By Jonathan Fitzgerald
[This post 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.]
This Thanksgiving, families across the country will gather around the table and, in an effort to keep the peace, avoid talking about the infamous dinnertime conversation taboos, religion and politics. Though there is a lot to talk about, the Republican nomination process, the Occupy movement, the parallels between the Penn State scandal and that of the Catholic church, in the name of civility these topics will probably not arise.
Of course, though this is the case for many families, it will not be for mine. Oh, no. I very much intend to, as I’ve become known to do, press my Republican parents on who they might be favoring and then, inevitably, tell them why I think they’re wrong. For her part, my mom will try to understand me while my father tunes out. My brother-in-law, a capable debater, will undoubtedly challenge me with some statistic he’s read or factoid he’s absorbed and, inevitably, he’ll be right about something or another. This is how it always goes.
But this year, I also plan to direct my family’s conversation toward the subject of this month’s book club selection, Left, Right & Christ, by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes. When I first got the book, I had hopes that it could provide the necessary structure for our conversation, but now I’m not so sure.
As Marvin Olasky notes in his foreword, this book is a conversation starter. But, as I’ve been reading through it over the past couple weeks, I can’t help but wonder what kind of conversation it will start.
If my experience with the book is any indication, the conversation it provokes won’t occur across party lines, but within them. That is, I, like most readers, know where I stand when I open the book; I know whose side I’m on. Thus I read Harper and cheer when, for example, she writes, “War does not ultimately save us from evildoers; it transforms the principled into perpetrators.” Likewise, I jeer at Innes’ assertion that “Love of neighbor requires a tough-minded foreign policy.”
No, I don’t see this book starting conversations across the political divide.
But Olasky’s not wrong, Left, Right & Christ is a conversation starter; unfortunately, the conversation I want to have after reading it is how meaningless it is to continue to shape the conversation in terms of polar opposites. Here, I’m agreeing with Jim Wallis, the other foreword writer, who despite perpetual prodding from Olasky, refuses to identify himself as “a man of the left.” Instead, he writes, “‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are political categories. They are not religious terms. And when religion tries to fit into political categories; religion gets distorted–always.” I agree with Wallis, and I think that before the actual authors of the book even get started, their purpose for writing is undone.
The conversation that my family will have around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, if I have my way, will be about the fruitlessness of trying to justify a particular political ideology with Biblical reasoning. But this is precisely what Harper and Innes must do in this book. For her part, Harper seems less comfortable doing so. She, like Wallis, at times seems uncomfortable with her label. Innes, on the other hand, seems intent on jamming Christianity into a conservative category. His belief in conservative political ideology shapes his faith it seems, as opposed to the other way around. Thus, he can extrapolate from Paul’s letter to Timothy where Paul urges Timothy to pray for all people, including kings and people in high positions, that:
God’s purpose for civil government is that it provide an umbrella of protection for person and property that frees people to go about their business undisturbed, whether by neighbor or by government itself, providing for themselves, their neighbors, their community as whole, and anyone whom they find in need.
This is very clearly the thrust of conservative ideology, but Innes has to do some serious stretching in order to Biblically bless his conservative idea of government.
But Innes isn’t the only one to blame for this awkward theological yoga lesson. The premise of the book itself requires both authors to do precisely what Wallis warns against. There is nary a mention in here that maybe–just maybe–a Christian view of politics isn’t left or right, but some other viewpoint entirely. Harper starts to get at this truth; in her chapter on the role of government, she writes, “The liberal/conservative polemic is a product of the modern era–an era shaped by the tyranny of ‘either/or’ constructs.” But, by nature of the book she is writing, she has to perpetuate that tyranny.
Christians are comfortable with understanding our way of life as an alternative to prevailing trends, even when not necessary. This is why we have Christian popular culture. But, when it comes to politics we keep rehearsing this act of trying to fit into a category; we choose too eagerly between left and right, rather than choosing Christ. I’m guilty of this, and that is why when I first heard about Left, Right & Christ, I hoped it would offer a constructive glimpse into that third way. Instead, it affirms what ails us. As I noted earlier, the end result of reading this book is cheering or jeering a particular side, instead of superseding them. I know I need help with this; I think we all do.
Come to think of it, Thanksgiving dinner conversation might be relatively tame this year.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the managing editor of Patrolmag.com, and writes on the various manifestations of Christianity in culture. Follow him on Twitter or at his website, www.jonathandfitzgerald.com. Fitzgerald’s column, “In Progress,” is published every Wednesday on the Patheos Progressive Christian Portal.