Author: Watson, Micah J
Date published: July 1, 2011
Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics. By Robert Benne. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010. 119 pp. $14.00.
Robert Benne was motivated to write this slim volume on religion and politics by his frustration, even outrage, elicited by other treatments of these perennial subjects. Such an indictment might lead to a lengthy tome detailing what other approaches lack and proposing an alternative that would pass the high bar that others had failed. Such a book might be helpful for academicians and theorists but would likely not find its way into the hands of interested laypeople and busy clergy. The great virtue of Benne's book is that it lays out a thoughtful framework for thinking about religion and poUtics that is, if not comprehensive, accessible enough for nonspecialists while substantive enough to be worth their time.
Benne achieves this by helpfully categorizing better and worse approaches to his subject. His second chapter criticizes two camps of separationists: those who wrongly equate the separation of church and state with a separation between religion and politics and see religion as a threat to a liberal society and those who seek to protect religion from the corrupting influence of governmental meddling. Of the first camp, comprised mainly of secularists, Benne rightly observes that their worries about theocracy are overblown and their concerns disproportionately revolve around conservative expressions of religious political activism. About liberal activism, as practiced by the Washington offices of many mainline denominations, secular separationists say little. Benne finds the concerns of the second camp more salutary, but finds this expression of separationism too susceptible to sectarianism and not attentive enough to God's role as Lord of all creation and his call to his followers to act for justice in and out of the church.
While there are some who go overboard in separating religion and politics, others tie them too closely together. Benne's third chapter describes the errors of fusionists: those who too easily blend their religious identities with their preferred political outcomes. Benne notes that some of these actors are merely cynical manipulators of religion while others are genuinely religious but misunderstand how difficult it is to derive specific policies from the fundamental theological truths of the Christian faith. What results from these attempts is a confusion of eternal ends with pragmatic and shifting earthly means. This confusion not only endangers the prospects for healthy politics but also hurts the witness of the church. Moreover, it offers ammunition to the separationists.
This begs the question then of how Christians should think about their faith and its implications for their role as citizens sharing their polis with others who do not share their faith. Benne's fourth and fifth chapters bear the burden of answering this question. One component of this answer is Benne's description of the different stages of thinking that we pass through in moving from core Christian principles to public policy. Drawing from his Lutheran faith without excluding other expressions of Christian faith, Benne winsomely describes the big picture story that Christianity tells about the world and argues that we can derive Christian approaches from the core story but only after acknowledging the ways in which our particular circumstances (ethnicity, class, etc.) color our views and so long as we do not too easily identify particular policies with the core truths of the gospel.
Benne focuses in his final chapter on the practical role for church bodies and their involvement in politics. He proposes a schema of four approaches to engagement- two indirect and relatively uncontroversial and two direct and more problematic. The first approach is seen in Christians merely acting as Christians in the broader society. The church, by being the church, has a salutary effect on its members, and these members act as salt and light among their neighbors. The second approach is when a church intentionally inculcates a specific moral and political teaching- say about abortion or segregation-and Christians then take this teaching out into the world.
The third and fourth modes Benne describes as direct. When a church attempts to affect social policy through persuasion, this is an example of the church acting as social conscience. An even more involved stance is taken when a church takes direct action to instantiate a policy, and Benne describes these actions as coercive, though here the category is so broad as to include both Constantine's endorsement of Christianity and Protestant denominations divesting from companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. With the exception of the church directly wielding political power, there are no hard and fast rules about which approach is best for what circumstance. That said, Benne helpfully points out the dangers that accompany both an overly direct religious involvement and a church that too easily shrinks from speaking out about injustice.
If there is shortcoming to the book it is that Benne does not equip his readers to take the next step in their education by providing citations or a list of suggested further readings. Nevertheless, Benne's book acts as a helpful introduction to the intersection of religion and politics and offers some clarifying concepts that will benefit Christian laypeople and clergy alike.
Micah J. Watson