Evangelicals On Politics

Politics, Americanism, and Christianity, by Perry C. Cotham (Baker, 1976, 335 pp., $5.95), Our Star-Spangled Faith, by Donald B. Kraybill (Herald Press, 1976, 215 pp., $2.50), The Shaping of America, by John Warwick Montgomery (Bethany Fellowship, 1976, 255pp., $5.95), Politics and the Biblical Drama, by Richard J. Mouw (Eerdmans, 1976, 143 pp., $2.95 pb), and Save America!, by H. Edward Rowe (Revell, 1976, 159 pp., $3.95), are reviewed by Stephen V. Monsma, member, House of Representatives, Lansing, Michigan.

These five books, all published during the United States’ bicentennial year, reveal both the quickening of the evangelical political conscience and the distance evangelicals have yet to go in developing even the basics of a Christian approach to politics. The five authors are deeply concerned with the American political system and the proper Christian attitude toward it, but they differ in their conclusions and even in many of their starting points.

There are two particularly important questions with which American evangelicals must struggle—and these five authors do—if they are to develop a basis for an active involvement in the social and political life of the nation.

One of these questions concerns the very need for and basis of Christian political involvement. Should Christians get actively involved in public policy decisions by gaining and exercising political power? If so, what should be the basis of that involvement?

A second question concerns the Christian’s attitudes toward the nation. How much importance should a Christian attach to the nation—and to the United States in particular? Is the United States—or any nation—a proper object of Christian concern and affection? Or is the nation to be seen as unimportant in God’s workings among mankind and perhaps even a positive evil?

In regard to the first of these questions, Mouw, Rowe, and Cotham all argue directly and explicitly for Christian political involvement. Mouw can be distinguished from Rowe and Cotham in that he argues for Christian political involvement largely in contrast to the non-political social activism of John Howard Yoder and others in the Anabaptist tradition, whereas Rowe and Cotham argue for Christian political involvement in contrast to a traditional pietistic separatism.

Mouw argues that government is not simply the result of the fall but would have been present even if mankind had not sinned. Thus in Mouw’s view politics is part of God’s intended ordering of human relationships, not an evil resulting from the fall. But sin has perverted politics into a manipulative relationship. Through Christ’s redemptive work and the action of his Church, politics is made to serve justice.

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Out of these foundations Mouw, in chapter 5, responds more directly to Yoder and the Anabaptist vision of bringing about societal change without a political involvement they view as unworthy of followers of Christ. Mouw argues for a Christian political involvement that will have the effect of coercing others but is not motivated by a desire to coerce others.

Mouw thereby builds a biblically rooted, systematic case for Christian political involvement. Whether or not the reader agrees with it, he or she will gain from Mouw’s valuable contribution to the continuing discussion of this crucial and divisive question.

While arguing against the apolitical position of Anabaptism, Mouw recognizes strengths and helpful correctives in Anabaptism. In doing so he forms a basis upon which Reformed and Anabaptist evangelicals can carry on their discussion to their mutual enrichment, rather than engaging in destructive polemics.

Cotham’s book is a broader, more inclusive work than the other four. But a central theme in it is the question of Christian political involvement. Cotham considers three options facing the Christian: non-involvement, political activism, and revolutionary, probably violent, action. He argues against non-involvement, for political activism, and basically against revolution. In a poorly reasoned section, he does, however, allow for the possibility of even violent revolution in extreme circumstances.

Cotham is especially strong in arguing against political non-involvement based on a traditional pietistic withdrawal from the world and its evils. His answers to possible objections to political activism are, however, somewhat overemphasized at the expense of a positive, biblically rooted basis for political involvement. Here Mouw is stronger. But Cotham, a political scientist rather than a philosopher like Mouw, is stronger than Mouw in recognizing the realities of political life and drawing out their significance for political involvement.

Regrettably, Cotham largely ignores the Anabaptist option of bringing about social and political change without actual political involvement. At one point he claims that a Christian who rejects political participation is saying that “Christianity is irrelevant to social problems.” Yoder and those of similar views would object strenuously to this, believing that Christians can—and that Christ did—affect social problems through non-political means. Thus Cotham fails to address himself to a question that is vital to much evangelical discussion.

