Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
By Bryon Borger
February 21, 2014
Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation edited by Harold Heie (foreword by Richard J. Mouw) with Amy Black, Paul Brink, David Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Stephen Monsma, and Eric Teetsel (Abilene Christian University Press; 2014) $17.99
In the mid-1970s, the organization now known as the Center for Public Justice created an advocacy documentary film called “What If They Gave an Election and Nobody Came?” A few of us who had run for student government at our large state university showed it there as an early argument for the relevance of principled pluralism and to suggest that religion played a role in public discourse. The film argued that apathy about and alienation from politics may be so prevalent precisely because people have little genuine choice in political options, and because the secular hegemony brackets out faith perspectives, barring them from the public square. Many people might come alive to the possibilities of civic engagement if they saw it as an expression of their religious convictions and if there were structures to allow such convictions to be heard. Animated by the insights of Christian political parties in Holland, we hoped that relating faith to politics would make citizenship more interesting and more relevant.
While some evangelicals were arguing for social justice in those days, there was little reflection on politics from a faith-based perspective. The film felt prophetic, and in many ways was prescient, insisting that profound religious concerns be recognized and permitted in political discourse.
That was before the meteoric rise of the Christian right in the next decade, not to mention the rise of the so-called Christian left. Now, religious rhetoric in the public square is commonplace, but is often so loudly divisive and less than insightful that we are tempted to smack our hand to our heads and wonder “What were we thinking?”
That Christians have become skilled at harnessing a scriptural vision for their chosen ideologies is (perhaps) better than the old days when one dared not talk about religion and politics at the same time. Still, many friends of CPJ recognize the now stalled and limited nature of the argument between the Christian right and left; at times things are so ugly that we even regret helping to create the faith/politics debate in the first place. Surely we could have done better, found other options, moved to higher ground with other visions and voices?
Happily, along comes this marvelous new book, narrated by former CPJ Board member Harold Heie, emerging from a fascinating online conversation about these very things.
If the earliest vision of CPJ was to invite us to realize the irreducible ways in which faith impacts citizenship, this latest public conversation illustrates CPJ at its twenty-first century best: bringing astute cultural and civic observers into robust discussions of key policy issues. More than re-stating the obvious (faith and politics should be discussed together) or the routine (left vs. right) Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues covers a dozen vital topics and brings nuanced and creative proposals about how best to approach these issues with prudence, care, and solid Biblical wisdom.
Topics debated include a few that are foundational (what is the Biblically-given task of the state) and many that are specific -- from matters of foreign policy (what to do about Syria or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict) to domestic matters (health care, the federal budget deficit, immigration reform, education).
Including the work of six different people in the book, Harold Heie penned a beautiful narration of the online dialogue, hosted for public comment over a nine-month period, which he called “The Alternative Political Conversations” project. The APC had over 23,000 page views and nearly 8,000 unique visitors, all observing this good example of a search for common ground in a civil and respectful context. Heie’s synthesis essays reporting about each of the online discussions explain how different contributors chimed in, what sort of majority opinion emerged in the debate, and what questions the dissenters raised, noting how they might be examined further. Most of the contributors have long-standing connections with CPJ and together represent a real range of opinion and insight.
I’m not sure what is best about this book: its model for complex political discourse and fruitful civility or its content tackling the actual policy questions. While it makes for a great policy handbook to help us discern a faithful Christian position on key matters, I believe its greatest value is as an example of respectful and profound civic conversations, beautifully illustrating collaborative thinking and communal reflection. It has garnered rave reviews from Mark Noll of Notre Dame and John Wilson of Books & Culture. Randall Balmer says that Heie “has rendered invaluable service... by providing a model for sustained and constructive discourse among people from all points on the political spectrum. Evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike will be surprised by the diversity of evangelical views, but all of us will learn and benefit from the comity exhibited in these pages.”
The book is dedicated to the Jim Skillen, the author of that old film, whom Heie describes on the dedication page as a “friend and mentor, who models respectful conversation.”
— Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”