economic ends.

Drawing on the work of Herman Bavinck and Willie Jennings, he describes the immense inheritance we have inherited in the creation and one another. We repudiate this in our Western disregard of both the places we inhabit, living in accord with the particular character of that place, and in our colonization, in our disregard the peoples there before us. The particular expression of our alienation from God for those in the West is the exaltation of whiteness, and the oppression of others. Our reductionist education results in a loss of wonder.

Another reformer points the way back. Martin Bucer taught that the renewal of our relationship with God in Christ renews our relationship to neighbor, to proper governance, and to the care of the land. We learn again to accept the givenness of nature and our place in it. We embrace the household, marriage, and sexuality lived within that relationship, and lives of faithfulness to one another in sickness and health. And we embrace the larger community of God’s people in a particular place. Meador upholds the model of the Bruderhof, who renounce private ownership of material possessions. He advocates for the more challenging work of being this community in one’s own city and neighborhood.

I’m wrestling with my reaction to this book. Meador has great facility for drawing together the work of various theologians, philosophers, and writers, along with some great personal stories. Yet I found the thread of this argument not easy to follow, and a more prolix statement of what Wendell Berry articulates so straightforwardly in What Are People For? and other essays. But it is an important and perceptive argument. The gospel not only restores us to God but to our embodied existence, each other as families and communities, states and the world, and to God’s good earth. It is apparent that our politically and economically captive churches have not heard this enough and this message is so urgent that it cannot be spoken and written and lived enough, until we recover a sense of what Christians are for.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faithful Presence

Faithful Presence, Bill Haslam. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2021.

Summary: The former governor of Tennessee makes the case for Christian engagement in politics, using the model of faithful presence.

Bill Haslam sees a country deeply divided by political issues. We face government gridlock in any attempt to address important issues along partisan lines. But the country itself is divided. Cities versus rural areas. Sometimes even within families. Bill Haslam also believes there has never been a time when it is vital for thoughtful, committed Christians to engage in politics. To bring hope amid despair. To build bridges across divides.

Haslam, a former mayor and then governor of Tennessee, invokes James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” to frame his vision for what Christians ought to strive for in politics. It won’t be easy because of the complexity of the problems, the divides that exist, and the media that feeds on such division. (He tells a story of building merit-based promotion and pay into civil service, and having a very short media interview, because he had worked with unions and opposition early, developing proposals meeting concerns of various stakeholders. There was no ongoing conflict!) Through story and biblical principle, he elaborates both what “faithful” and “presence” in political office might look like.

Faithfulness means attempting to “think biblically about our politics rather than thinking politically about our faith.” For example, he advocated for (and lost) the expansion of Medicaid–an unpopular act for a Republican that was rebuffed by his legislature–because he was convinced it would serve “the least of these.” It means caring for the public good even when it others play dirty. He contends for the unpopular quality of meekness, of allowing that others might have good ideas, and sometimes we might be wrong. He cites Jim Collins From Good to Great that the most effective leaders often combined humility with professional will. He contends that belief in the image of God even in those who oppose one or who are different is crucial to serve the public good–otherwise, one comes to objectify people.

“Presence” is the other part of this calling. The idea of separation of church and state does not preclude Christians from politics. One may advance legislation that reflects Christian commitments when it neither establishes religion nor impairs anyone’s right of free exercise. By the same token, some issues that reflect one’s values may be contrary to constitutional protections. Haslam shares examples of each during his tenure.

He also talks about the joy of his work. He writes, “But there was never a day as mayor or governor when I did not feel honored to get to do my job. Every day, as I walked up the steps of the state capitol, I thought to myself, I can’t believe I get to do this.” Nowhere was this more apparent than when he had the opportunity to pardon Cyntoia Brown, convicted of murder as a juvenile and not eligible for parole until she was 68. She was being trafficked. He felt that he had the chance to use his role as governor to bring gospel justice and mercy together. He concludes the book by sharing other examples both of what faithful presence looks like and the difference it can make. And in the end, it is not only the difference we can make, but how public service can be used of God to form us in Christ-likeness.

While I appreciate Haslam’s account, I found myself wondering whether what he is proposing can go very far in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of party-base politics and gerrymandered electorates. The only thing that occurs to me is that this also might be part of faithfulness–to not swerve from biblical integrity, humility, and a commitment to see all as made in the imago dei no matter how vicious it gets. Perhaps in a personal memoir it is not appropriate to speak too much about Christian courage, but this also seems to be an aspect of faithfulness.

