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Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft

Francis J. Beckwith
Published by IVP Academic in 2010

Francis Beckwith’s volume of the Christian Worldview Integration Series has much to offer the undergraduate student or novice newly considering the relation of faith and politics. The text’s subtitle indicates Beckwith’s Aristotelian assumption that “man is by nature a political animal.”1 Contrary to some theological interpretations which might discourage the faithful from political thought and engagement, Beckwith asserts that Christian “students of politics must concern themselves with … what it means to be a citizen … [and] whether the government … is just or unjust” (33), rather than withdrawing to a focus solely on self and salvation. His argument, that attempts to divorce one’s foundational beliefs from political actions—which inevitably produce moral choices (“soulcraft”)—are problematic, is fairly persuasive. Despite modest shortcomings, this work adds a much-needed introductory level approach to this branch of political thought.3)in previous decades as well as the accommodationist developments of more recent times, including its use to uphold school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris4 and other cases.5 Likewise, his engagement of the Catholic Charities case provides an exceptional case example (one with many qualifications made clearer by reading the case decision6 ) rather than a more comprehensive perspective that does in fact make space for faith in policy. In all, Beckwith presents some of the more glaring examples of cases involving religious restrictions without providing a representative sense of the ways in which faith has been allowed into the public square or how the “noncognizance”of separationism has been asserted to protect the exercise of religious freedom.7

In chapter 4, Beckwith challenges secular liberalism, defined as the right of self-determination free from external restraints, especially those religious in nature or otherwise limiting liberty. Given human uncertainty, secular liberals believe that laws should not restrict liberty where they may be inappropriately applied. Beckwith provides an effective three-part response. First, he overturns the golden rule argument, that citizens should not seek to restrict behavior because others might do the same, pointing out that unrestricted freedom negatively impacts another’s freedom to develop virtue. Second, he contends that secular liberalism also relies on metaphysical reasoning itself to establish its points. Finally, erring on the side of liberty to protect one freedom over the other is not viable when life is at question. He rightly argues that secular liberalism privileges its own assumptions over others in the public square which, in turn, have moral implications for each person’s religious beliefs.

In the last substantive chapter, Beckwith returns to the moral roots of government by asserting that the purpose of liberal democracy is to promote the natural rights of people, or what the founders recognized as natural moral “goods.” In turn, this set of rights provides an argument for the existence of God, an argument which is contested among those who believe in natural law. Beckwith’s considered discussion reveals an agreement between Christians and atheists on the nature of human purpose: we are to use our talents for the greater good. However, the atheists’ accounts of evolutionary survival and intelligence as the biological and logical sources of natural law are insufficient to explain altruism, purpose, and sentiments in relation to others and the larger society. While Beckwith poses plausible arguments in favor of divinely inspired law versus a more naturalist interpretation, he does not account for the impact of culture in contributing to moral imperatives despite his extensive concern with its impact in earlier chapters. Ultimately, he provides a convincing argument that the moral basis of natural law legitimizes the engagement of faith in the public square.

Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft provides a fairly persuasive argument for Christians to engage their faith in politics, one which also possesses some limitations. Much of the work involves a careful unpacking of the rationale connecting Christians to a faithful pursuit of politics. However, at times Beckwith is presumptuous that there is necessarily a Christian perspective with respect to particular issues, despite different theological perspectives which exist on a number of social issues (and despite his earlier recognition of different economic perspectives). In addition, the current approach, an ad hoc and piecemeal engagement of several social issues within the larger exposition, provides scattered attention to the issues, despite some particularly compelling arguments for the topics discussed. Furthermore, his response to selective quotes of specific individuals fails to provide a more complex view of the richer perspectives of these issues. Some individuals who share his foundational beliefs about issues, such as abortion, still have articulated reasons for supporting policies allowing the procedure.8 Given that this text is about engaging faith in policy debates, the inclusion of these perspectives would have added balance. This material might have been more extensively and effectively developed in a separate chapter on issues following the theological and theoretical framework. Ultimately, though, Beckwith’s book fills a critical niche integrating political thought and theology.

Cite this article
Robin Lauermann, “Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 336-340


  1. Aristotle, “The Politics,” in Classics in Political Philosophy, J. Porter, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall), 122.
  2. See also Franklin Gamwell, Politics as a Christian Vocation: Faith and Democracy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).p/efn_note]

    For the newcomer to political science, Beckwith first unpacks the essentials of the more prominent subfields of the discipline–political theory, comparative politics, American politics, international relations, political economy, and public law–their relations to each other as well as the relevance of scriptural questions, such as which form of government is just, within these areas. While most subfields are attended to with a concise focus that still provides a sense of their scope, he short changes the subfield with which most readers would have most familiarity—American politics. In his discussion, Beckwith suggests that questions in this subfield can simply be answered by quantitative assessments, when in fact they require as rich and complex of methods as the other areas within the disciplines that he addresses. Nonetheless, this chapter otherwise provides a fair first cut for the political science novice.

