A few months before the 1996 election, a stack of voting guides showed up at my nondenominational church in suburban Chicago. The guides contained candidates’ headshots and positions on a series of hot-button political issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and congressional term limits. Our church was one of approximately 125,000 to receive them, according to their source—the Christian Coalition, which had emerged out of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential campaign. Under federal tax-exemption laws, the Coalition guide could not explicitly endorse any candidates; it simply highlighted issues that ought to be high priorities for churchgoing evangelicals. The not-so-subtle messaging: Do the political math, and you will know who is on the side of the angels.
As a precocious preteen, I occasionally heard rumblings of interesting adult conversations during coffee hour. The guides provoked a controversy that caught my attention immediately. Should the leaflets be inserted into the church bulletins? What kind of theological or political statement would that make? For a church whose ecclesiology swung as low as the Gaither band’s baritone, this was our only substantive liturgical debate of the year. I listened intently in the narthex and later studied the guide at home. For me, it seemed like a great political awakening at the time.
In The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship, Daniel K. Williams takes aim at the facile Christianization of partisan politics, on both the Left and the Right. There is an evangelical instinct, he thinks, to assume that one party’s platform is firmly aligned with biblical values. On the Right, pro-life advocacy dovetails with free-market ideology and stricter immigration policy. On the Left, advocacy for the poor and marginalized goes hand in hand with abortion rights and support for same-sex marriage. Progressive and conservative evangelicals alike assume that the Bible votes a straight ticket.
Williams, a historian, has written books on the development of the Christian Right and the lesser-known, rather surprising story of pro-life politics before Roe v. Wade. This new book marks a genre shift: from purely descriptive historical analysis to acknowledging and even relying upon his own theological commitments. And in an even more striking departure, Williams steps out to propose an alternative set of Christian political stances on contemporary hot-button issues.
This is not to say that The Politics of the Cross is light on actual historical work. Williams’s first two chapters in particular document what we might call the religious personalities of the Republican and Democratic parties. He describes the former as a kind of evangelical moralism and the latter as “secularized liberal Protestantism.” Both parties have an evangelistic fervor that informs their platforms to this day. But even though you might trace the historical path from Billy Sunday to Jerry Falwell on the Right, or from Walter Rauschenbusch to William J. Barber II on the Left, the path is rather convoluted. According to Williams, neither tradition universally and neatly coheres with biblical and theological truths.
The intuition behind Williams’s project is that a truly Christian politics—which he calls “cross-centered”—will likely adopt policies from the Left and the Right. While he thinks the moral values of the right tend to be more biblically informed, he suggests that they are often best protected through a strategic appropriation of progressive politics. For instance, he suggests, the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions may not be through the Supreme Court, but through progressive social policies that make it less likely for an impoverished teenage girl to think abortion is her only choice.
Four controversial issues set the agenda for the main part of the book—two high priorities for conservative evangelicals (abortion and sexuality) and two that have historically motivated their progressive counterparts (race and poverty). Judicious is the word to describe Williams’s handling of each. He is nuanced and unpresumptuous, and admirably unconcerned with whether his final conclusions will satisfy those to his ideological right or left.
In each issue-focused chapter, key political actors—from Ida B. Wells to Billy Graham to Donald Trump—are ushered on and off the historical stage in ways that dramatize how our polarized ideologies came to exist. Williams enjoys drawing out political ironies on both sides, whether it is the inconsistency of a pro-life platform that focuses myopically on human life before birth or—as he says—a pro-choice platform that fails to count the unborn among the marginalized. There are few better antidotes to uncritical orthodoxies than good, painstaking historical spadework, as this book shows.
But the lessons aren’t merely historical. Williams aims to offer biblical, theological, and political analysis of some of the most divisive issues in contemporary Christianity.