Haslam’s book also serves as a benchmark for candidates professing Christian belief, no matter the party. His challenge of thinking biblically about politics rather than conforming our beliefs to our politics could transform politics tomorrow. The fact that it doesn’t tells us how deeply the “Christianity” of many of our politicians go, and the contempt they show for the electorate. Haslam speaks of political office as a “noble calling,” no less so than the ministry that Haslam had at one time considered. In a time when neither profession garner the respect they once did, this book is both a breath of fresh air and a prophetic word for a country and often a church consumed with our political divisions. There is a better way.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Liturgy of Politics

The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess (Foreword by Michael Wear). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing on the thought of James K. A. Smith, explores how the liturgies of our lives shape our political engagement and the gospel-shaped formative practices our Christian communities may embrace.

You don’t have to go any further than the recent elections to illustrate the messiness of our politics. Some of us are tempted to have nothing to do with it. Yet much of life is political–from the allocation of local school buildings to Supreme Court picks. Alternatively, we look for candidates who embrace “biblical” positions on what we consider vital issues and support them regardless of the character of the candidate, or stances on other issues that also have biblical implications. Furthermore, among certain Christian communities, one’s political affiliation is treated as an article of faith. I’ve seen Christians say “if you don’t support ______, you are not a Christian.”

Kaitlyn Schiess grew up in one such community and attended one of the colleges notable for its alignment with conservative politics, witnessing and experiencing everything I’ve described. She began groping for a different way to imagine political involvement as a Christian. As she read the work of James K. A. Smith she applied his thinking about how the “liturgies,” the thick formative practices of our lives, shape how we engage in our politics.

She begins by looking at the shaping liturgies of our political life, the liturgies of loyalty (“us” versus “them”), of fear (whether it is climate change or immigrants), and idolatry (political influence). These liturgies are informed by counterfeit forms of the gospel: prosperity, patriotism (American exceptionalism), security, and sadly, white supremacy. Schiess contends these are framed as compelling narratives, sometimes in our churches, more often in online media, talk radio and television.

As an alternative, Schiess begins by asking for what are we saved? Her answer is we are saved for the life of the world. The political realm is not the place where we realize the kingdom of God on earth but rather where we steward our calling to care for the creation and pursue the flourishing of other creatures created in God’s image. We our “border stalkers,” involved in our communities and formed in the polis of the church, shaped by the story of scripture heard in a community that transcends our cultural, racial, and national divisions. The church is the community that practices hospitality to the stranger, and in baptism and the Lord’s table transforms the stranger to “one of us.” We learn to shape the rhythms of our lives by the church calendar of feasting and fasting, of waiting and celebrating, of working and resting, and living out our faith in “ordinary time.” The disciplines of prayer and hospitality further shape us.

All this looks forward to the coming kingdom. Drawing on Augustine, Schiess explore life lived between the city of man and the city of God. We live in a space between lament and longing that she refers to as “confession.” We are aware of the limitations of sin as well as our longings for redemption. We live toward the vision of the new Jerusalem, bringing an anticipation and a witness of the future into the present. Yet how do we do so? Some is to listen to how communities on the margins read the story of kingdom come. As we live toward the kingdom, our resistance to earthly powers may put us there.

This is an important first work in political formation by Schiess. It addresses how we might form a Christian political imagination and engagement, something desperately needed in a Christian landscape dominated more by online and media pundits than formative Christian communities. I hope Schiess will keep writing on this subject, perhaps going deeper in describing how real communities are implementing redemptive political liturgies in their formative practices. We need narratives of Christian communities who are doing this and how this transforms their political engagements.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents.

I think it is safe to say that the United States has never seen a president like Donald J. Trump. That may be the one thing both those who support him and those who oppose him agree upon. When I came across Mansfield’s book, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter. However, I had read his fascinating narrative (reviewed here) of the Guinness family and the beer that bears their name, and so I thought I would take a chance on this book. There are several reasons I’m glad I did.

But first for an overview of the book. Mansfield begins with the unlikely rise of Trump, and the puzzling phenomenon of his defeat of a huge Republican field, with many candidates of accomplishment, character and religious faith, and then his defeat of a Democratic candidate who had probably spoken of her own religious faith more extensively and thoughtfully than most candidates. Though apparently religiously illiterate while claiming faith, known for sharp business practices, serial marriages, and sexually crude language about women and allegations of sexual impropriety, he managed to get elected with 81 percent of whites identifying as “evangelical” voting for him. Mansfield explores his background, and particularly the profound influence his father had upon his boy, who he nicknamed both “King” and “Killer,” raising a young man who always believed he must win, and for whom ruthlessness toward that end was warranted. Both military academy and early business associations with lawyer Roy Cohn deepened the killer instinct of this man who thought he must be king.

