Luke Stamps of the Center for Baptist Renewal will be reviewing Dr. Leeman’s book for the main page so I won’t be doing a full review. That said, I finished the book earlier this week and it left me with a number of questions. Some of these are extremely predictable Presbyterian-reading-a-Baptist problems. Indeed, part of the reason I asked Dr. Stamps to review is precisely because I feared my own review would amount to “Reformed Christian Objects to Anabaptist Political Theology,” which is, obviously, very old news.
That said, I think this is a worthy book that should help refashion the conversation about politics and the church amongst evangelicals. I’m not altogether pleased with the ways in which it shapes that conversation, but I think Dr. Leeman has done good work here in laying out a creative political theology that will in many ways be a healthy antidote to the cynical maneuverings of the old Religious Right. Leeman’s book is principled, full of practical wisdom about interacting with federal and local government, and will, I have little doubt, prove to be helpful and challenging to many.
That being said, there are two particular places in which I want to prod the book a bit and perhaps see if Dr. Leeman would respond.
Does political life itself begin in the church?
There are a number of places in the book where Dr. Leeman says that political life begins in the church. I’ve read enough Hauerwas to not be too surprised to hear such assertions. Indeed, you’ll get variations on the same claim from Reformed Two Kingdom advocates. But even so I’m disturbed by the assertion. We are born into families, not churches. And so I think political life by definition begins in the first community any person belongs to, which is their family and home.
To be sure, there is an epidemic of family breakdown today such that many people will not receive this unearned gift. But then that is a problem with our society, not with the family itself.
Indeed, it was striking to me that in a chapter where he lists 12 principles for how Christians can engage in politics more faithfully there was no mention of the family, save as a device for making a point about church authority.
The reason I raise the point is that I worry that Leeman’s ecclesiocentrism has the affect of assigning to all the other communities a person belongs to a second class status, such that your real political life only happens in the church.
One of my main concerns with the work is that it doesn’t actually provide an alternative vision of politics, which I think is what Jonathan is aiming for and is what the sub-title of the book suggests it is. Rather, it offers some good advice for Christians embedded in a deeply individualist society (that is corrosive to spiritual formation and Christian life) on how they can engage fruitfully but realistically in politics narrowly defined as “things that federal and local government do.”
The book is branded as one thing—a more Christian approach to politics—but it never seems to question the sort of late modern liberalism in which we live in a real way. Our late-modern liberalism would have us think that “individual” and “state” are the only real human social bodies. Leeman’s work, it seems to me, simply says “yeah yeah, sure sure, but there’s also the church as an embassy of the world to come.”
That’s a better understanding of the church than what you get from the frauds on the Religious Right. And simply as an image it is much more fruitful and helpful, it seems to me, than many of the alternatives. Yet it doesn’t get beyond that to a deeper, more trenchant critique of late modern liberalism, which is what I think is needed.
What is the principle for “principled pragmatism”?
There is some confusion in one chapter where Leeman makes the case for taking a “principled pragmatic” approach to political debate. What I take him to mean is that we should make arguments that will be effective with the audience we are speaking to. That is true enough, of course, and is actually just basic rhetoric.
That said, it is odd to me that he doesn’t frame this as a point about rhetoric narrowly speaking, but instead seems to be intending to make a broader point about how Christians should approach politics.
If I’m understanding, the line seems to be a sort of Van Tillianism that says “when speaking to unregenerate people outside the church there is no possibility of ultimate agreement, so simply use the tools made available to you to achieve the least bad outcome.” Again, to the extent that he’s simply counseling good rhetorical sense this is entirely unobjectionable. The realistic perspective on what Christians can generally achieve politically is also helpful, given evangelicals and their delusions of grandeur.
That said, millions of Americans for hundreds of years were in agreement with the faith on the definition of marriage. Many of them were not regenerate, yet they understood marriage. Indeed, I would argue that they probably understood marriage better than most evangelicals today do. This suggests that some kind of fairly solid, well-developed agreement is possible
Put another way: There is such a thing as reality and we can know it through reason. We cannot know it perfectly, to be sure. But we can look at the world and say true things about it, even if we have not experienced the new birth. Jesus tells his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount that they can learn about why they shouldn’t worry by looking at flowers. (Our modern therapies are just now catching up to this insight.)
By counseling a kind of pragmatism where the only principle seems to be feasibility as an argument and not contradicting what is said in Scripture, I worry that Dr. Leeman’s work dispenses with nature in a catastrophic way.
If you haven’t, watch Joe Rigney’s talk on sola scriptura and natural revelation. It gets at my concern here more clearly than anything else I’ve seen:
There is more that could be said, but those two points sum up my main reservations with the book.