March 9, 2009

Book Review: The Future of Faith in American Politics

What comes to mind when you think of the relationship between evangelicals and American politics? Fervent opposition to abortion and gay marriage? The convolution of God and Country? Culture wars and single-issue litmus tests? Whatever the prevailing image, it can probably be characterized more by partisan reaction than carefully nuanced, non-partisan reflection.

Piggybacking on the groundswell of opposition to George W. Bush's policies on issues like torture, climate change and the Iraq War, numerous books in recent years have critiqued the strong ties between evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. Among the most influential of these bestsellers has been God's Politics by Jim Wallis, which captured this wave of frustration and energized a younger generation of Christians (myself included) to pursue social justice and fight global poverty. Wallis has often proclaimed the decline of hard-line social conservatism with phrases like, "the monologue of the Religious Right is over." But with 74% of evangelicals voting for John McCain in 2008, is American Christianity really shifting from right to left or is something more subtle and less reactionary taking place?

Evangelical scholar David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, argues for the latter in The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Baylor Press, 2008). He begins with a thoughtful and dispassionate survey of the political spectrum within evangelicalism: right, left and center. With surgical precision and refreshingly independent sensitivity, Gushee dissects and examines the strengths, flaws, key figures and organizations comprising each perspective. Based on his analysis of the evangelical right (including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention among others) and evangelical left (Wallis, and influential author/speakers Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren), Gushee observes that both camps lack the independence to offer a biblically consistent approach to political engagement.

Gushee concludes most evangelicals do not identify with the either partisan extreme. As such, they increasingly seek to think holistically about a broader range of issues, transcending the polarizing dichotomies expressed on cable news and talk radio. While the vast majority of evangelicals still take conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion rights, traditionally "liberal" concerns like reducing poverty, defending human rights, fighting HIV/AIDS, expanding health care access and promoting environmental responsibility have become important factors in the discussion. Pointing to the work of "centrists" like Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission, Rich Stearns of World Vision and Joel Hunter of Northland Church, Gushee makes a strong case that the moderate middle is the most fertile place for biblical reflection, inclusive dialogue and critical thinking to occur in the coming years.

What makes this book stand out from other works of its genre is a steadfast commitment to both political independence and Christian civility. Although Gushee and Wallis voice many of the same critiques of the evangelical right, Gushee is not preoccupied with vilifying Dobson and Pat Robertson or stirring up anti-Republican umbrage. The solution to a conservative imbalance is not a counter flood of liberal talking points, but a fiercely consistent allegiance to a different Kingdom altogether. For those who buy into the caricature that all evangelicals take their political marching orders from right-wing extremists, televangelists and Republican political operatives, the book reveals persuasive evidence to the contrary. Others may dismiss the concept of evangelical balance and moderation as the height of oximoronic naivete, but Gushee contends that loud voices on the extremes have actually deepened the movement toward a more thoughtful and deliberately independent centrism.

If you are hoping to be told (directly or indirectly) who Jesus would vote for, Gushee will disappoint you. If you want partisan ideology cloaked in religious language or political strategies for how to attract evangelical voters, this book is not for you. But if you're looking for tools and principles to biblically grapple with the thorniest public policy issues of our time, The Future of Faith in American Politics is a must-read. Even if you only read the sub-chapter addressing the tangled moral and ethical web created by the debate over gay marriage, those insights alone are worth the cost of the book. Those looking for a sober and reasonable introduction to the world of faith and politics will be inspired by Gushee's Christ-centered passion for justice and truth.

Simply stated, this is the best book I've read on the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American politics; a feast for the mind and heart. Gushee is a master at synthesizing scholarly observation with passionate biblical conviction and reflective humility in a way that is engaging, persuasive and leaves you hungering for a better world. Christians of all stripes: right and left, young and old, hopeful and cynical, engaged and apathetic, have something to learn from this groundbreaking work. Those seeking to understand the full spectrum of evangelical politics, including both the truth and hyperbole behind the stereotypes, will value this insightful and compelling look at the way forward.


The Common Loon said...

For an excellent perspective on Obama's abortion-related moves so far, here's a column Gushee wrote in yesterday's USA Today.

Sadly, the reader comments following the article largely reveal a blind adherence to culture war divisions. Most of them fit into one of two categories: Christians who can't figure out what Gushee ever saw in Obama or secularists who think evangelical moderates are one in the same with the religious right.

Both camps don't know what to do with Gushee's centrism which tells me he's onto something.

Cheryl said...

Do you own this book? Perhaps I could borrow it for a short while.