Faith and Politics Book Review Series (Part II): Good and Bad Ways To Think About Religion And Politics

29 September 2020

In part 1 of this blog series we reviewed Johnathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage as it laid a foundation for talking about faith and politics. Leeman helped us think through important topics such as the purpose of government and the church. Robert Benne’s book, Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics, which we will review here in part 2, builds on the first books foundation. 

Benne, who teaches Christian Ethics at the seminary and collegiate level,  elicits two main categories for bad ways to think about politics: the Separationists and the Fusionsists. The non-religious Separationists want to separate religion from politics for several reasons, whether it is the idea that religion is irrational or the fear that political theology will turn into a theocracy. Benne quickly begins to help the reader to respond to these fallacies in a constitutional, historical, practical, and theological manner. 

Moreover, if the non-religious Separationists want to keep religion out of politics, the religious Separationists want to keep politics out of religion. As Benne gives some examples of specific sectarians, the main theme that runs throughout is a Pacifist’s approach to the public square and politics. “The world has been given over to Satan, and so we must retreat until God comes back to renew this forsaken world.” This is the thought of the sectarian. However, Benne rightly observes that in retreating, “…this leaves God the Father, – Creator, Sustainer, Judge – out of the picture and thereby violates the First Article of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. All classical Christian traditions hold that God is actively involved in and sovereign over the world and its history…Christians cannot give up on the world; they must actively participate in God’s care for the world, even if that means involvement in coercive activities such as politics” (p. 21).

So, if separating religion from politics should be avoided, fusing religion and politics should be as well. Benne calls this camp the Fusionists, which he defines as “the undue combining of religion and politics” (p.26). Like the Separationists, non-religious people occupy the Fusionists camp. This looks like a politician or political party who has no regard for religion or religious claims except for using it as a tool for political gain. Next, Benne highlights how religion can be fused into a nation, tribe, or ethnic group. As a result, religion can become “deeply interconnected, with ambiguous results…the fusion almost always serves the nation or tribe or ethnic group rather than the faith itself” (p. 30).

The non-religious do not occupy the Fusionists camp alone, the religious do as well. Benne closes with examples of Straight-Line Thinking: “persons [who] believe in the religion they are fusing with politics. They believe that there is so much affinity between the central claims of the faith they hold and their favored political policies that the two are scarcely distinguishable” (p.31). Straight-Line Thinking can be done in intentional ways and unintentional ways in which Benne unfolds further. 

Chapters four through five move towards good ways to think about politics. Benne, in chapter four starts with the core beliefs of the Christian faith. This is crucial because, as Benne reminds us, “Christianity is not first of all a religion of moral obligation or achievement. It is essentially a religion of salvation, one in which God reaches out in Christ with saving grace for repentant souls…” (p.41). Benne describes that it is only when individuals or communities respond to the core beliefs that “the moral force…has implications for politics.” Benne provides a guide moving forward from the core deriving three politically relevant principals from it (e.g. “Humans as Exalted but Fallen”). He then wraps up the critical engagement chapter by highlighting conditioning factors when individuals or communities do move from core beliefs to political policy (e.g. Family Culture and History). This chapter is helpful due to the honesty that Benne gives about the difficulty moving from core beliefs to public policy. It is not as easy as some might think. Good Christians, even from differing traditions, when moving outside of core beliefs, might derive different principals or implications. This should instill in all of us humility, create space for dialogue, and cause us to eagerly seek God’s wisdom when dealing with this process. 

The last chapter deals with practical engagement in the public square. Benne proposes that religion impacts public policy indirectly and directly. An indirect approach, to the reader’s surprise (maybe), is one of the biggest impacts religion can have. That is, organized religion lays claim to morality and the binding of conscience. The church teaches its laity through various forms (e.g. from the pulpit, Sunday School, study groups, etc…) and then the laity goes forth to impact public policy through voting or joining faith-based voluntary associations to influence policy from religious moral convictions. Another way that churches are able to influence public policy is by a direct approach. Churches as institutions can choose to speak out against moral evils and use more coercive measures. This would entail using its power, money and resources for the sake of a specific policy or public matter. 

As Benne is describing these different approaches, especially the direct approach, the reader can see the humility and care in the chapter. Benne lays out many guardrails, warnings and nuances when describing the indirect and direct approaches. At the end of the chapter, Benne writes a helpful reminder: “…there are instances of injustice in this society and in the world when the church might responsibly engage in direct action. But it should be done so with full awareness that what it is doing ought to be temporary and infrequent” (p.112).

This book is for all Christians looking to engage in politics well. The book gives us a methodology for bridging the gap between religion and politics. Benne will peel back some of the reader’s possible blinders pertaining to certain conditioning factors that we all may face. The goal is to bring to bear, as best we can, the core beliefs of the Christian faith, with wisdom and care, into the public square. This may be difficult at times, but is necessary for Christians who would promote love and justice in the places we live. 

Editors Note: You can purchase the book here

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