    By introducing the reader to the compatibility between a Christian worldview and liberal democracy in chapter 2, Beckwith primes the issue of what it means to live under such a form of government and how structures might vary from country to country. Furthermore, he contends the political realm is of particular relevance to Christian citizens for four reasons. First, while both the government and church have authority over society and have a similar goal, “to advance the good of those who are made in God’s image” (64), the origins of their legitimacy are separate (earthly versus godly kingdom). Beckwith is careful to note that Christians may pursue market or government solutions to help others receive clarity of purpose and personal development. Second, the ever-socializing impact of society’s “moral ecology”(70) also produces an impetus for Christians to participate in political structures which shape this environment. Beckwith rightly cautions his readers that love for others should prevail in the ways in which they engage those who disagree with them, recognizing that there is an inherent conflict between some movements toward freedom in engaging policy and the religious beliefs of others. Third, relating the story of Paul’s imprisonment for preaching the Gospel in the book of Acts, Beckwith asserts that Christians should respect the legal authority of government, but that they may be called upon to disobey unjust laws using theological claims, claims which should be contestable in public debate. Finally, Christians may vote for non-Christian candidates if the latter’s position best fulfills Christian ideals of justice. He notes that citizens should be alert to the “Kennedy mistake” (candidates eschewing the impact of faith) as well as the “confessional mistake” (citizen evaluation of candidates based on creed alone); rather they should choose officials based on whether policies advance the common good in accordance with biblical principles (84-88). While this chapter provides a strong critical examination of these foundations, some indication that this “fit” between democracy and Christianity is relatively new and not uncontested would strengthen the newcomer’s understanding of this dimension.

    As a crucial lynchpin to the overarching argument, Beckwith proceeds to examine in chapter 3 the historical nature and development of separationism, the idea that church and state should not intermingle, the interpretation of which clearly shapes the capacity of faith in the public square. To do so, he recaptures the constitutional basis of this issue—disestablishment versus separationism—and summarizes the origins of separationism back to the Jeffersonian era. What began as intersectarian conflict (Protestants and Catholics) led to attempts, such as the unsuccessful proposal of the Blaine Amendment, to prohibit use of government funds for sectarian purposes and later by secularists to push for strong separation. Drawing on the work of Hamburger, Beckwith’s argument provides firm understanding of the ability to form laws for the public good which also may square with religious beliefs. Encouraging critical engagement of scripture in the political realm, he distinguishes between individuals whose policy preferences are informed by their faith and individuals who use government to enforce their faith on others. Briefly applying this distinction to the issue of abortion, Beckwith points out that those arguing for the pro-choice side often use similar types of metaphysical knowledge to support their perspective while disallowing pro-life supporters to do the same. Furthermore, he points out the challenges that arise when statutes in turn press upon one’s free exercise of religion, something he asserts is only permissible when it negatively impacts the common good. While he successfully highlights several key aspects of this interpretive debate, perhaps Beckwith is somewhat overzealous in his depiction of the entrenchment of separationism in current legal practices, as he neglects to address the uneven application of the Lemon test (Lemon v. Kurtzman2Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). In Lemon, the Supreme Court identified a three-pronged test to determine when a law violated the Establishment Clause: the law has a secular purpose; it neither advances nor inhibits religion; it does not promote “excessive entanglement” of the two.

  3. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)
  4. Salazar v. Buono, 130 S. Ct. 1803 (2010).
  5. Catholic Charities’ claim for religious exemption from providing prescription coverage for contracep-tives under the Women’s Contraception Equity Act was rejected. Because of the nature of its work, Catho-lic Charities (and similar entities) does not receive a religious exemption because of the nature and pur-pose of its work, as it employs and serves individuals from a broad spectrum of beliefs and its primarypurpose is not to “inculcate religious values.” Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Super. Ct., 32 Cal.4th527, 562, 10 Cal.Rptr.3d 283, 85 P.3d 67 (2004).
  6. Vincent Phiip Munoz, “James Madison’s Principle of Religious Liberty,” American Political Science Review97.1 (Feb. 2003): 17-32.
  7. Morris Fiorina, Culture War?The Myth of a Polarized America (New York, NY: Pearson, 2006), 79-108.

Robin Lauermann

Robin Lauermann, Politics, Messiah College