Civil Religion and the Presidency, by Richard Pierard and Robert Linder (Zondervan, 348 pp.; $14.95, paper). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist with Copley News Service. He is author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).
When church and state intertwine, as they have throughout history, the political has almost always subsumed the spiritual. That was not only the case in Constantinian Rome, but is the case in democratic America, where Presidents have consistently practiced a “civil religion” tying their temporal political objectives to God’s transcendent purposes. The result has been to de-Christianize American national life: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,” declared President-elect Dwight Eisenhower in December 1952.
Unfortunately, Eisenhower is not the only American President to use “God words” to bolster the legitimacy of both his administration and the nation state. And in Civil Religion and the Presidency, Richard Pierard and Robert Linder document this disturbing misuse of religion, studying in detail how nine U.S. Presidents, who ranged from irreligious to devout, related God to public life.
One of Pierard and Linder’s most fascinating discoveries is that pious Presidents are equally capable of abusing the gospel by linking it to temporal national goals. William McKinley, for instance, was by all accounts a devoted Christian, yet he confused an unprovoked war against Spain and the unjustified annexation of the Philippines with the “startling providence of God.” Even worse, many religious leaders supported McKinley, viewing his conquests as a divine opportunity to expand their missionary work.
Abraham Lincoln, in contrast, had an uncertain faith, though he appeared to grow more orthodox in office. But Lincoln acted in a “prophetic” role, citing religion in a sacrificial call to fulfill transcendent ideals rather than in a self-serving attempt to promote national aggrandizement, as did McKinley.
One of the most sincere Christian Presidents was Jimmy Carter, who thought deeply about his faith and his responsibilities as a Christian. Not only did he not use religion for political gain, but he discussed, privately, the gospel with other world leaders and pleaded—apparently successfully—with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to allow greater religious freedom in his nation. In contrast, there is no evidence that Ronald Reagan—who, in Pierard and Linder’s words, “brought a new, highly charged religio-political climate to the White House”—has made a similar practical demonstration of his faith.
The authors criticize Reagan for using Christianity more than living it. But they mar an otherwise excellent analysis by including extraneous political attacks on Reagan. However justified the opinions they cite, they offer no similar critique of the other Presidents.
Pretense, Not Practice
Civil religion undeniably exists, but is it a good thing? ask Pierard and Linder. There are well-known advocates of civil religion, such as sociologist Robert Bellah and educator John Dewey. Yet civil religion has often offered only the pretense of shared values that are ignored in practice: “the bribery, cover-ups, payoffs, rigged elections, and blatant defiance of the law by public officials,” write Pierard and Linder, “reveals how civil religion lacked the power to establish justice or to deal with national arrogance, selfishness, pride, and folly.”
Were civil religion only ineffective, it would pose little cause for concern. But civil religion appears to have undermined the real gospel, turning it into a captive of passing political fancies. Pierard and Linder correctly warn that “civil religion comes dangerously close to blasphemy when it identifies God with the national destiny and in essence reduces the universal God of the Bible to the tribal god of America.”
Though Christians cannot wish away a practice that has dominated American political life since this nation’s founding, they can refuse to endorse civil religion. Then, conclude Pierard and Linder, Christians should read Scripture “through the decultured eyes of faith” and seriously apply God’s values in their personal lives and the public square. That is sage advice in a time when many clerics and politicians seem to have identified the transcendent message of Christ with the platform of one political party or another.
Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, by Marvin Olasky (Crossway, 246 pp.; $8.95, paper). Reviewed by E. Calvin Beisner, former editor of Discipleship Journal and author of Prosperity and Poverty (Crossway).
Few people go through the day without reading a newspaper or newsmagazine, seeing a television news report, or hearing a radio news broadcast. Yet few Christians are aware of the philosophical framework that determines the selection and manner of presentation of news reports, and they know little about how subtle techniques can make the same set of facts or pictures convey very different impressions.
To help us better understand today’s news media, Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, examines “the influence of worldviews on reporting” and how those views have shaped what we read, hear, and see. And through his examination of what the press used to be, he presents a compelling image of what it could become if more Christians were in the business.
A Christian world view shaped early American journalism, Olasky says. Reporters and editors “assumed that God is objective reality, with an existence independent of our minds,” and so considered it a matter of objectivity to report events in light of God’s sovereignty, mercy, and justice.
For example, an article in 1819 in the Boston Recorder reported the motive in a homicide: the suspect had been “for a long time troubled with irreligious fears, and a belief that his sins were too numerous to be pardoned.” Olasky’s anecdotes of how Christian journalists in early America used their trade to trumpet news—bad news, good news, and Good News—are an interesting and inspiring highlight of the book.
Theology for Non-Theologians, by James Cantelon (Macmillan, 273 pp.; $19.95, cloth). Reviewed by Reed Jolley, pastor of Santa Barbara (Calif.) Community Church.
At the start of his massive tome God, Revelation, and Authority, Carl F. H. Henry assures his readers that theologians do not sleep on Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. They use terms such as demythologize, dialectical, and linguistic analysis because such nomenclature is part of the inescapable vocabulary of the theologian.
James Cantelon disagrees. In Theology for Non-Theologians, he attempts to show that theology is not a jargon-bound endeavor, that it is accessible to everyday believers who have no formal theological training.
Cantelon, a clergyman living in Jerusalem, succeeds in presenting his reader with a credible and readable introduction to the doctrines of God and revelation, including the case for the existence of God, the nature of the God who exists, and the involvement of God with his creation.
Definition and digression
The author explains, for example, the doctrine of providence (“… providence means God governs all his creation, including man”), and argues that miracles (“God breaking his own rules”) are a present, though infrequent, reality in our world. He succinctly presents the doctrine of God’s self-revelation and the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.
