Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


November 2, 2012

By Byron Borger

Public Jesus: Exposing the Nature of God in Your Community  Tim Suttle (The House Studio) 

In the season following the 2012 elections citizens may tire of political discourse. Perhaps a more general approach would be useful, inviting congregational classes or study groups to think about the public nature of faith, if not precisely about politics. This recent DVD study and accompanying book is creatively produced, making the case that biblical religion is not merely personal and is never private. God is alive and well in the world and the church is mandated to proclaim the full gospel of the Kingdom; there are always public implications of Christian discipleship as we are called to serve the common good. With strains of the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, this six session interactive curriculum covers foundational matters: what it means to be human in the world, pursuing one’s vocation, and “languaging God” (exploring the gift and burden of public speech.) From the implications of Sabbath to a study of Eucharistic life, this will resonate not only with mainline Protestants, liturgically-minded believers and new monastics; it is also a fine, provocative study that invites imagination and ingenuity for all followers of the Risen Lord. The House Studio is an energetic and creative arm of the Nazarene Publishing House.

How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom Jacques Berlinerblau (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 

In these days of assaults on religious freedoms at home and abroad, those who advocate for a broad understanding of religious association and the need for pluralism should forge alliances with anyone we can, even if their views seem quite different than our own.  Berlinerblau is a professor at Georgetown and the director of its Program for Jewish Civilization (and a devotee of being secular-ish, as he puts it). In his newest book his case sounds counter-intuitive, but it deserves discerning consideration. He argues that the best way to protect religious diversity and freedom lies in defending the virtues of (non-coercive) secularism.  His contribution is considerably, if not fatally, flawed, because of his strict separationist definition of secularism. (Yet, in his final programmatic chapter, he affirms continuing the experiment of treating any and all faith/non-faith groups equally.)  

Berlinerblau’s argument may resonate with those who have followed projects such as the Williamsburg Charter which reminded us of the need for freedom for and from religion, as encoded in the First Amendment.  But keep a close eye on him, as he sees freedom in “separationist”  and privatized perspective and insinuates that “accommodationist” views of pluralism are wrong because they have been co-opted by intolerant schemers of the Christian right. He explores and critiques policies which support faith-based initiatives using standard criticisms, including those made by insiders such as John DiLilio and David Kuo.  He seems ambivalent regarding his support for what the Center for Public Justice would consider appropriate partnerships with faith-based social service providers (via what Stephen Monsma has called “positive neutrality.”)  He implies he could support such policies if they were truly inclusive, and is angry, apparently, because there haven’t been any such projects where the government funds atheist groups. (He literally says: Can’t the atheists get a homeless shelter going on the government’s dime?)  He spends considerable time exploring concerns against these partnerships, citing friends of the Center such as Stanley Carlson-Thies, Douglas Koopman and legal theorist John Witte, alongside critics such as Barry Lynn and Jeffrey Stout. While Berlinerblau is a very interesting writer and well-informed, discussing Locke and Mills and other key political philosophers, as well as explaining various church/state Supreme Court rulings, he seems less imaginative in solving these conundrums than the best Center for Public Justice thinkers. Nonetheless, by the end of the book he argues for fellow secularists to forge alliances with moderate religious groups and to explore widening the applications of the faith-based initiatives.  

This is a fascinating, clever and infuriating book.  Yet, he wants to defend the imperiled “virtues of moderation, toleration, and self-criticism as well as the political conditions that make those virtues possible.”  For that audacious task, Berlinerblau needs allies, perhaps even allies like us.  

America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists Rodney Stark (Templeton Press) 

This remarkable collation of the latest social science research is brought together with great enthusiasm and relevance by a scholar who has shown how early Christianity served the urban poor of the falling Roman Empire. He goes further to show how Christianity triumphed in the West due to its reasonable contributions to the public good.  An award-winning historian, Stark is no less a brilliant reporter of contemporary data showing how devout religious faith benefits society.  Despite negative TV tropes and common (mis)perceptions, religion is proven to be an asset for happy marriages, mental health, better schools and for issues of crime and economic prosperity. Stark, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, shares the story with clear and persuasive prose. Rave blurbs on the back come from leaders as diverse as businessman Steve Forbes, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, and Iain Torrance, President of Princeton Theological Seminary.  This is a book that needs to be explored, understood, and it’s good news shared.

—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.”