Oddly, this utterly secular, ruthless young man nevertheless had religious influences. The pastor who most influenced him was Norman Vincent Peale, with his theology of positive thought. For a young man relentlessly driven to pursue success to win the father approval he never knew, this was the ideal “theology,” one that brooked no possibility of failure or defeat, but believed that you could eventually do what you dream. Peale’s death left a religious vacuum in his life filled by evangelical prosperity televangelist Paula White, who Trump first met around 2000, who helped gather a group of pastors to pray for him in 2011, as he was grappling with a decision to run, counseling him that the time was not yet, and who now chairs his evangelical advisory council. She prayed at his inauguration, vigorously defends him as a born-again Christian, and has helped gather support of key evangelical leaders.

In the third part of the book, Mansfield turns from the formative influences in Trump’s life, past and present, to the factors, that propelled Trump into the White House. He speaks of the growing concern of evangelical leaders of Obama administration decisions that both violated moral convictions and policies that were encroaching on religious liberties. A pivotal point for Trump was when he realized the role the Johnson Amendment played in silencing evangelicals in the pulpit who wanted to speak out against these policies and support those who opposed them. He made overturning this amendment his rallying cry in support of religious liberty. He also offered an alternative to a candidate on one hand far more religious, and yet one whose statements about gay rights, in support of Planned Parenthood, and lack of engagement with evangelicals suggest to these evangelical leaders that things would only get worse in her administration. The result was support of Trump, likened to King Cyrus, a pagan king who yet accomplishes God’s purposes in liberating the Jews from exile. Finally, Mansfield briefly discusses how Trump proclaimed himself the “voice” of white working-class people struggling in the Obama economy, saying things people only felt free to say at dinner tables and working class bars.

The last part of the book discusses the relationship of religious leaders around the presidency and advocates a stance Mansfield calls “prophetic distance.” He describes how in the early years Billy Graham was seduced by presidential access and the decisions he later made:

Graham’s conclusion about his ministry was telling. After all of his years of friendships with presidents and being asked to comment on politics, he finally realized, ‘I have one message” — the gospel. He decided in his later years that he could have done more good by speaking his truth to presidents and politicians than by allowing himself to be pulled into their orbits, thus dissipating his message” (p. 137).

He then highlights the example of Paul Marc Goulet’s International Church of Las Vegas, and his Latino co-pastor Pasqual Urrabazo, who met Trump at a meeting at Trump Tower and told Trump of how offended he was about the things said of Hispanics and how wrong he was on immigration policy. Trump asked to meet his people and attend his church. Goulet did not give him the pulpit but allowed him to visit the church’s school, where he met former Vegas gang members. Goulet later said, “I won’t endorse candidates. But I will give them a chance to hear truth and see it in action. I will show them a picture of what, with God’s help, they might be.” This is what Mansfield believes the religious leaders who have gained access to Trump must do, or they will pay a great price.

As I mentioned, I liked this book for several reasons. One was that it was neither a hagiography or a screed, but a nuanced treatment of Trump, although I would have appreciated a stronger treatment of the element of racism in Trump’s appeal. The background of Trump’s life helped me realize this is both an extraordinarily driven, and yet wounded individual, that even at his father’s funeral had to talk about what his father would have thought of him. I also appreciated the chapters on the religious influences in his life. In particular, I had not appreciated the role Paula White has and continues to play in his life (see this recent story in the Washington Post). Finally, his advocacy of a role of “prophetic distance” for religious leaders who have access to the president is one I think important.

What the book doesn’t answer is whether those around the president have the breadth of vision that addresses the prophetic concerns of the Old Testament prophets for the poor, the stranger, and the marginalized of all ethnicities, and warns against the idolatry and materialism of the rich as well as advocating for a pro-life ethic and other concerns most popular among conservative evangelicals, including concerns for sexual morality in word and action.  What those who do enjoy this access to the president must consider, as Mansfield notes, is that they will face a great reckoning for how they have used this access. For the rest of us, whatever we think of the evangelical advisers around the president, it suggests they are worthy of our prayers, and perhaps our own prophetic engagement as their brothers and sisters.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.