Saturday, March 03, 2012

Book Review: Politics for Christians by Francis Beckwith

Christianity and politics has always been an interesting mix. A mix that has caused loads of controversy and confusion among Christians. For example, what exactly is separation of church and state, and how exactly should a Christian get involved in politics and in the public square? These are some of the issues that Francis J. Beckwith hopes to bring some clarity to with his book Politics for Christians which is another book that is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series edited by J.P. Moreland and Beckwith himself.

This book is not about what political ideology you should have, and it is not about which party you should choose, although Beckwith will note how our values as Christians will play a role in determining a party and/or ideology that best fits.

It's not some sort of defense or, as Beckwith calls it, a "scholarly monograph that defends a particular understanding of liberal democracy". Rather, what Beckwith does do in this book, and what he makes clear early on, is he gives Christians an understanding of government, politics, and the type of relationship a Christian should have with the aforementioned. He does this by using biblical and theological principles to try and guide Christians in making informed decisions in the political arena, and by introducing and explaining every aspect of politics so that Christians can know the game and play by its rules.

The book is rather straightforward and is organized as follows:
1) The study of Politics
2) Liberal Democracy and the Christian citizen
3) Separation of Church and State
4) Secular liberalism and the neutral state
5) God, Natural rights and the natural moral law

Beckwith opens up with a very good illustration that touches upon the issue of the separation of church and state in which you are asked to imagine that your pastor is asking the congregation to oppose an ordinance that allows samesex couples to have the same benefits as heterosexual couples (41). Here questions about morality, equality, and the Bible all spring into mind at once, and Beckwith explains that we will all inevitably face circumstances where we need to make a decision from our personal values that will affect the public square.

But how do we go about this? To take Beckwith's example, if you want to know how to play and understand the game of basketball, you have to be familiar with the rules of the game (42). Similarly, one has to be familiar with the "game" of politics. In a very straightforward and textbook-like manner, Beckwith breaks down politics and its various subfields by explaining how different university departments (philosophy, political science, sociology, etc.) deal with aspects of government and politics. Right off the bat, it's easy to see that politics and government is a subject that shares various overlaps with other disciplines. One example that Beckwith provides is how political science departments "offer courses in political philosophy, jurisprudence, history of politics, political theology, political rhetoric, or international human rights" (43).

There are six subfields that Beckwith addresses: Political theory (political philosophy), comparative politics, American politics, international relations, political economy, and public law. What Beckwith does is he explains what each of the subfields deal with, he gives brief definitions when applicable, and he provides a few modern examples to give readers an idea of the field and the type of work that's done.

For example, Beckwith explains how political theory (or philosophy) deals with the "philosophical questions about the nature of government, the individual, rights, democracy, liberty, equality and the good" (44). Locke's take on the question of natural rights is an example that Beckwith begins with. Do we have natural rights? If so, what are they? According to Beckwith, Locke held that these rights were not to be "trampled on by other citizens or by the government itself" (44). Platforming off the Locke discussion, Beckwith draws upon Reynolds v. United States (1878) as a case in point that demonstrates how the government may get involved and rule against an act that they deem may endanger "society's common good" (46).

In the chapter on "Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen", Beckwith begins by offering four reasons why Christians have openly embraced a liberal democracy. First, Christians are free to worship as they please. Secondly, the people are able to hold the government accountable for their actions. Thirdly, citizens are allowed to participate in government, and lastly liberal democracy, according to Beckwith, fits nicely with the Christian worldview of persons and natural rights (59).

Separation of powers is briefly dealt with since Beckwith spends most of his time discussing the Christian citizen and his/her role. He readily admits that the Bible doesn't directly discuss matters about the government and the Christian citizen. However, he does note a few areas in which the Bible does offer some insight, for example when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees about paying taxes to Caesar. With regards to this, Beckwith writes, "if the coin represents the authority of Caesar because it has his image on it, then we, human beings, represent the authority of God because we have His image on us, "and thus Beckwith concludes that the church and the government must work together in promoting the good of human beings despite the fact that the church and government have "separate jurisdictions" (64).

