Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation
Reviewed by Darren Patrick Guerra, Political Science, Biola University
Can evangelicals model and sustain respectful political conversation? Harold Heie, Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College thinks they can, and he is committed not just to writing about it but to demonstrating it as well. This book grew out of Heie’s efforts to model civil and productive dialogue by hosting an online conversation, in 2012, between leading evangelical political thinkers on contentious policy issues. The results of that experiment turned into this book. As such, this is not your normal academic work on politics and policy. It defies easy classification, because it is not a collection of essays by contributors. Rather it is an edited compilation of the online conversations that took place during Heie’s online experiment. While contributors are given space at the end to articulate their own thoughts on the experiment, and on evangelical approaches to public policy more generally, that is not the main focus of the work. The stated purpose of the book is to
model how engaging in respectful conversation about important public policy issues with people you disagree with can lead to uncovering common ground and sufficiently illuminate differences to allow ongoing conversation toward the goal of uncovering further common ground. (18)
Heie argues that such a method of dialogue, if practiced well, will lead to a civil method of discovering adequate common ground which will break political gridlock and enable politicians the ability to “enact appropriate legislation” (20). Thus, this book seeks not only to model political dialogue for the evangelical community but the larger political world as well.
For this purpose Heie assembled a notable cast of contributors: Amy E. Black, Paul Brink, David P. Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Stephen V. Monsma, and Eric Teetsel. Richard Mouw provides a thoughtful forward to the book. The six contributors represent a range of political views from left to right, and their online contributions center around a range of topics including: the federal budget deficit, immigration, religious freedom, Syria and Iran, Israel and Palestine, poverty, marriage, health care, education, gun control, and abortion. Heie edits the contributors’ online contributions and he patterns each chapter by first identifying common ground and then highlighting areas of disagreement for further conversation. While the contributors are thoughtful and impressive, the methodology of summarizing online conversations led to some irregularities that made the discussions somewhat choppy and uneven. One disappointment along this line is that not all of the contributors participated in every issue dialogue, yet one was found wondering what all of the participants thought about all of the issues. The treatment of the policy issues varies in depth and quality as well. For example, the chapters on the federal budget deficit, immigration, and abortion show a depth of knowledge and understanding by the contributors that is rigorous, and one comes away thinking that these six contributors could probably agree on legislation to resolve these issues, as there seems to be enough common ground as a basis for further compromises.
On the other hand, one particularly weak chapter is on the Israel and Palestine conflict. After noting the tendency of evangelicals and the U.S. government to favor Israel in the conflict, the chapter tries to rectify this perceived imbalance by glossing over the real levels of violence and terror perpetrated by Palestinian leadership and its forces. While one can sympathize with Palestinian Christians who are often caught between aggressive Israeli self-defense measures on one hand and the brutal and violent Islamic forces of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority on the other hand, such sympathies should not be used to paper over the real substantive differences between the two sides. In short, the chapter tries to enforce a naïve moral equivalency that is not appropriate given that Israel faces terror and violence backed by threats of extinction which leaves little room for serious negotiation. Perhaps this chapter can serve as an example of why ignoring moral reality in the name of balanced treatment is often a vice rather than a virtue.
If a person is looking for in-depth literature reviews of public policy issues or deep and nuanced debate that draws on the latest research of the day, he or she will not find it here but, to be fair, that is not the book’s purpose. However, if one is looking for thoughtful and civil dialogue by an impressive array of evangelical thinkers then this book may be a good start. Undergraduate students in particular may find the method and modeling of civil dialogue helpful to their development as consumers of, and participants in, political discourse.
Ultimately, Heie achieves his goal of modeling civil dialogue among a diverse array of evangelicals on public policy. Heie is consistently careful to highlight the common ground and to show the differences that can lead to further conversations. He also shows that there is a range of evangelical views on a variety of important topics, and he is right to highlight that the evangelical community is not a political monolith. However, it is also worth noting that the esteemed contributors are, as a group, significantly more left of center than the average evangelical. This is not necessarily a problem, but by highlighting the range of differences among evangelical elites the book does tend to exaggerate the amount of political diversity in the evangelical rank and file. Recall that seventy-nine percent of white evangelicals voted for the Republican candidate in the 2012 election.1 For example, one gets the impression that only Eric Teetsel would ideologically fit comfortably in the center of the rather conservative evangelical electorate, and yet, his views are consistently portrayed as positioned furthest to the right of all the contributors.
One suspects that the impressive degree of civility among the contributors is largely the result of their shared evangelical faith. While evangelicals might disagree on public policy, they do so within a broad framework of loosely shared views about human nature and biblical authority. In addition, there is a shared philosophical belief in a common good anchored in a metaphysical reality and moral order that exists outside of space and time, and this higher truth provides a basis, and a purpose, for sustained dialogue. In contrast, many in the larger society believe that the common good is nothing more than the aggregation of individual preferences or the product of raw exertions of human power. In such a context Machiavelli or Hobbes, and not Aquinas or Plato, rule the day, and in that context power and not reasoned deliberation is the coin of the realm. All of this suggests that Heie’s model of dialogue may find a shakier footing outside of evangelicalism’s friendly confines, but that does not mean it is not worth the effort of trying. Besides, as Plato and other ancients have shown us, the metaphysical reality that allows for a real common good to exist is accessible to all humans, not just Christians (see Romans 1:19-22), but Christianity still provides the best, fullest, and most accessible window on understanding these truths. Thus, Christians have a unique responsibility to the larger community to testify in word and deed that a sound understanding of the common good can best be attained by sustained political deliberation not raw exertions of power.
It is ironic, however, that if efforts like Heie’s succeed in improving evangelical political conversations it may come at a time when discourse in the larger culture is worsening. There is growing evidence that the “naked public square” predicted by the late great Richard Neuhaus, where serious religious views are excluded from acceptable public dialogue, is ominously coming to fruition. If recent events, such as the legal and political attacks by radicals on faithful dissenters to gay marriage or recent illiberal speech trends on university campuses, are any indication, the genuinely faithful may face increasingly hostile and intolerant postures from cultural elites who are losing patience with respectful dialogue. If these trends of elite intolerance continue, the modeling of respectful sustained political conversation by evangelicals will be increasingly more important than ever as a model of what reasoned deliberation looks like. In the end, regardless of the larger context, Heie and the contributors are right to remind us that evangelicals should model public discourse that is respectful, knowledgeable, and winsome, both due to the demands of their faith and as a witness to the larger world. Furthermore, it seems they are reminding evangelicals of this point at a crucial moment in American history and during a particular time of testing for the evangelical community.