Book Review by Allan Bevere, a Methodist pastor and professor — who blogs.
Francis J. Beckwith, Politics for Christians: Statecraft As Soulcraft (Christian Worldview Integration)
, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians is one book in the Christian Worldview Integration Series and is written as a substantive and very readable introduction to politics and the Christian’s place in the realm of statecraft. Several major questions occupy Beckwith’s attention in the book.
First and foremost Beckwith argues that Christians have a responsibility to participate in the political realm and that they can and should do so as Christians. In giving substance to this concern, Beckwith gives a competent and readable account of liberal democracy and the Christian citizen’s place in it. He explores the notion of separation of church and state, the idea of that secular liberalism creates a neutral posture toward religion, and finally he works gives an account of the necessity of God in any understanding of natural rights and natural moral law.
In chapter one “The Study of Politics” Beckwith gives a helpful
introduction to politics and its subfields. He also devotes space to the
discipline of political philosophy and then specifically how that works itself
out in American politics and its relationship to international law, economics,
and public law.
The second chapter, “Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen”
provides a basic account of liberal democracy particularly as it is
demonstrated by the separation of powers. Beckwith defines “liberal” in this
context as that which “refers to the liberties or freedoms the government is
supposed to guarantee. These include freedom of religion, speech, assembly and
press, as well as the right to own property” (59-60). Democracy “refers to at
least two principles: self-governance and equality of citizens before the law”
(60). In this chapter Beckwith offers his account of the responsibilities of
Christians as citizens of the state justifying his understanding by appealing
to two classic New Testament texts in this area–Jesus’ comments about paying
taxes to Caesar (Mt. 22:17-22) and Paul’s admonitions to obey(?) the governing
authorities in Romans 13. However, Beckwith is also clear that there may indeed
be instances where Christians are obligated to disobedience when conscience
dictates. His approach to the state is essentially conservative “…the Christian
should not be too quick to accept government solutions that may have unintended
consequences of impeding the church’s opportunity to bear witness to Christ’s
grace in their works of charity and mercy” (66).
In chapter three, “The separation of Church and State,” Beckwith
analyzes the religion clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
arguing that they are significantly vague, and give no direction on what is
meant by the free exercise of religion or the prohibition of its establishment.
One of the more enlightening parts of this chapter is where Beckwith discusses
Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he uses the now oft’
employed phraseology, “the separation of church and state.” Beckwith points out
that there was no agreed upon understanding of what it meant for the church to
be separate from the state. Jefferson was according to Beckwith “a strict
separationist,” while the recipients of the letter, the Danbury Baptists were
“moderate separationists.” And politicians of a more federalist bent excoriated
Jefferson for what they believed were his “anti-religious” views.
In chapter four, “Secular Liberalism and the Neutral State,” Beckwith
defines secular liberalism in a two-fold way: “It is liberal insofar as its proponents claim that… all citizens should
be treated with equal regard…” [which] “means that the state has an obligation
to ensure that adult citizens should be free to pursue whatever they believe is
good for them without the constraints of family, church, or other citizens’
objections, etc…. This perspective is also
secular, for it requires that the only permissible external restraints that
may be placed on citizens are those that are both not dependent on a religious
worldview…. This means that if the state is going to limit the citizen’s
liberty it must be for a nonreligious reason that enhances everyone’s liberty”
Beckwith rightly argues that secular liberalism is not neutral toward
religious expression, but is indeed discriminatory as it insists that the only
motivations that are valid in the public square are non-religious. It does not
allow for the full participation of citizens who are religious. Moreover,
Beckwith questions whether secularism can sustain the kind of liberalism that
guarantees liberty and equality for all.
