We are up to Chapter 2 of the book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. I thought I had missed a couple of chapters due to my travel schedule; however, it turns out we did some other readings and held discussions of various presentations in the interim.
Chapter 2 is titled, “Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen.” Beckwith wants to answer the opening question: “What does it mean to be a Christian citizen in a liberal democracy in the early twenty-first century?” He begins by explaining a liberal democracy. The liberal aspect is with reference to “the liberties or freedoms” guaranteed by government, including the freedom of speech, assembly, press, religion, and the right to own property (p. 59). The democracy part is about self-governance (representative government) and equality before the law (treating citizens similarly).
Beckwith goes into some background about the importance of a civil society, the U.S. as a constitutional republic, separation of powers, and other way in which liberal democracies can function (as in the case of our friends across the pond).
Now we get to the Christian citizen. Beckwith draws from and discusses principles he sees in Scripture: (1) Caesar’s coin, (2) doing justice, (3) knowing government, and (4) voting for/supporting non-Christian candidates.
The Caesar’s coin part is interesting, as Beckwith observes that most teaching on this is about the different spheres of authority: the church and the government. The church is to be concerned with the things of God, the things God cares about, especially those things (i.e., people) who bear the image of God. The question is not whether we should care for the poor, clothe the naked, etc., but “What is the best way to achieve success in these endeavors?” (p. 64) In his conclusion to this section, he writes: “So Christians in a liberal democracy, because they have the means to effect change, should be concerned about whether the wider culture and/or their government agencies and institutions (such as public schools) are properly shaping, or at least not corrupting, the character of its young people” (p. 67).
In the section on doing justice, Beckwith discusses how liberal democracies afford Christians an opportunity to elect leaders who will do justice on a larger scale–just as we are to do justice as individuals. There is a fascinating discussion over the range of opinions in our society and among Christians in how “doing justice” is applied to debates on gay rights, including how defending one set of rights may foster a kind of hostility toward another group (e.g., members of religious communities whose moral theology may be intruded upon by the state), citing the example of Catholic Charities not offering children for adoption in Massachusetts because they excluded same-sex couples.
The section on knowing your government reflects on the apostle Paul’s use of his own status as a Roman citizen to “ensure that the gospel could be preached freely” (p. 74). It ends with another fascinating discussion–this time of debates about stem-cell research and philosophical anthropology.
The last section has to do with supporting non-Christian candidates. Part of the discussion here is that “non-Christian candidates may have at their disposal theological resources that, although not shared by Chrstians, may help Christians and other non-Christian citizens see that the principles of liberal democracy are integral to the candidate’s worldview and undersatnding of a just society” (p. 86). The other part of the discussion was about whether Christian or non-Christian candidates view their own theology as knowledge (see The Kennedy Mistake on pages 84-86). Is the religion believed and lived by a candidate really to be made private such that worldview considerations shaped by meaningful theological commitments are held at bay? Or do they inform substantive public dialogue and related policies? Great discussion.
We are reading this book to take us outside of our discipline (psychology and counseling) and to look at how integration is done in another discipline (political science). I think Beckwith does a nice job modeling a balanced perspective in his work here. He wants to avoid the two extremes of (1) arguing for and with reference to any one political group (e.g., Republican or Democratic platforms), and (2) arguing for any kind of theocratic state. He is looking for thoughtful, Christian engagement with politics.
In the end, he wants the Christian to think about which policies best support the common good. He draws on biblical principles to facilitate that kind of reflection–considers what it means to love one’s neighbor; to help those who are on the margins; to pursue justice and condemn injustice; and to foster a “rightly-ordered social fabric” (p. 88). He believes both special and general revelation speak to these kinds of concerns–that there is natural reason for caring about these common goods that can be discussed apart from simply citing Scripture.
I don’t have the time to unpack all of the points of discussion and implications, but I will say this: It is interesting to think about current and future debates about religious liberty. There are a number of arguments being made today that threaten or appear to threaten religious liberty. As one person pointed out, it is ironic that some of the very groups behind these arguments owe their movement to the kind of social context that protected the freedom to express dissenting points of view in the first place. Will those groups likewise protect religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the right to hold dissenting views? There is a broader need here that has to do with accommodating freedom of conscience, that recognizes that thoughtful people will disagree on matters of conscience, and that society is better when it recognizes and protects the right to do so.