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Rowe’s book too is a strong call for Christian political action. Like Cotham, he urges political action largely in contrast to a pietistic withdrawal from the world. Although Rowe makes a strong case that withdrawal truncates the full Gospel, which is relevant and redemptive in all areas of life, he does not build a systematic, biblical case for political activism. Instead he takes an overly pragmatic approach. He seeks to build a case for Christian political involvement on the basis of its chances for success and the need to save the United States. A more biblically based, systematic approach would lead one to stress healing and justice as they relate to individuals and social groups rather than the need to save the nation as a nation. Unfortunately, Rowe, like Cotham, ignores the Anabaptist alternative to political action being articulated by Yoder and others.

Montgomery and Kraybill touch less directly on the matter of Christian political involvement. Montgomery does clearly come out in favor of it. He thinks that for evangelicals political involvement should rest on a reformation perspective through which they seek to apply biblical insights to current policy problems. His critique of pietism and much of traditional American evangelicalism leads him to advocate a “law and Gospel” reformation perspective. This is not a matter of simply imposing Christian morals on all of society, he says, but of strengthening liberty and bringing “about an elevation of societal standards.”

Kraybill is largely concerned with civil religion in the United States and the tendency he sees in it to substitute the nation and loyalty to it for God and loyalty to him. In reacting to this form of idolatry, he so separates the Christian as a church member and the Christian as a citizen that he leaves little room for Christian political involvement. He does not explicitly draw this conclusion himself, but it is hard to draw any other from his arguments. His separation of church and state seems to lead to a separation of religion and state, which is a very different proposition.

After studying these five responses to the question of Christian political involvement, I concluded that we need to think more carefully about the basic nature of the state and its place in God’s ordering of human relationships. (Of the five authors, Mouw does the best job of this.) Is the state a necessary evil that God permits to exist in order to limit the effects of mankind’s sin? If so, direct Christian involvement in the state becomes very questionable. Or is the state part of God’s intended ordering of human relationships, which sin constantly threatens to corrupt and which Christ died to redeem? If so, Christian political involvement becomes a necessity. An answer to this basic question must come first.

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If one disagrees with Mouw and sees the state as an evil, then much of what Cotham, Rowe, and Montgomery say about involvement becomes irrelevant. But if one agrees with Mouw—as I do—that the state is part of God’s intended order, then Cotham and to a lesser degree Rowe are helpful in clearing away other, more practical objections to Christian political activism, and Montgomery is helpful in giving greater direction to that activism.

Concerning the second basic question that evangelicals must resolve if they are to be an active force in the social and political life of the nation—what should be the Christian’s basic attitude toward the nation?—Kraybill argues for the unimportance of the United States as a nation. He sees American civil religion as “an illicit church-state love affair” in which religious and political leaders support each other, corrupting themselves in the process. He argues that neither the United States nor any other nation is the special object of God’s favor and that the United States is not, and never has been, more “Christian” than other nations.

In so doing Kraybill presents a needed corrective to much of the easy identification of America and its policies with God’s will. Without such a corrective there is a constant danger that Christian political efforts will consist of little more than adding a frosting of pious words to essentially secular efforts, or will corrupt the Christian message of justice and righteousness with the idolatry of nation worship.

Having said this, I must add that I think things are not so simple as Kraybill would have us believe. I agree that the United States is not the object of God’s favor in a way that is true of no other nation. But does this mean it is improper, as Kraybill argues, to speak of God’s blessing the United States or to pray that he will guide the nation? Are national days of prayer, called by the government, wrong? Kraybill indiscriminately condemns any religious statement or reference by a political official and any and all religious acts or observances associated with government.

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What is lacking is a positive working out of the proper use of Christian values and insights by political officials. Ought the government to pretend we are a nation of atheists? I think not. We need a systematic and positive consideration of a proper Christian response to the state in a pluralistic society.

While Kraybill exemplifies the dangers in overly deprecating the nation, Rowe’s book exemplifies the dangers in overly glorifying it. For Rowe, the basic object of Christian political activism is more to save the nation than to establish justice. The title of the book, Save America!, proclaims this message, and the content confirms it. “The only real hope for the future of our nation lies in the political activism of our Bible-believing citizens,” he says. I am not certain that God wills the survival of the United States; I am certain he wills justice and righteousness.

