The 20th-century fundamentalist questions, pre-dating Carl F. H. Henry and the later rise of the Moral Majority, of whether Christians should participate in the political sphere are long gone. The fact that “evangelical” is now often understood within and without the Church as a political rather than theological marker has led to no little handwringing on its continued usefulness to describe those who hold to David Bebbington’s quadrilateral of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.1 Yet those familiar with the life and writings of Dutch Theologian and stateman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) know that the modern debate of the appropriate role of Christians in the political, educational, and cultural spheres dates to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The pertinent question now is not how to engage within a Christian worldview but how to do so in a fractured society.
Last April, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, sought to answer that question at his Paul Henry Lecture delivered at Calvin University, which we are pleased to publish in a slightly revised form. Titled “Fidelity in Politics: Hallmarks of Christian Political Activity in the Tradition of Reformed Protestantism,” Wolterstorff framed his argument for modern political activity within Kuyper and other’s broad neo-Calvinist understanding of 1) the nature of human beings, 2) well-formed social and political order, 3) the nature of political activity and of how it is properly conducted in a pluralist liberal democracy, 4) the neo-Calvinist understanding of the aims of Christian political activity, and 5) The neo-Calvinist understanding of the virtues exhibited in Christian political activity. As an implication of neo-Calvinist political thought, he emphasizes the position of principled pluralism,
When adherents of different worldviews debate some political issue, they should explain to the other party how they see the issue and listen to the other party’s explanation of how they see the issue. It may be that, in the course of this back-and-forth, they discover that they agree on the matter at hand. If, instead, they disagree, each party then does what it can to bring the other party to see the matter as they see it. If they fail in this, if they still disagree, they try to reach a compromise that is fair to both parties. And if they also fail in that attempt, they take a fair vote and live with the results.
We invited three scholars to respond to and build on Wolterstorff’s lecture and then offered Wolterstorff the final word in responding to their essays.
Paul Weithman, the Glynn Family Honors Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, addresses what he sees as the similarities and differences between Wolterstorff’s outlines of neo-Calvinism and Catholic Political Thought, noting that much of the writings that are the foundation of Catholic political thought (such as those of Augustine and Aquinas) were not written directly about politics and thus can give us a broader read into Catholic social thought and teaching. Weithman emphasizes that Wolterstorff’s remarks coalesce with the Catholic concept of the common good, which is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment” and shaping self and communal human flourishing which allows for choice-worthy lives.
Matthew Kaemingk, the Richard John Mouw Assistant Professor of Faith and Public Life and director of The Richard John Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, is our second respondent, writing about the concerns he sees when neo-Calvinists transition from abstract political theory to concrete political action. For example, who is transforming what? He notes the current difficulties when politics drives faith rather than faith influencing political transformation. He then asks if it’s possible for the intellectual discourse required for principled pluralism to overcome the emotional knee-jerk reactions that come with today’s sense of political disempowerment and its concomitant political fear and anger.
Amy Black, professor of political science at Wheaton College, representing an evangelical political science perspective, wrote about Christian public witness in a divisive age. As a way forward, she concurs with Wolterstorff’s cautious hopefulness that a fallen human institution, such as politics, can still serve the common good, writing, “a vibrant pluralist democracy allows people with differing worldviews, religious or otherwise, to express their beliefs and concerns, participate fully and equally in public life, and work together for the common good. Those with deeply held religious commitments are accepted and respected alongside those with distinctly secular outlooks.”
Wolterstorff’s concluding remarks are as rich as a second lecture, addressing what he might have said in reply to the three respondents if he could have gone another round. The lecture and responses flesh out a path forward for political thought and action. But they also cast a greater light on how to live well in a pluralistic society beyond the ken of politics. In management science, we often talk about organizational politics as decisions involving allocating scarce resources through bargaining and negotiation among competing stakeholders who are often jockeying for their own interests.2 It’s no wonder then that some of the nastiest political gamesmanship is over so very little. But Wolterstorff calls for Christians to engage in political activity beyond self-interest, undergirded by civility, fairness, and empathy. “Pay to everyone the honor of treating them as befits their bearing the image of God,” he writes. An edifying reminder for all spheres of life.
Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, contributes an essay to our “advice to” series titled “Advice to Christian Historians.” It will be no surprise in this timely piece that Noll addresses the issue of “presentism” and the politicization of scholarship which has continued to embroil historians since last summer when American Historical Association President James Sweet wrote his presidential column titled, “Is history history?”3 In his essay, Noll does not decry “presentism,” instead writing, “the believing historian may affirm the potential value of presentist convictions and deny that presentist concerns should overwhelm historical study.” He adds that Christian historians can ground their work in Christian teaching about creation, human nature, and the infinite complexity of the incarnation. Noll ends his essay emphasizing
the Christian stance in teaching, scholarship, and responsible popularization will be manifest when (at least a measure of) clarity is combined with charity (to the extent possible)—clarity because, under God, it is possible to discover at least some truths about the human past, charity because believers know that if we can see evils in what previous generations took for granted, it is certain that future generations will see evils in what we take for granted.
Steven Jensen, professor of English at Malone University, also argues for a different view of scholarship, this time, one that is more communal in nature. Rather than knowledge as an end goal, he sees scholarship as a potential catalyst for the formation of knowledge in a community network. Arguing this point, he writes, “Scholarship is not knowledge. It doesn’t become knowledge until it becomes embedded in the collective mind of a living community. Knowledge is manifested in particular ways within particular communities and sub-communities, not just in an archive or a broad collective whole.” Jensen uses the work of Bernd Reiter, a German political science researcher, as an exemplar, who spent time doing fieldwork in the state of Bahia, Brazil committed to both the ideals of the local community and social activism, a position, Jensen notes, of tension from which he explores some of the pitfalls and contradictions of academic research, particularly in the social sciences.
In the past three years, the evangelical church has reckoned, in many ways, with the meaning of “reconciliation.” Rochelle Scheuermann, associate professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College, asks the Church to think anew about reconciliation with people who are often hidden in plain view in our faith communities. In “Enabling Evangelicalism: How a Renewed Vision of Church as an Alternative Community of Reconciliation Necessitates the Inclusion of People with Disabilities,” she writes about the debilitating effects of individualism on the perceived purposes of the Church and how an approach grounded in missio Dei changes the perspective of why and how we gather, making room for those who physically, emotionally, or theologically make others uncomfortable. She writes, “missio Dei honors the necessity of interdependence by suggesting that mission is not a task entrusted solely to individuals but is also the tangible, visible witness of an eschatological community in which unity in diversity and embodied presence gives verbal and iconic witness to the saving work of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
In “Perspectives” Jessica Baker, associate professor of biology at Taylor University, writes about ethical research issues she has faced in “A Christian Perspective on Integrity in Biology Research: Fostering God-honoring Motivations to Encourage Integrity.” Writing from her own experiences, she provides readers with suggestions for navigating questions of ethics that often fly in the face of academic pressures. Many readers will see similarities in their own fields outside of the biological sciences.
In our book review section, Hunter Baker provides an essay titled “Living in a Democracy as a Fallen People” as he reviews Tracy McKenzie’s We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy (IVP Academic, 2021) and Paul Miller’s The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism (IVP Academic. 2022).
Other reviews include:
Brian Howell, professor of anthropology at Wheaton College reviews Matt Tomlinson’s God is Samoan: Dialogues between Culture and Theology in the Pacific (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2020).
T. M. Moore, principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe reviews Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor and their edited volume The Art of New Creation: Trajectories in Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).
Katie Kresser, professor of art history at Seattle Pacific University, reviews Russ Ramsey’s Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022).
Todd P. Steen, the Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College reviews Andy Crouch’s The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2022).
Jon Singleton, assistant professor of English at Harding University reviews Brad Leithauser’s Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022).
Mark R. Schwehn, professor of humanities in Christ College, Valparaiso University reviews Perry L. Glanzer’s Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022).
Thomas M. Ward, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University reviews James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022).
Jeff Wheeldon reviews Matthew S. Vos’s Strangers and Scapegoats: Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).
Thanks to CSR book review editor Steve Oldham for his excellent work curating this collection of reviews.
Cite this article
- David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
- Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 6th ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2017), 184.
- James H. Sweet, “Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” Perspectives on History 60, no. 6 (September 2022), https://www.his to rians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/september-2022/ is-history-history-identity-politics-and-teleologies-of-the-present.