Politics for Christians
Denver Seminary student, Colin Benton reviews book by Francis Beckwith
Francis J. Beckwith. Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. 175 pages. Paperback, $18.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2814-2.
Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft is an excellent introductory text for anyone interested in the discipline of political science. As part of IVP Academic’s series on Christian Worldview Integration, Beckwith approaches political study, practice, and participation through the lens of a Christian worldview. Young Christian scholars will appreciate this holistic approach to politics, more secular minds will appreciate Beckwith’s scholarship that is driven by evidence rather than ideology, and all readers will enjoy the wit and clarity that characterize Beckwith’s writings. Although there is certainly a solid breadth of information covered, plenty of footnotes, and a healthy bibliography for further study, this is still a book primarily aimed at undergraduate Political Science majors or individuals who are beginning their study of politics. Even the politically apathetic will get something out of this book, as Beckwith passionately and eloquently advocates thoughtful political engagement.
For Christians living in a world east of Eden, there is a tension because human institutions are a necessary but not sufficient condition for human flourishing. We long for and fleetingly glimpse justice, spiritual fulfillment, relationships, and beauty. This tension extends to politics, leaving Christians with more questions than answers: How should we respond toward the American political system without much explicit teaching from the Bible? Furthermore, how should we think about a liberal democracy when the concept did not exist until over a millennium after the last book of the Bible was penned? By clearly defining loaded terms such as “separation of church and state” and “liberal democracy,” Beckwith is able to disarm some of the ideologically driven rhetoric that often clouds these debates. Removing this obstacle allows Beckwith to navigate these difficult topics by presenting the reader with several possible options from which to choose, and still providing necessary guidance on issues that require it. This book lays out a compelling case for the Christian to pursue politics as a discipline or vocation. However, the greatest asset of this text is Beckwith’s ability to introduce topics related to Christians and politics, provide the reader with several different approaches to various political problems, and still impel further study.
The scope of this book requires an academic author with a unique and vast array of expertise. Beckwith seems to fit the bill as he has advanced degrees in jurisprudence and philosophy. Additionally, he has held several academic appointments that further establish him as an authoritative voice on the relationship between church and the state. He begins the first chapter by providing an overview of the academic study of politics. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the Christian student to the six subfields of political science that have been particularly relevant to the Christian community: political theory, comparative politics, American politics, International relations, political economy, and public law. The section on political economy is important for Christians because of the ethic to help the poor is often manifested through economic policy. By stating the goal of a particular policy is to “help the poor,” many Christians instinctively feel a tug to lend their support. However, Beckwith exposes the principle that policies with good intentions do not necessarily yield good results for the poor as a community, or even the greater society. He argues that it would be better for Christians to understand “how wealth is created, how markets work, what sorts of government policies increase jobs and what type of monetary policy results in inflation,” (p. 53) rather than simply leading with their hearts.
The integration aspect of Politics for Christians begins to take shape in the second chapter, as Beckwith explores liberal democracy and the Christian citizen. As part of a series focused on integrating the Christian worldview in every aspect of life, this chapter drives the reader to explore how the entities of politics and religion, though often pitted against each other, are actually compatible and even complimentary. This discussion becomes even more pivotal when we realize that the Bible has very little to say directly regarding the nature of a citizen, and nothing directly regarding a liberal democracy (liberal democracies are only a few centuries old). This means that the Christian will need to understand the latent principles of Christianity, and apply them in faithful and creative ways. Beckwith also explores the positive contributions a Christian worldview can bring to bear on a liberal democracy, as well as the positive assistance liberal democracies provide Christians as they attempt to carry out the Great Commission. He also addresses the Christian’s dilemma of selecting a candidate, and when it is prudent to vote for a non-Christian candidate.
Chapters three and four also address what we might call the latent relationship between the church and the state. Beckwith expertly surveys the history of the phrase “separation of church and state,” and explores the implications of how different understandings of this phrase can affect issues of great interest to the Christian. In addition to this broad swath of historical and legal material, Beckwith is able to demonstrate his expertise on the abortion debate and the effects of secular liberalism on Christian political engagement. Being very skilled and experienced in both of these debates, Beckwith writes this as the most polemical portion of the book. Implicit in this change of tone is the understanding that Christians do need to take stands on moral issues and policy that help promote the public good.
If the heart of this book is found exploring the interaction between the Christian and the state, the cause of this relationship is grounded in the fifth chapter, titled, “God, Natural Rights, and the Moral Law.” Part of Beckwith’s expertise is displayed in his ability to argue for the existence of an objective moral law based on a moral Lawgiver, and then draw out the implications of this claim. While many American and international politicians today never consider let along grasp the connection between basic human rights and a moral Lawgiver, it could have profound results if our leaders understood the basis for human rights (See C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man). Beckwith rightly points out that the American Christians should be especially versed in this argument, not least because it allows Christian principles to enter the political discussion. And more importantly, the Declaration of Independence clearly argues that basic human rights are grounded in a common Creator rather than governmental authority (U.S. Declaration of Independence, paragraph 2).
Any criticism that could be levied against this text would be found in Beckwith’s sympathetic portrayal of the Catholic Church as a victim in American politics. While Beckwith rightly highlights several examples of anti-Catholic bias perpetrated by the secularists and Protestants, it is possible that he goes to this well a bit too much. However, it should also be noted that these examples are instructive, and serve an important function to underscore or illustrate principles Beckwith already argued for. Despite this scant criticism, Politics for Christians is a book that should serve as part of any introduction to political science curriculum, especially at Christian colleges and universities.
Politics today, particularly American politics, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many people, and this has led many Christians to throw up their hands and simply pull out of political discourse. To the opposite extreme, many today view politics as an end rather than a means. This thinking entices many Christians on all points of the political spectrum to conflate Christianity with their political party of choice. So what is politics to the Christian? Beckwith wisely answers: “It is not everything, but neither is it nothing. It has its place,” (p. 164).