Cotham, Montgomery, and Mouw all show a more balanced view of the nation than Kraybill and Rowe. Cotham defines civil religion broadly as beliefs, values, and myths concerning the nation that are held in common by the people of a nation. Civil religion can be either good or bad depending on the content of these beliefs. Cotham ably analyzes how civil religion can and does play a positive role in the United States, and how civil religion is sometimes misused. He sees what he calls apostate civil religion as merely legitimizing the status quo. Christianity then loses its prophetic voice.

Cotham goes on to consider the interplay of morality and political issues, what is a proper understanding of patriotism, the ways in which the United States can be considered a Christian nation, and the emerging problems the United States must face. In all of this he takes well-reasoned, balanced, and biblically based positions. I do not agree with all his conclusions. But that is not important. What is important is that he raises important issues, struggles to find positive approaches, and avoids basic errors that would distort all his conclusions.

Cotham views the American nation as a mix of strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failures, and the Christian citizen’s obligation as a mix of obedience and criticism, affection and distrust. Whether Cotham always comes up with the proper mix is arguable, but certainly he gets us off to a good start by recognizing that the Christian attitude toward the nation must take into account both the good and the bad and must call forth both acceptance and criticism.

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Montgomery offers a broad critique of American culture and society. In Part One, his strongest, he considers the four layers that have conditioned and molded American character and society: the preeighteenth-century era of explorers and Puritans who were Christian; eighteenth-century enlightenment, which retained a strong Christian influence; nineteenth-century pragmatism, which was thoroughly secular; and twentieth-century despair, which is a result of wars and the collapse of traditionally held values. Montgomery is at his best in this historical analysis, which suggests the ways in which the United States can and cannot be considered a Christian nation.

But Part Two, in which he seeks to give direction to Christian attitudes towards the United States, is spotty. He makes some valid, stimulating points and some weak, confusing ones. His theory about the influence of the frontier experience on the development of American character, leading to an adolescent outlook—while probably valid—is overemphasized and is not well integrated with his earlier discussion of the four layers that have formed America. His listing of the strong and weak points he sees in American society is a repeat of points frequently made by secular scholars, and it too is not well integrated with his earlier discussion.

In Montgomery’s view, America is burdened by an intellectual-theological development that has led it to a modern despair and by an adolescent mentality growing out of a frontier-conditioned history. Yet it is helped by a strong commitment to freedom. It is in this America that Montgomery calls Christians to witness and act.

Mouw considers the United States as a nation only indirectly in response to William Stringfellow’s attempts to identify the United States with the Babylon of Revelation 18. In contrast to the view that the United States is totally apostate, Mouw argues that empirically American society has redeeming strengths, and that theologically nations do have a legitimate role to play in God’s plan of salvation.

These five books reveal the disparity with which American Christian writers can view their nation. It seems clear to me that Montgomery, Mouw, and Cotham, who see both strengths and weaknesses in the nation and who call for both loyalty and distrust as components of the Christian’s attitude toward the nation, are closer to a proper approach than either Kraybill or Rowe, who move toward either total rejection of the nation or an overemphasis on it. Christians live in two worlds. We are citizens of heaven, and our true home is not this world. Yet God has placed us in time and space. We are citizens of a nation that gives us opportunities and freedom—incomplete and limited though they are.

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Out of this dual citizenship arises a tension that every Christian should feel. We must give to Caesar what is his and to God what is his. But what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? Montgomery, Mouw, and especially Cotham can help us answer that question.

Male And Female: A Catholic Perspective

Whither Womankind: The Humanity of Women, by Robert Kress (Abbey, 1975, 289 pp., $4.75 pb), is reviewed by Judy Brown Hull, elder, Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City.

Robert Kress unfolds primarily Roman Catholic history and theology in a biblical perspective with a heavy emphasis on pre-Reformation thought. The misogyny of most early church fathers is set in contrast with the biblical data. Kress found an occasional male in the early centuries of Christian history who believed something other than that women must be secluded from public and ecclesiastical life because they are by nature temptresses, weak of mind and body, and incomplete. He finds no biblical warrant to prevent the ordination of women to the priesthood, but he does find much tradition and precedent to explain such a view.