Each of Williams’s chosen hot-button issues receives the same careful attention that guides his historical analysis. For instance, on abortion, Williams leads readers through key scriptural texts, noting that although abortion itself is never explicitly addressed, it is possible to discern relevant moral principles about the value of human life and procreation. Similarly, on wealth and poverty, Williams draws attention to segments of the Mosaic Law that prescribe debt forgiveness and the liberation of slaves. It is easy to see how cookie-cutter ideologies, on both the Left and Right, are too neat and narrow to account for what Karl Barth once called “The Strange New World within the Bible.”
As a survey of relevant biblical texts and theological principles on these four issues, Williams’s book is helpful. As a constructive program, however, it is ultimately unsatisfying.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with ordering à la carte from the Republican and Democratic menus. In practice, it seems unwise to do so without a holistic and robustly theological vision of political life. Although Williams desires a third-way approach, he is still offering an issue-driven checklist. It is piecemeal politics—vastly preferable to the ham-fisted Christian Coalition pamphlets, but nevertheless similar in form and function.
In describing and defending his scriptural, issue-centered approach, Williams claims the Reformed tradition as his heritage. But I suspect that Williams is actually describing an American evangelical instinct. Proof-text politics is generally foreign to classic Reformed theology, as it is to the greater part of the Christian tradition stretching back from Calvin to Aquinas to Augustine.
Johannes Althusius, one of my favorite Reformation-era political thinkers, described politics as the art of sharing life together. As an art form, politics aims to cultivate the practices and institutions that make communal life an invaluable good. For many of us, describing politics as an art rather than a set of policies requires a radical shift in perspective. We are accustomed to thinking about which candidate, party, or platform we should support every two to four years. But for all their importance, elections are a blink of the eye; the majority of political life is what happens in between.
How do we love our neighbor at the town hall, the dog park, the school board meeting, the abortion-clinic protest, or the Black Lives Matter rally? What do we owe to those we find disagreeable, unfamiliar, or even hateful? How do we ensure that every member of society can enjoy the goods of social life, rather than just the few, the powerful, and the native-born? What civic virtues should we cultivate in ourselves and our church communities to better suppress the temptations of unprincipled power, uncritical partisanship, and ethnic nationalism?
These are hard—but inescapably foundational—questions. And, perhaps unwittingly, they reveal an uncomfortable truth made especially evident over the past several years. To appropriate Mark Noll’s famous assessment in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, the scandal of evangelical political theology is that it does not really exist. Checklists, pamphlets, and partisan platforms are easy to manufacture, but without theological anchors, they are driftwood on the shifting sea of political power. Or perhaps more troubling, they suggest that an attraction to raw power may be written into the political DNA of evangelicalism, as historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez suggests in her recent book Jesus and John Wayne.
Of course, The Politics of the Crossattempts to save evangelical politics from partisan temptations. It is an admirable effort, but I harbor doubts about its effectiveness. The problem is, in part, one of audience and persuasion. In short: Whose political imagination should we try to capture, and how best should we capture it? Does Williams want to convince the Trump-voting 81 percent? The ex-evangelical Antifa activist? Or the few in the middle? And beyond that, will his careful, issue-based analysis draw many toward this third-way politics?
My original political awakening—or so I thought—was seeing all the policy dots connected via a church bulletin insert. That proved as fleeting as Republican support for congressional term limits. I suspect that any hopes for a second, longer-lasting awakening among evangelicals will arrive not via proof-text politics, but through an encounter with the rich historic tradition of theological reflection on the common good, as developed by figures like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Day, and Gustavo Gutiérrez.
The Spirit works in mysterious ways, but redemptive history shows that he is especially present with those who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. We have a cloud of witnesses who exemplify these virtues, who weave together the threads of biblical narrative, theological reflection, and political visions of the good life. The lingering question is whether the witnesses will be heard in this uncritically partisan age.
David Henreckson is the director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Immortal Commonwealth: Covenant, Community, and Political Resistance in Early Reformed Thought.
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