There are two kinds of political issues, Party issues and Revolutionary issues. In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but differ in their policies for reaching it [. . . .] On a party issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature [. . . .] A revolutionary issue is one in which different groups within a society hold different views as to what is just. When this is the case, argument and compromise are out of the question; each group is bound to regard the other as wicked or mad or both. Every revolutionary issue is potentially a casus belli [. . . .]
What is so terrifying and immeasurably depressing about most contemporary politics is the refusal—mainly but not, alas, only by the communists—to admit that this is a party issue to be settled by appeal to facts and reason, the insistence that there is a revolutionary issue between us. If an African gives his life for the cause of racial equality, his death is meaningful to him; but what is utterly absurd, is that people should be deprived every day of their liberties and their lives, and that the human race may quite possibly destroy itself over what is really a matter of practical policy like asking whether, given its particular historical circumstances, the health of a community is more or less likely to be secured by Private Practice or by Socialized Medicine.
—W. H. Auden, ‘The Poet & The City’, in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 86-87.
If there’s anything political discussions could use, it’s sense. That sense has to be made of American politics, which seems to have either forgotten or neglected whatever internal logic makes it tick and seems, at least, to be utterly lacking in sense, leaves me predisposed to liking Amy Black’s new book, Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). OK, like the rest of you, maybe I’m a bit gun-shy, but Black is sincere when she promises to help us make sense of American politics, and a good old-fashioned explanation is certainly welcome.
Thankfully, Black is faithful to her title. This is not another new, nuanced political theory. Theories are necessary—and Christians have been jumping into the theoretical discussion with aptitude and aplomb—but I, for one, am left (rather strangely) with a subtle understanding of how theology might inform political theory or with a finely parsed critique of modern liberalism, but with no sense of how I should vote or what the government’s there for anyway!
Enter Black, who quickly wins trust (itself a remarkable feat, given our general disdain and distrust of people who think they have something to say about politics) and sets up the conversation with all of the right caveats and cautionary tales. She disarms readers with an opening chapter that highlights the pitfalls of speaking for God in politics by appealing to the biblical injunction against taking the Lord’s name in vain in the political arena, and one way we do this is by being more circumspect in our claims to speak for God.
Black shows her cards quickly: She operates on the assumptions that “The United States is, and always has been, a pluralistic nation” (good-bye, theocracy) and that “Religion affects everyone’s views of politics” (so long, secularism).1 And I am particularly appreciative of this latter assumption. Religion has become a blunt object of rhetorical force in recent days, and I fear a naïve, reactionary return to the Dark Ages of “neutrality” in public discourse, days when religion was “private” and out of bounds in the “naked public square.”
Throughout Beyond Left and Right, Black evidences a happy, healthy commitment to democracy, but not in such a way that she risks trading ultimates (“Thy kingdom come”) for penultimates. Her implicit trust in the system is a pragmatic one, convinced as she is that “Politics is all about people and meeting their needs, so politics and government offer Christians a means to live out the commandment to love our neighbors.”2 Indeed, for Black it is love of God and neighbor that ought to orient us politically. Rather than appealing to Romans 13 and its call to submit to the governing authorities, Black turns to the Decalogue (with its call to honor God’s name) and 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 (and the humility and love that is spoken of there). She suggests four guiding principles for Christians thinking about politics:
1. “We all ‘see but a poor reflection as in a mirror’ and therefore should exercise genuine humility when discussing politics.”
2. “The diversity of the body of Christ makes room for Christians to disagree on many political matters.”
3. “The label ‘Christian’ is for God and his work, not to validate human endeavors like politics.”
4. “Politics can and should be a means for demonstrating love in action and building the body of Christ.”3
Seeing politics as a form of neighbor-love helpfully broadens the horizon of discussion. Black takes this rhetorical tack frequently, choosing to pan out rather than to patronize.
After all of this helpful stage-setting—which, on its own, is worth, as they say, the price of the book—Black gives a clear, compelling apology for compromise, noting that one can stand for truth even as one chooses a strategy of compromise. In this case and elsewhere in the book, Black warns against confusion of means and ends; she explains that compromise is important if we are to keep the ends in mind. The dicussion of compromise nicely sets up a chapter on political labels (conservative, liberal and centrist) in which she acknowledges the utility and limit of such labels.
In part two, Black exhumes some “hints from history.” She asks whether the United States is a Christian nation (answer: no) and examines the ways in which religion tends to shape voting behavior. She also discusses the merits of polling and other statistical data, carefully distilling their value for the layperson.