This survey could well engage those who have rejected a Christian feminist position because of such excesses among some in the modern women’s movement as denigrating motherhood and embracing a unisex position. Kress scores the movement with the warning of Jesus that sometimes the condition after liberation from demonic forces can be worse than the prior state. He accuses pro-abortionists of adopting the same stance toward the fetus that chauvinist males take toward women: both view “the other” as objects to be manipulated for one’s convenience and not as human persons of value in their own right.

Kress is relentless in affirming that women and men are equally created in the image of the personal, caring, involved God who can be called both Father and Mother and who can be as validly represented to humanity by feminine forms as by masculine. He is equally relentless in accusing the secular and radical Catholic feminists of throwing out the good with the bad, and he calls for more work on discovering the basic meaning of male and female.

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Pitiful Pike: A Biography

The Death and Life of Bishop Pike, by William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne (Doubleday, 1976, 469 pp., $10), is reviewed by John Warwick Montgomery, professor at large, Melodyland Christian Center, Anaheim, California.

Stringfellow and Towne are the authors of The Bishop Pike Affair, which defended Pike as a Luther-like hero subjected to persecution by hidebound, fusty Episcopal bureaucrats who still thought that heresy trials were possible. Now they have written a stream-of-consciousness, flashback biography of America’s “church alumnus.” The inversion in the title is not accidental: the details of Pike’s death in the Judean desert in September, 1969, form the structure of the book; the colorful and sometimes bizarre facts of his life are sandwiched in between and are sometimes curiously blended with the discussion of his death.

This arrangement appears very odd until one realizes that this book is hagiography: a saint’s life is being set forth, and just as St. Sebastian is primarily remembered at the dramatic moment he became a human pincushion, so Stringfellow and Towne see Pike through the prism of his death under the desert sun of the Holy Land. They have no difficulty in describing his death as a “death to self in Christ.”

Does the life of a saint in fact emerge from this adulatory work? What emerges is no less than a human shambles. Some points: two of Pike’s three marriages ended in divorce; his son, whose “biggest problem may have been his father” (p. 22), committed suicide after severe drug and homosexual involvements; his daughter apparently also attempted suicide but did not succeed at it; a secretary-mistress with whom Pike was having an adulterous relationship committed suicide (her suicide note read: “You are unloving.… I needed hope. You never offered it—never once offered it”); Pike’s third marriage was preceded by adultery (“On that fateful Saturday night in November, Jim and Diane, by grace of the new morality and the old absolutes, had sex.… As of July 25, 1967, Bishop Pike, having been for some time unhappily married and unhappily mistressed and happily mistressed, was happily mistressed only and well on his way to becoming happily married only”—pp. 80, 149); his final years were spent in tacky spiritualistic activity with such doubtful purveyors of the art as Hans Holzer; and his “jettisoning of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation” (as he announced it in the February 22, 1966, Look magazine) was eventually followed by his jettisoning of his episcopal office and membership in the institutional church altogether. Even to an observer who had all the good will in the world, such a life would seem utterly irreconcilable with the portrait of the New Testament saint—to say nothing about the New Testament bishop.

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But did Pike “come around” to the biblical Gospel at the end? Francis Schaeffer has hinted as much, emphasizing his public dialogue with the bishop at the University of Chicago. Regrettably, Schaeffer’s efforts to love Pike back were anything but successful: the organizers of the dialogue wrote me that they were deeply disappointed with the absence of clean confrontation (the reaction of the uncommitted in the audience was that both speakers “really believed the same thing”), and my own week with Pike at the McMaster University Teach-In in November, 1967, made it perfectly plain to me that his theology was utterly un-Christian (see my Suicide of Christian Theology, pp. 17–61). At McMaster, the bishop, like a movie entertainer, seemed interested only in the gratifications of contact with his public; he was incapable of any sustained theological discourse and impatient with the suggestion that the Bible (or anything else, for that matter) could have authoritative judgment over his opinions. At one point he actually said, in setting himself up as an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and denigrating St. Paul: “If, like me, you people had withstood the blazing desert sun in the Near East, you would understand Paul’s exaggerations.”

Pike did not have the stature of a classical tragic hero or even that of a great heretic, but lessons can indeed be learned from his biography, chief among them being that no talents, however great, can preserve from destruction one who trifles with God’s Word. Other lesser benefits to the reader of this work: insight into the world of today’s mediumistic activity, poltergeists, and the occult, and contact with the only slightly less dubious world of contemporary radical theology (Bishop John Robinson and company).

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