Next, Beckwith moves on to the issue of doing justice in our community. He draws upon the parable of the good Samaritan to conclude how we have a moral obligation to perform justice in our culture and community. In short, Beckwith advises that Christians must be "prudent and wise" and that Christians must not forget to love their neighbors and care for them (70). Many times Christians can lose sight of this especially in the debate over gay rights. So this issue can be a bit tricky for the Christian to find the right balance of upholding Christian principles, yet treating their neighbors with the respect they deserve. In these circumstances, like the issue of gay rights, Beckwith advises Christians to not focus so much on the disagreements but on common ground.

Moreover, Beckwith cites Romans 13:1-7 in order to show that Christian citizens must obey the law and follow it. Except in circumstances when laws are administered unjustly or an unjust law is passed, Christians are expected to be loyal citizens and to be an example in following the laws and upholding them.

Beckwith spends a brief amount of time with the issue of Christians and non-Christian candidates. Basically, a Christian should vote for whoever is best for the job and not just on one's religious view. It's better to vote for a non-believer whose principles line up with Christianity than for a Christian whose principles do not line up with Christianity (Yes, there are Christians like that). At the same time, however, Christians do need to pay close attention to the beliefs of the candidate to see if their beliefs could "cloud [their] judgement" (83). Beckwith adds how one must pay close attention when voting for a candidate who claims to be a Christian. Beckwith writes, "Christians will be watching very carefully to see if the candidate will make the mistake of trivializing or sequestering his or her own faith, which would offend many traditional Christians who would have offered their support" (84).

The phrase "separation of church and state" hasn't always meant what it means to people today. For the most part, according to Beckwith, the terms surrounding the "religious clauses are notoriously vague" (92). Because of this, people tend to load the clauses with meanings that were never there in the first place, and even if it were there, it would be difficult to secure a precise meaning because of the ambiguity. Beckwith explores the impact and rise of the phrase "separation of church and state" and its use by Thomas Jefferson by drawing from the works of Philip Hamburger's Separation of Church and State. Beckwith makes extensive use of Hamburger's work in exploring how the principles of separationism helps fuel secularists who are bent on getting religion kicked out of the public square (99). Eventually, separationism became the lens by which the establishment clause was looked at (103).

Beckwith, still using Hamburger's work, follows the leading separationist Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in order to evaluate the separationist views back then to contemporary views. To further compare the differences, Beckwith uses the issue of abortion as an example, and he points out how strong separationists "support abortion rights on antiestablishment and/or free-exercise grounds" and that these separationists push aside the pro life position because it is based on a "religious metaphysic" (108). So if the pro-life position is based on a religious metaphysic, then the government would be establishing a religion if these reasons were used to not allow abortion. Many times abortionists will point this out and the fact that a majority of pro-lifers are religious. However, dismissing the rational arguments of pro-lifers on the account of being "religious" would be fallacious.

Moreover, Beckwith notes how there are many articulate pro-life defenders who do not base their reasons on any sacred text or tradition, but full on rational argumentation and science (109). Beckwith frames the issue in a very interesting way. He picks up on the fact that both the pro-choice and pro-lifer are tackling the issue of the unborn and using their own metaphysical views to back their reasons up. However, the pro-choicer won't allow the pro-life metaphysic simply because it appears religious. Beckwith sums up his conclusions beautifully in the following way:
The courts should not be in the business of siding with a militant secularism that seeks to have its metaphysics and morals firmly embedded in our laws while it suggests that the metaphysics and morals of its religious opponents, regardless of the quality of the arguments offered, should not even be considered by the citizenry simply because they flow from a religious worldview. If liberal democracy means anything, it should at least mean that all citizens—regardless of the religious or nonreligious source of their policy proposals—should be allowed to offer their best public arguments without first being required by the courts or secularists to undergo a metaphysical litmus test. (112)
Beckwith wraps up the chapter with a look at the limits of religious free exercise and, to put it simply, he believes that there can be exemptions. As an example, Beckwith cites a case in which religious Native Americans wanted to be exempted from laws that prohibited them from smoking peyote, and as a result, the state did change its laws for an exemption (113). On the other hand, there are cases in which the government can deny a religion particular practices that common good is hindered.