A third section of the book is devoted to “Highlights from American Politics 101.” Part of the problem of how to relate faith to politics is our (at best) rudimentary understanding of the basics. Black sketches the history, basis, and workings of the two-party system. Not one to glibly dismiss something with such a long history, Black is nonetheless quick to caution against overgrown partisanship. To wit: “Party loyalty, however, should never get in the way of the desire to love and serve God and neighbor [. . . .] If you find yourself wondering, How can he be a true Christian and think that way politically? partisanship has probably gripped your life too strongly.”4 Black’s crash course continues with a chapter on the branches of government and their powers and a chapter on the separation of church and state. The latter chapter is particularly helpful, as she notes the variety of approaches to church and state among the colonies, the juxtaposition of the establishment and free exercise clauses in the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.
The final, longest section of Beyond Left and Right discusses various models of applying faith to politics, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist approaches. Black teases questions of church and state apart from questions of faith and politics, claiming that these questions are “interrelated but distinct.”5 So a Mennonite might hold strictly to the separation of church and state precisely in an effort to apply her faith to her politics, and thus confusion and conflict often arises from a lack of clarity about which issues are at stake. Turning to political dialogue, Black clarifies the importance of distinguishing means from ends, of, in Auden’s terms, knowing what is a party issue and what is a revolutionary issue. Many of our failures in political conversation, she suggests, can be traced to our confusion here, our tendency to see these as relatively cut-and-dried moral issues, when more often than not, the stuff of politics is complex (e.g., welfare reform).
Asking whether Christians can honestly disagree, Black takes poverty as a case study and suggests appropriate ways to use the Bible in discerning faith’s relevance to politics. Then she outlines three “means to reduce” poverty (these are not quick fixes).6 Clearly, such a vast problem does not have a single solution; instead, poverty is a party issue on which we can have thoughtful, if at times abiding, disagreement.
Two chapters tackle the issue of the voting booth and beyond. When casting a ballot, Black contends that it is first vital to know the duties and powers of a particular office. For example, the decision-making for some issues falls to the states, and so voters ought not let these issues overly determine their preferred candidates for national office. Next is to determine priority issues. Finally, of course, is self-education, and Black guides the reader in how to sift through mountains of election-time mail.
But because politics continue well after November 4, Black also discusses “three general areas of political engagement: civic education, electoral activities, and interacting with government.”7 Black gives tips on where to find the best news (hint: even today, nothing beats a good daily paper, or its online equivalent), helpful websites to become more informed, and advice on how to make one’s voice heard.
Black concludes with a few guiding principles and an extensive, chapter-by-chapter list of thoughtful, engaging discussion questions. All in all, Beyond Left and Right is just the sort of thing that church folk need to engage fully and faithfully in politics, and it would be ideal for small group discussions. Black refuses to take refuge in academic-speak, and so the book is accessible. It’s also a safe book, one which will open up far more conversations than it shuts down. I think of how many friends I have who simply can’t go there at the dinner table with their parents. Black could, I think, help on that front.
Finally, I’ll admit that despite my usual frustrations at people who tell me how to think—strike that, what to think—I wish Black had done a bit more of just that. Perhaps it’s her very reticence to do so that leaves me trusting her perspective and wishing she would have told me what’s what on an issue or two. Yet even there, she remains true to form, having modestly claimed in the beginning that her hope is not to provide “one set of definitive answers” but to “educate and equip you to answer them for yourself.”8
I suppose I should face the facts: That annoyance I just spoke of is perhaps evasion. Were Black to cast her vote on some issues, that might enable me just enough room to skate around the hard work of political engagement.
Now, I’m not overly sanguine about the political process. I have little hope that clear heads and pure hearts will prevail there. And I could offer a theological rationale for that, but I think that in my case the rationale might also be an evasion. Although it’s true that eschatological hope, as expressed in the prayer of Maranatha! (“Come, Lord Jesus!”), refuses to content itself with merely making things a little better, it is also true that the logic of hope is oriented to action. That is, precisely because Christ will return, we must engage in activity that reflects, anticipates, and witnesses to his kingdom. Black admits that not all Christians will be vigorously engaged in politics. “For the follower of Christ, however, one form of political participation is not optional: we are all called to prayer.”9 All of which to say, my lameness when it comes to politics is just that—lame. It is, to a significant extent, laziness and sloth.
So I offer a hearty, if a bit reluctant because convicted, cheer for Black’s Beyond Left and Right, a book that speaks order into chaos and, let’s hope, kicks my butt into gear. Now—go vote!
1. Amy Black, Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 17, 19.
2. Ibid., 28.
3. Ibid., 24-26.
4. Ibid., 102-103.
5. Ibid., 151.
6. Ibid., 176.
7. Ibid., 207.
8. Ibid., 17.
9. Ibid., 219.