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

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


August 31, 2012

By Byron Borger 

This is a continuation of a series of articles introducing new books that are significant to the principled practice of public justice. 

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America Jonathan Kozol (Crown) 

The Center for Public Justice has long worked to shape policies which address poverty, striving to develop positions shaped both by biblical understandings of justice and wisdom as well as the actual impact of policies. Prudent policy doesn’t arrive ready-made from Bible study or the abstract air of the think-tank.  Biblical text and thoughtful ideas must be informed by the stories of real people.

Jonathan Kozol can help us with this. He is a treasure of American journalism and has written steadfastly about poor children and the neighborhoods, programs and schools they inhabit.  From Death at an Early Age (1967) to his most recent book Fire in the Ashes (2012), he has listened well and written firmly. In titles such as Savage Inequalities (1992) and The Shame of the Nation (2005), he documented the disparities of class and race in our school systems. Kozol has befriended parents and children stuck in this educational apartheid and describes it in painful detail.  

Kozol cares for the children he interviews.  In Amazing Grace (1996) and Ordinary Resurrections (2001, studies of faith-based centers helping poor children in New York), he documented the sorrows, joys, struggles and achievements of those in these challenging places (and their heroic advocates). In Fire in the Ashes he revisits relationships he entered 25 years ago, following up on the lives of kids who are now young adults.  His writing about them is riveting. As one reviewer noted, “There must be something special about Kozol—a warmth, a gentleness, a kind of mournful decency—that brings out the extraordinary in others.”  He rails against our poverty-stricken schools but also has a “sympathy that is so straightforward one cannot indulge in pity.” This is an amazing book full of wonder and weight.   

It is rare that a book carries an endorsement by Nobel Prize winner and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, but he has added his voice to the chorus of activists and public intellectuals who invite us to take up this book and this cause. “Jonathan’s struggle is noble, his appeal urgent,” Wiesel wrote.  “What he says must be heard.” 

One Nation Under God? An Evangelical Critique of Christian America  John Wilsey (Pickwick)  

Thomas Nelson, the renowned evangelical publisher, embarrassed itself by announcing that it would publish a weirdly shoddy book about Thomas Jefferson by the controversial writer and “Christian America” proponent David Barton.  The publisher somewhat redeemed itself when it pulled The Jefferson Lies from publication last month after criticisms—from conservative circles like First Things and World magazine—exposing the egregious goofiness of Barton’s claims about Jefferson’s faith and views of race.    

National Public Radio (NPR) recently did a story on Mr. Barton’s popularity among some leaders of the Republican Party and the threat of a Nelson boycott by offended black pastors. Several scholars were interviewed, including John Fea, a winsome, evangelical history professor at Messiah College. Dr. Fea’s award-winning book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is a nearly-definitive study on the subject that is well-respected by scholars within the guild of colonial studies. We have mentioned it in these pages before, honoring his careful exploration of the various worldviews, perspectives and influences which shaped the early days of our country.  

Although Wilsey’s book One Nation Under God? shares a common concern with Fea and other similar evangelical historians like Mark Noll or Nathan Hatch, it is a different sort of work. While Fea’s book is primarily a study of American history and only tangentially a refutation of the likes of Barton, Wilsey’s book interacts with writers who insist that the Founders were explicitly creating a theocratic Christian nation. According to Wilsey, not only is this view of history factually incorrect, such preachments have also born bad fruit. The book is splendid, but here is what makes Wilsey so interesting: He is firmly situated within the conservative milieu; he has a PhD from and teaches at Southeastern Baptist Seminary.  Ringing endorsements include accolades from stalwart figures on the Christian right like John Warwick Montgomery and Richard Land and Paige Patterson. This is a good critique, full of grace and understanding of the concerns of those drawn to the Christian America thesis.  Fiery rebukes from progressives have already blasted this misguided thesis, but it is helpful to hear a reasoned critique from a fellow-traveler.    

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.”