Unfortunately, the author’s discussion on God’s self-revelation contains a lengthy digression contrasting false and true prophets in the Old Testament. Though often enjoyable, lengthy illustrative material found throughout the book is at times a distraction from the task at hand.
Cantelon writes simple, understandable, and orthodox theology. His book is indeed a worthwhile resource for pastors who want to stimulate an interest in theology in their congregation; or it could be used as a discussion primer for a highly motivated adult Sunday school class.
Unfortunately, a Christian world view has disappeared from the news media. Olasky traces its decline.
First, nineteenth-century journalists swallowed the materialistic, godless world view of the day. Objectivity became a matter merely of telling what could be seen, heard, and touched.
Next, as Hegelian and Marxist dialectical thought and Freudian psychology gained in popularity, journalists reached the conclusion that objective reporting was impossible, at least in the old sense of “telling it like it is.”
In its place came a new definition of objectivity: “balancing of subjectivities.” This meant “the reporter would forgo his own reporting in order to assemble as many reports from others as he could,” a method that “often suggested that there is no right or wrong, just opinion.”
It doesn’t take long, Olasky says, for “subjectivity-balancing” to collapse under its own weight. There simply are too many opinions; no reporter can cover them all. So the reporter makes his own subjective ideas the arbiter of newsworthiness. The result is what Olasky calls “disguised subjectivity”: a “strategic ritual” in which the reporter carefully selects those whose opinions he reports so that, taken as a whole, their testimony supports the conclusion he held before he began his “research.”
In light of this approach, Olasky explains how to be a discerning news consumer. He discusses how to identify a newspaper’s bias in headlines or a television station’s bias in the “framing” of a story, how to evaluate the reliability and fairness of the story itself, how to recognize flattering and unflattering camera work, and how to compare the coverage of a single story by different news outlets. Throughout the book, Olasky draws lessons from actual news events and reports.
In his concluding section, Olasky calls for a renaissance of Christians in the news media—not in “Christian news,” meaning reports of events from religious circles, but rather in direct competition with the secular media. Christians should cover the same stories, but from the perspective of biblical objectivity that brings God and his providence back into the story.
Technological advances have made starting newspapers so inexpensive that many competing voices can operate profitably in a single market, Olasky contends. In such an environment, Christians can add “salt and light” to news reporting. The results will be so much more interesting than those of the secular press, he says, that Christians can capture large audience shares. And biblical concern for truth can result in more accurate reports that will force the secular news media to be more careful in their own treatment of stories.
One weakness surfaces repeatedly in the book: Olasky fails to give concrete, sufficiently detailed attention to some of his broad suggestions. For instance, in discussing the rights and wrongs of sensationalism, he writes: “… discernment is vital if false inference from inadequate evidence is to be avoided.”
“Christian reporters are not inspired. In our zeal to apply Biblical explanations for tragedy, we must avoid premature explanation, exaggeration, or malicious whispering.” How can that be done? Such advice doesn’t appear.
Olasky obviously cares about journalists, Christian and non-Christian. And while he recognizes that some spiteful attacks on Christians are perpetrated by the news media, he does not claim that the press is consciously anti-Christian. Instead, he shows how reporters’ and editors’ world views make it next to impossible for them to understand Christian thought, ethics, and lifestyle. That, not meanspiritedness, underlies the distortions Christians frequently face in the news. And that world view is susceptible to sound Christian response through explanation and persuasion. Prodigal Press contributes to that understanding.
The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, by Russell Kirk (Regnery Gateway, 138 pp.; $17.95, cloth). Reviewed by James L. Sauer, director of library at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
Nowadays, few Christians are aware that “conservatism” is more than just a political action mailing list. But Russell Kirk, the “Old Man” of American conservatism—has made it the Christian philosophy of our time, blending the transcendental truths of the faith with the proverbial wisdom of Redeemed Man in community.
In Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, a title taken from a poetic line of G. K. Chesterton, Kirk gathers essays from his itinerant Heritage Foundation lecture series. He attempts to survey the prospect for a “conservative augustan age”—a hope that seems somewhat unreal in this era of Western decline. Nevertheless, he balances such a prospect with shrewd understanding of human nature and Christian hope.
A disciple of Edmund Burke, Kirk emphasizes the familial associations of life as the seedbed for human happiness and values. Virtue and wisdom, he believes, are not things that can be bought in the educational marketplace. You cannot pick up a video on truth, or gain character by cramming overnight. Virtue must be lived and loved into existence. Reformation must begin in the heart; renaissance must come in the home.
On family: “Some timid liberal souls ask me plaintively, from time to time, ‘Do we dare to have children?’ … I reply that being is better than non-being; that men and women are different, and hurrah for the difference; that all times are out of joint, and only courage sets them right; that if marriage and family are bothersome, what in life is worth bothering about?”
On education: “The function of liberal education is to conserve a body of received knowledge and to impart an apprehension of order to the rising generation.” Cultural illiteracy and relativism are the marks of our educational crisis. Christian education communicates a real body of knowledge and absolute standards of living.
On moral order: “Order, in the moral realm, is the realizing of a body of transcendent norms—indeed a hierarchy of norms or standards—which give purpose to existence and motive to conduct.”
Kirk reminds us that people, like societies, are fragile. They need to be tended, encouraged, disciplined. We are like sheep needing a shepherd. We need to be prodded by the law of God, cradled by the sacred.
Kirk’s vision revolves around eternal norms, what T. S. Eliot championed as the “permanent things.” Family, virtue, order, standards, the worship of God—these are the inheritances that a society gives to its young.
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