Politics for Christians
Francis J. Beckwith, IVP Academic
For those who ask, “What would Jesus do?” the field of politics is not well signposted.
Assuming the answer to the question is to be found in the life and teaching of Jesus, what, in politics, is to be done with his teaching about going the extra mile (Matthew 5:41, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile”)?
To those living under Roman domination, it involved doubling the distance the occupying army could demand that a Jew carry army baggage. Expressed in contemporary terms it reads, “When the Government imposes an unwelcome burden on you, willingly bear twice the imposed burden.”
Hardly the way to sell a carbon tax.
Francis Beckwith’s book is a welcome addition to the resources available to us in considering our political involvement.
Professor Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Fellow and Faculty Associate in the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He is one of two editors for a number of books to be published by InterVarsity Press as the Christian Worldview Integration Series.
This book begins with the series preface, which explains the purpose of worldview integration: to ensure that “our theological beliefs, especially those derived from careful study of the Bible, are blended and unified with important reasonable ideas from our profession or college major into a coherent, intellectually satisfying Christian worldview.”
Beckwith recognises that Christianity has been marginalised in colleges and universities and he offers a thoughtful response.
Seven reasons are offered to show that such integration matters.
The first is that, when the scriptures are properly interpreted, their teachings are true. When a claim in a Christian’s professional field makes a biblical claim false, consider that the interpretation of scripture is mistaken.
Another reason is that biblical teaching about the role of the mind in the Christian life and the value of extra-biblical knowledge require integration. He quotes John Wesley: “To imagine none can teach you but those who are themselves saved is a very great and dangerous mistake. Give no place to it for a moment.”
This should encourage Uniting Church members to rejoice in the “contact with contemporary thought” which Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union embraces.
The series introduction occupies 27 pages and is not easily summarised but the two reasons briefly referred to give a fair indication of the flavour of the introduction.
The bulk of the book is divided into five chapters:
- The Study of Politics
- Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen
- The Separation of Church and State
- Secular Liberalism and theNeutralState
- God, Natural Rights and the Natural Moral Law
The study of politics in American universities and colleges is amazingly diversified. “For its 2009 annual meeting, the American Political Science Association listed 49 different divisions that correspond to the subfields of study within that academic society.”
This means that, although chapter 1 is condensed, it is full of information about the breadth and depth of political study of which a Christian should be aware.
The second and third chapters deal with issues that arise from the American Constitution, and, while interesting, need careful adjustment to the Australian constitutional models.
Chapter 4 raises issues which concern many Australian Christians. Speaking of secular liberalism, Beckwith writes, “Many Christians have been critical of what they believe are the excesses of some of the cultural beliefs and practices that have arisen out of liberal democracies.”
He goes on to assert that the employment of secular liberalism in politics is likely to diminish rather than advance the liberty of Christian citizens. This argument is sustained by reference to homosexual activities, pornography, abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research.
Chapter 5 includes a helpful critique of the writings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. In a significant statement he recognises that “the Christian and these atheists agree on the existence of natural rights, a natural moral law and natural moral obligations and that human beings have an intrinsic end and purpose that they may negligently or purposely fail to accomplish, and be rightly judged immoral for such a failure.”
The convergence of ethics based on Christian natural law theory and ethics based on Darwin’s natural selection presents a considerable challenge to Christians today. Whether this should be pursued to the point that Beckwith reaches, “that this natural moral law is best accounted for by the existence of God”, is a matter for individual Christian response.
Pursuing this debate is of considerable significance in the liberal democracy we enjoy as Australians. If Christians feel marginalised on the issues Beckwith raises, they can draw strength from a thorough reading of his book.
As St Augustine wrote, “We must show our scriptures not to be in conflict with whatever [our critics] can demonstrate about the nature of things from reliable sources.”
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