Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft

04.26.12 | Denver Journal, Ethics, Dieumème Noelliste | by Francis J. Beckwith

    Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Dieumème Noelliste

    Francis J. Beckwith, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. Downers Grove: IVP, 2010. Paperback, 175 pp.  $18.00.  ISBN 978-0-8308-2814-2. 

    PoliticsforChristiansThe common good is not only a notion that most people endorse, it is also an ideal that most deem worthy of pursuit, even when they disagree on its exact meaning. But who should engage in such a pursuit? Is it the purview of government and the secular citizen alone? Or is there a role in such an undertaking for the segment of the citizenry that bears the epithet Christian? These and many others are the questions that philosopher and political scientist Francis J. Beckwith seeks to address in his short volume entitled Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.

    The book is a contribution to the Christian Worldview Integration Series. This explains why part of its purpose is to advance the agenda of epistemic integration in the twin domains of faith and politics. Specifically, the book puts forth the claim that persons of faith, including Christians, need not “set aside their beliefs before they enter the public square” (p. 33) because there is an account of politics that embodies “an understanding of liberal democracy that is not hostile to Christian participation and the shaping of public policy” (ibid). Beckwith goes about this task by means of a challenge, a defense, and a caution.

    Knowing that some Christians may have difficulty with the very idea of engaging the political sphere, Beckwith begins by offering a rationale for the appropriateness of the concept. He argues that in a system of government such as a liberal democracy which is based on civil liberties, the principles of self-governance and the equality of all citizens before the law (p. 60), the Christian citizen must not underestimate his/her ability to influence the public domain. He notes that in such a system, the Christian “has unprecedented access to the levers of power” (p. 81). If properly exercised, such a right can serve a number of worthy goals, including the strengthening of the democratic system, the promotion of the cause of the gospel (p. 74), and the preservation of “the moral ecology” of the society (p. 69). This latter objective is pursued when Christians prompt government to infuse the social and legal domain with “moral ideas . . . that shape the quality of the character of its citizens” (p. 36). When government makes the promotion of the virtuousness of the citizenry a chief concern, it takes the task of politics to a higher level: it transforms political governance from statecraft to soulcraft.

    In issuing this challenge, Beckwith is not unmindful of the hurdles that stand in the way of the Christian who might elect to enter the public square with his/her worldview and basic beliefs. That’s why to respond to this reality he mounts an apologetic that seeks to debunk the arguments that secular thinkers often present to deny Christians a place in discussions surrounding the enactment of laws and the framing of public policy. To the argument that, in a pluralistic society, the public square must be bereft of religious influence, he counters that such a canon is not always observed since in many instances the policy options vouchsafed by the secularists are not required by the dictates of science (as is often claimed) but by their philosophical and ideological commitments (p. 112)! He illustrates this point by referring to the position of the pro-choice advocates which turns essentially on their view of human personhood which falls outside the purview of scientific proof. As to the contention that the mere fact that a belief is theologically informed automatically removes it from the purview of the “knowledge tradition,” Beckwith argues that such sequestering is prejudicial and highhanded since qualifiers such as secular and religious by themselves say nothing about the strength and weakness of a position (p. 134). Such determination is to be made solely on the basis of the explanatory and logical power of the argument, regardless of its provenance. Regarding the notion that the barring of religious influence from the public square is a requirement of the policy of the separation of church and state, Beckwith provides a fascinating historical analysis to show that the concerns that led to enactment of the policy had to do with opposition to “religious establishment but not the influence of religion on government” (p. 95).

    In the course of developing his argument, Beckwith interjects several caveats that should not be lost on the reader who thinks about answering his or her call to engage the public domain. One such caveat concerns his caution that while pushing for the prevention of moral decay, the Christian should be careful “about the extent of government’s involvement in the protection of society’s moral ecology” (p. 70). To him, this means that in a pluralistic context “one must be realistic about what one can achieve through the political process” (p. 71). Also, Beckwith insists that in a heterogeneous marketplace, Christians must be prepared to extend to others—regardless of their religious or non-religious commitments—the same consideration that they ask for themselves. The litmus test for such magnanimity should not be theological orthodoxy, but demonstrable commitment to the common good (p. 89). In the realm of politics, “the common good should be the standard by which we assess candidates” (p. 87).

    Beckwith’s volume can certainly be a useful tool in the hand of the Christian who is concerned with navigating responsibly the political domain. Though written primarily with college students in mind, the way the book is structured and argued makes it is easily accessible to the average Christian. Besides its usefulness, the book has proved to be quite timely. In recent months, many of the issues it raises (e.g., Christian support for a Mormon candidate, the provision of contraceptives by Catholic agencies, etc.), have been the subject of national discussion. In addition, although Beckwith confines the relevance of his perspective to Western democratic societies—particularly the United States—his construal can prove useful to many societies in the Majority World which are experiencing democratic rule at a time when the Christian population is experiencing significant numerical growth.

    Dieumème Noelliste, Ph.D.
    Professor of Theological Ethics
    Director, Grounds Institute of Public Ethics
    Denver Seminary
    April 2012

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