I enjoyed a lot of the day with the family, so I am not making all the headway I wanted in clearing out my pile of reviews to make.
My second post this weekend in cleaning up my desktop is a brief critique of Francis Beckwith's recent book, Politics for Christians. The subtitle is "Statecraft as Soulcraft", and an informed reader would think of a couple of things when seeing that phrase: the first is the book of the same name by George F. Will, and it's first only because it's the more-contemporary work considering this subject; the second is an slogan one can find in a lot of places in which Aristotle is said to have said, "statecraft is soulcraft." And if Aristotle said it, we shouldn't dig too deeply into it.
Dr. Beckwith has written an interesting and informative book about the philosophy of politics -- from an expressly- Aristotelian viewpoint. It's a book with I would say that any American who wants to think about a philosophically-neutral approach to politics shoal in fact read and consider deeply. I have to admit something: I think that if there's going to be a common and civil rejuvenation of American politics, it has to take an approach which Dr. Beckwith provides here. His approach is a sort of ad fontes approach to western and democratic republican politics, and let's face it: it's a strictly-informed view of the history of political thought for the sake of working our differences in the American system.
In that, I credit Dr. Beckwith with real patriotism, and real concern for the civil well-being of our country. I credit him with being someone with a conservative political bent who wants to offer civil peace to those he disagrees with in the hope that he can convince them of his point of view. It's an honorable thing to want our country to find ways to disagree about means but agree on the method of resolving the differences.
The problems with this book, however, start with the title: Politics for Christians. There is no way to frame what Dr. Beckwith has done here as explicitly "Christian" in any way -- and he is at least honest about why this is so as he explains his methodology:
Moreover, Christian who uncritically look to Scripture for guidance in politics run the risk of treating the church at one point in history (usually the first century) as the norm for the church's political involvement for all history. Although, as I argue in chapter two, the Bible does indeed offer principles for human conduct that may be applied universally and across time to a variety of political regimes, one must exercise care in extracting those principles from a church that was in its infancy and who's members were without any real cultural or political influence. What's interesting about this "chapter two" deferral of the uses of the Bible in developing a specifically-Christian political approach is when we get to chapter two, Dr. Beckwith says this:
Christian have largely embraced liberal democracy for four reasons: it affords them liberty to worship,  it protects the people's power to hold government accountable,  it allows citizens it participate by voting, … and  it seems consistent with and supported by a Christian understanding of the human person as well as the natural law and natural rights traditions that sprung from that understanding. Reason 4 -- the only theological reason -- is then deferred to chapter five, the shortest chapter in the book. And one hopes, since that is also the last chapter of the book, Dr. Beckwith will make his theological plea. When we get there, Dr. Beckwith says,
In chapter two we examined the idea of liberal democracy and the Christian's obligation as a citizen. We saw that a Christian may embrace this form of government without compromising his faith commitment.That's a confession of sorts by Dr. Beckwith. It turns out that by page 145 of his 165 page book, he hasn't really made a Christian case for politics: he's made a rational case why liberal democracy is not incompatible with Christian faith -- and that's fair enough. But let's turn the page and see where he's going:
But these rights [of citizens] imply a deeper understanding about the nature of human beings and the goods that are required for their flourishing. For example, if a human being possess by nature a right to life, this means that other members of the community are morally obligated not to violate that right to life.But this seems to imply something about human beings and their nature that is moral in quality, a sacredness that requires us to treat each other with a certain dignity and respect. Thus, natural rights imply a natural moral law.If this was another chapter on philosophical reasoning, so be it -- but this is Beckwith's attempt at Christian moral reasoning. And it is almost utterly bereft of his much- deferred use of the Bible to inform part of our thoughts on this matter. Another symptom of this problem is Beckwith's missing Scriptural index -- but it's missing for a very good reason: there's no Bible cited by this book to speak of.
So in reading this book, I was impressed by Dr. Beckwith's grasp of the philosophical history of liberal democracy. But for him to call it specifically "Christian" is at best self-congratulatory -- and for IVP to publish this as the first volume in its "Christian Worldview Integration" series is optimistic at best.
One last thing: it aggravates me when glib quotes are assigned to historically-significant people in order to make a point, and Dr. Beckwith does this with Aristotle. You cannot find Aristotle saying anywhere that "Statecraft is Soulcraft." I have the complete Aristotle on my iPod, and it's simply not there. But what one does find there instead is interesting. Here's what Aristotle actually said in Book 7, Part VIII of his Politics:
Let us then enumerate the functions of a state, and we shall easily elicit what we want: First, there must be food; secondly, arts, for life requires many instruments; thirdly, there must be arms, for the members of a community have need of them, and in their own hands, too, in order to maintain authority both against disobedient subjects and against external assailants; fourthly, there must be a certain amount of revenue, both for internal needs, and for the purposes of war; fifthly, or rather first, there must be a care of religion which is commonly called worship; sixthly, and most necessary of all there must be a power of deciding what is for the public interest, and what is just in men's dealings with one another. These are the services which every state may be said to need. For a state is not a mere aggregate of persons, but a union of them sufficing for the purposes of life; and if any of these things be wanting, it is as we maintain impossible that the community can be absolutely self-sufficing. A state then should be framed with a view to the fulfillment of these functions. There must be husbandmen to procure food, and artisans, and a warlike and a wealthy class, and priests, and judges to decide what is necessary and expedient.Isn't it odd that when Aristotle explicitly talks about the state, listing the specific functions of the state, he doesn't mention "soulcraft" or any of its cognates at all?
So why give is the rote but false statement on page 36 of this book, I wonder? It seems obvious to me: the objective of Dr. Beckwith is to conform Christian thinking to something the world can live with.
Dr. Beckwith's book is fine for showing us a sociological and philosophical understanding of how citizens might live in a liberal democracy. But to call this description of things "Christian" is much more than he actually achieves. If you want a primer in a secular view of politics, this book is top-shelf; if you want to consider an explicitly-Christian worldview to think about politics, it is not enough that someone who calls himself a Christian espouse the things between the covers. Read this book to see the current state of secular reasoning toward civil political discourse, but don't take it as face-value as the "Christian" solution.