It is Beckwith’s discussion of secular liberalism that paves the way for
his last chapter, “God, Natural Rights and the Natural Moral Law.” It is here
that Beckwith rehearses the argument that natural rights are based on natural
law that is given by the Creator. Beckwith quotes Alexander Hamilton, “… the
Sacred Rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or
musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of
human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or
obscured by mortal power” (146). Beckwith confronts the atheistic philosophy of
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who reject the existence of God but
still want to argue for the reality of some kind of natural rights. Beckwith
suggests to the contrary that the natural moral law is not a product of chance,
but clearly points toward the existence of God. Beckwith ends the chapter with
the biblical witnesses’ affirmation of the existence of natural law.
Beckwith ends his book with the following: “To be sure, the world of
politics is often messy and teeming with conflict. But that’s true of so much
of life that is worth engaging, whether it’s family, church, school or
workplace. Thus, it is my hope that the readers of this book will take
seriously the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and discern the proper times for their
engagement in the world of politics” (165).
What I like about this book:
First, I appreciate Francis’ full disclosure of his own personal
political posture. He states that his views are more politically conservative,
so one knows what one is getting from him at the outset. Now those Christians
whose politics tend toward the progressive end may be tempted not to read Beckwith
because of this, but his political posture should deter no one. His treatment
of the issues is fair and even-handed, though no doubt problematic to those on
the political left. To avoid reading someone because his contrary views are
known at the outset is to resist the possibility of growing in wisdom.
Second, Beckwith rightly points out the double-standard that is put in
place in reference to the religious right as opposed to the religious left. He
argues quite cogently that Christians on the right are always challenged in
reference to mixing their religion with politics, but such challenges are
virtually absent to Christians on the political left. No Christian on the
political left would have to write a book that is essentially a defense of the
Christian’s place in politics.
Third, I truly appreciate the substantive depth Beckwith brings to his
discussion of moral issues and his clear and informative explication of case
law. His discussion of the context of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury
Baptists is almost worth the price of the book alone. He ably demonstrates how
a phrase divorced from its context becomes nothing more than a slogan.
Fourth, Beckwith’s presentation is measured. Though he comes to politics
as a Christian with a certain perspective, Beckwith is clear to point out that
politics this side of perfection is always finite and frail and that
Christianity should never be identified with either the Democratic or Republican
Fifth, his critique of the false idea that secularism takes a neutral
posture toward religion is singularly convincing.
Where I struggle:
As much as I enjoyed this book, and recommend it, I have two significant
points of disagreement. I will refrain from the minor points of contention:
First, Beckwith clearly buys into what I believe is the faulty account
of church/sect as explicated by Ernst Troeltsch and later expanded upon by
Reinhold Niebuhr. (When someone refers to a group as “sectarian” I always
respond, “Isn’t it somewhat arrogant to assume that you stand in a place where
you get to label someone else as “sectarian?”) The assumption operative here is
that the only way for Christians to be involved politically is to be active in
the political operations of the nation state. Those of us who strongly embrace
Anabaptist ecclesiology in reference to politics are falsely labeled as
“quietists,” and “sectarians,” who withdraw from the world. In reality, we
believe that the church and not the state is primarily where the political
action is because it is God and not the nations who rules the world. It is not
a matter of whether or not Christians should be politically involved; it is a
question of how they will be so involved. We Christians are so programmed into
the binary politics of left and right, liberal and conservative, church and
state, that it is extremely difficult to make sense of an ecclesiology that
sees the church as a nation unto itself. In other words, what I am suggesting is
that the typical account of the Christian and politics that Beckwith embraces
is inadequate and does not exhaust the ways Christians can be politically
Second, Unlike Beckwith, I am not overly enamored with the notions natural
law and natural rights. I will not go so far as to say that natural law does
not exist, but after being involved in many discussions over the years where
people have attempted to make a moral case for something based on natural law,
I have concluded that if natural law does exist, it is so vague that it is
completely unhelpful in moral discernment.
But Beckwith’s book, Politics for
Christians is most definitely helpful for those who want a solid
introduction to politics and who are ready to ponder the believer’s place in
the rough and tumble world of statecraft.