Clarifying the Issues

[This post by David Swartz is part of a conversation hosted at the Patheos Book Club on the new book, Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes.]

It’s that time of year that would bring a smile to Friedrich Nietzsche’s face, even though, with that national forest he grew on his upper lip, who would know? Possessor of one of the greatest moustaches in intellectual history, Nietzsche launched ideas and phrases like the “death of God”, “Ubermensch (Super Man)” and “will to power” (even if he didn’t write the book) into world history and the modern conversation of ideas. In discussing “will to power”, he postulated the idea that no matter what someone’s beliefs, religion, ideology, and philosophy might be, and even with the highest ideals and best of intentions, every human enterprise inevitably boils down into suppressing every competing impulse in order to seize and maintain control. We stand one year away from the next presidential election; the games and circuses have already begun. With serious internal issues and volatile international concerns, American politics may be more partisan (us vs. them), more emotional and less thoughtful, more driven by rapidly proliferating selfish factions and less by any idea of the common good than at any time in recent history.

That’s why Left, Right and Christ featuring Lisa Harper and D.C. Innes is a good idea. The book takes two people, Harper (Democrat) and Innes (Republican), who take the Bible very seriously and gives them both room to lay out how Jesus informs their politics. Harper is a former staffer with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who now serves as Director of Mobilization for Sojourners. Innes teaches political theory at King’s College in NYC, blogs for World Magazine and is a teaching elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The methodology of the book marks it as noteworthy just as much, if not more, than its content. First the reader gets two introductions instead of one. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and one of evangelicalism’s prophetic social voices, and Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine and author of a number of scholarly works on politics and social issues, both chip in. What I would like to do is lock these two in a room and see what happens. Olasky, a Yalee, speaks shrewdly and with dry wit. Wallis makes one of the best statements I’ve seen in print on Christians and politics (page 11). The book extends this editorial style. This isn’t a debate or argument, no back and forth or call and response. Both Harper and Innes give their stories and perspective uninterrupted, thoughtfully laid out and then placed side by side. We hear extended thinking on how two people calling themselves evangelicals spiritually arrived where they are now – Harper from a broad multicultural background and Innes, a Canadian who became an American citizen as an adult.

They issue a joint statement (Our Common Ground) of theology affirming what they biblically have in common. And it’s a serious theological statement, not the mindless drivel that “all religions say basically the same thing.” Both Harper and Innes work hard intellectually and theologically throughout the book. Once past this, they deal with two chapters on foundational issues for them – the role of government and the role of business (capitalism and poverty). While most of us would bypass these to get to the “issues”, it’s good to chew slowly on what both say since many experts say (and I agree) that we are becoming a nation of individuals who expect the government to make us happy on our own personal terms – rapidly making us an ungovernable people.

Then the two of them get into the things that candidates will be ringing the changes on for the next twelve months. The next six chapters cover health care, abortion, same sex marriage, immigration, war and terrorism and the environment. In a number of these cases, I began thinking I knew where I stood but both Harper and Innes repeatedly made me say “Hmm”. Using both Scripture and good research, they will engage the reader and evoke the same response whether we change our position or not. The chapter on health care, for example, requires both of their takes to be fully biblical in theology and socially responsible. The chapter on abortion documents that, in spite of how evangelicals are stereotyped that this is the defining issue, we were a little slow getting involved even after Rowe v.Wade. The little donkeys and elephants marking page numbers also help the reader to quick reference one side or the other on each issue.

The book ends on two valuable notes. Both authors write their “thank yous” and include generous and friendly words about the other. Harper notes her enjoying the humor and wit of Innes’ emails. She remarks how he made he think harder (This is always a good thing and is becoming an endangered species). They enjoyed doing this. It wasn’t about winning. The second note comes in the form of a good bibliography covering both the foundational issues and each of the six issues that follow. Each author gives six or seven titles on each issue giving good follow up potential for the reader.

In the months to come, we will need to remain clear, not merely on who is for what on each issue, but as to what the issue itself means. It’s like TV Guide. I can pick it up any time I need it. “Left, Right and Christ” has staying power beyond the first read. Politics should not be about winning, about power for power’s sake. It’s about bringing power to bear on human problems to produce solutions for the common good. This book gives us a handy pickup, a quality refresher, to intelligently think through at a deeper level the things blaring through the media from people wanting to push our voting button. I’m getting more and more particular (even touchy) about whom I let do that and I unhesitatingly suggest the same to the reader. We’ll be smarter and more effective, not just as voters at every level, but as Jesus followers at every level. Because we follow Him, it’s not about winning but serving with an eye toward redeeming and freedom from things that strangle and kill – in personal lives, in society and through cultures.

David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.


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