My leading light here is Jonathan Leeman. You’ve already read his popular-level book How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age; have you read his academic treatise, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule? I’m about halfway through. I’m profiting, for sure. (I will say: I just listened through a four-way conversation among Leeman, Brad Littlejohn, Andrew Walker, and Timon Cline; I found it tough slogging. My head isn’t entirely wrapped around the issues, either. And here’s Littlejohn and Leeman in a small conversation.)
I think we’ve firmly hit a postliberal era. If a commitment to free speech, freedom of association, and other (classically) liberal values gives us Drag Queen Story Hour and a bigger and bigger sprinkling of homosexuality and transgenderism in the shows I’d otherwise want my kids to be able to watch, then I’m necessarily less excited about classical liberalism than I once unthinkingly was. But I’ve long been a lover of liberalism’s best eviscerator, Stanley Fish; I’ve always known that liberalism was a useful means to an end but a terrible master. I reread this Fish essay—I hear Al Mohler does, too—every few years, and these words have rung in my ears more and more over time:
A person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.
But this is where I pull back—because of the practical appeal (this is David French’s argument) of giving liberty to others in order to preserve it for myself, (more importantly) because of Jesus’ insistence that his kingdom does not live by the sword, and because of my Calvinistic understanding of conversion. I can’t force my worldview on others, and my Baptistish/Kuyperianish sphere sovereignty does see a distinction between church and state, surely. Also, C.S. Lewis’ critique of the Christian party in chapter 3 of God in the Dock accords well with what I’ve long felt: the Bible tends to describe ends rather than means, and politics is often about the latter rather than the former. I hesitate to proclaim The Christian Tax Rate or The Christian Perspective on Zoning Laws. I’m ruled by the Bible not just in what I must say as a herald of the King but in what I must not claim God’s authority to say.
For years I kept on the lookout for the right way to think of politics and Christianity. I came to feel, ultimately, that there is no right way, broadly speaking—though there are better and worse ways, and there is the right thing for me to do in a given instance. What I think I see now is that there is no system which can expect peace, prosperity, and God’s blessing outside of the complete rule of Christ. And while he withholds that rule, while he allows rebels to resist him, the best I can do is develop ad hoc strategies, to take what I can get. So my nation agrees with Christian morality for a long time by condemning homosexuality both legally and culturally? Excellent. So now the nation disagrees with that morality, and there’s simply no way “gay marriage” is going away anytime soon? I still resolutely oppose gay marriage, but I feel free to pick my battles and invest in winnable ones—to take what I can get. I tend to think, along with The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla, for example, that getting elite culture to stop mixing kids and sex is a winnable battle. The broad American middle (a resonant phrase) is in favor of liberty for what gay men do in their bedrooms and bars; they’re still pretty significantly queasy about telling their own little boys that they can be girls, or in endorsing the Man-Boy Love Association, or in seeing their girls select Sex Worker on career day, or in having their girls cut off their own breasts (how horrid and degrading that it has come to this!). I can work with that queasiness, out of love for my neighbor and in obedience to Christ.
I’m with Leeman, then, in seeing that everyone brings their gods into the public square, even if they try to hide them in their backpacks and purses. I love Steven D. Smith, whose works on religious liberty and on culture and law are Fish-like but broadly Christian, who also sees what Leeman does. I recommend you put these on your reading list, in this order:
- The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (my paper on reactions to the book)
- Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
- Fictions, Lies, and the Authority of Law (my review)
- The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom
My thinking comes from a smattering of mostly recent influences. I should be reading Calvin on the magistrate; I know this. I should definitely read Augustine’s The City of God (and I really think you’re going to have to put this on your list; it is the very definition of seminal in the Christian West). I should read Hobbes Leviathan. I have read enough about Rawls and Locke (in Frame and in Steven D. Smith and in others) that I can follow others’ discussions about them. But I’m a philologist, an exegete—in this as in a number of other areas of theology, I admit I am relying on people I trust without claiming to be an original thinker.
A few other resources:
- I and a close friend did work together on a unit on government in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption; I can’t forget that as a recommendation.
- Political Visions and Illusions was very helpful for both of us. Definitely put that on your list.
- Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed I did read. It didn’t make an impression. I like Smith better.
- John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference has been waiting to be read on my Kindle for years.
- The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism—haven’t read it, but I heard an interview in which I feel that the author demonstrated that he self-consciously tried to be fair to his opponents.
- I’ve read two Yuval Levin books. Neither one stuck very well, but The Great Debate stuck better than The Fractured Republic.
- To Change the World made an impression; Hunter is a true scholar. “Faithful presence” is a sticky idea.
This is where I’m at off the top of my head.
It’s written by a Jew, but you might check out some of the staples of the conservative movement. Right now, I’m reading Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony (https://www.amazon.com/Conservative-Rediscovery-Yoram-Hazony/dp/1684511097), and it’s very interesting. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is a classic. Ben Sasse’s books can also be helpful.
Always good to hear from you, Ryan.
Yes, I enjoyed Ben Sasse’s books! Shorter on theory and longer on heart and good counsel. But I needed the latter two things. I admire him.
Wow…. I cannot tell you the number of times, both in church, at church functions, and talking with both Christians and non-Christians, how any times this kind of topic has been discussed. This certainly gives me food for thought, as well as future reading….
There’s a ton to read here. I myself really feel I need to read Augustine.
Appreciate the thoughtful comments, Mark. I would add a reading of Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat, by Os Guinness and his other works on the topics. A close examination of Romans 13 is also called for in these discussions.