In the chapter on “Secular Liberalism and the Neutral State,” Beckwith tackles the notion that a secular government is a government that is neutral and is the best form of liberal democracy. Beckwith begins by offering a definition of liberalism and secularism, and he makes sure that liberalism isn’t confused with the political ideology of the left. Next, Beckwith takes the time to explore three arguments that secular liberals use to defend their position. The arguments are the golden-rule-contract argument, the secular reason argument, and the err-on-the-side-of-liberty argument. The golden rule argument is basically since religious people want to force everyone else to follow their beliefs of what the law should be, then it’s only fair that the secularist (or everyone else) be able to force the religious person to follow his/her belief as well. It would be wrong, the secularist would argue, for a religious person to force his beliefs without allowing others to force their beliefs on.

This argument, however, doesn’t hold much water. Beckwith explains,
So just because the Christian would not like to be coerced by the state, does not mean he ought to restrain form coercing others. The fact is that Christians, like all citizens who believe they are correct in their political beliefs, think that their political views are true and that their community ought to embrace them for the sake of the common good. (125)
The secular reason argument is essentially the view that secular arguments are somehow better or more true simply because they are secular and religious arguments are somehow of lesser quality. Beckwith exposes this argument as purely fallacious. He notes how an argument, regardless of being “religious”, is an argument nonetheless and its quality does not grow or shrink simply because of its religious slant (133).

With regard to the last argument, Beckwith cites philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and how she deals with the issue of abortion. The issue of abortion for Thomson, according to Beckwith, is about liberty, and a woman’s liberty is being restricted and thus this restriction should be rejected. One issue with this, as Beckwith points out, is that it misses the point of the issue—namely, that while liberty is a crucial element, one should not forget who the “proper subject of that liberty” is, making this is a “more important” issue (142).

In his brief final chapter “God, Natural Rights, and the Natural Moral Law”, Beckwith shows, what this reviewer believes, is the upper hand that the theistic worldview, and the Christian worldview in particular, has in the market of ideas. There is a widespread belief by both atheist and theists that there are “natural rights, a natural moral law and natural moral obligations, and that human beings have an intrinsic end or purpose” (152). From here, Beckwith has a platform set that directly challenges contemporary atheism in just a few short pages. His argument is simple: Liberal democracy assumes natural rights and natural rights are grounded in a natural moral law (152).

Beckwith then lays out three options that can account for the natural moral law. First, the natural moral law arose out of chance. This cannot be the case, argues Beckwith, because we would have no reason to follow these laws without a mind. He gives an example of Scrabble letters that randomly spell out a command. Why should one be obligated to obey the command of the random Scrabble game? But if, let’s say, your uncle wrote out the command with the letters, then you’d have a reason to obey the command. Beckwith goes further into a discussion of naturalistic evolution and whether or not it can account for a natural moral law. The second option, then, is that the natural moral law is the product of a mind. The argument is simple: since the natural moral law is either given to us by chance or a mind, and if it’s not by chance, it must be by a mind, which, Beckwith calls God.

This book is perfect for the believer who wants to see how their Christian beliefs intersect with the political life and how one ought to approach politics. Because the book is introductory, there’s only so much that’s covered. There’s a lot more to be said since each of the topics Beckwith dealt with were issues that are explored in book length. However, Beckwith does a wonderful job of breaking down everything to give the Christian a basic understanding of the pertinent issues, while giving a balanced and sound analysis.

With about six pages of recommended readings in the back of the book, hungry readers will have more than enough reading and information to follow up on to get better informed. What this reviewer found most refreshing was the emphasis on the Christian worldview to addressing political issues. Politics involves issues much deeper than just what the local tax rate is, but it involves a clash or mixture of worldviews and philosophies. Thus having a firm understanding of one’s worldview is pivotal to approaching politics, and I believe Beckwith gives the Christian the perfect understanding to be able to examine his/her worldview and approach politics from a better informed position. As a result, this review believes that the Christian’s faith will come out a bit stronger by seeing how the Christian faith can mix just find in the political market of ideas. 

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer David Rodriguez is a student at San Diego State University and is majoring in philosophy with a minor in biology. His primary philosophical interests include ethics, philosophy of religion, epistemology and medieval philosophy. In addition to philosophy, David has a keen interest in theology and medieval history. He is currently concerned with pursuing a career in bioethics. His webpages are and Ad Dei Gloriam.


Anonymous said...

I like this post! I didn't even know about this book.

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