04 September 2010

Weekend Extra #2: Politics & Christians

by Frank Turk

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. [34]
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:[1] it affords them liberty to worship, [2] it protects the people's power to hold government accountable, [3] it allows citizens it participate by voting, … and [4] 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. [59]
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.[145]
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.


Robert said...

I don't much care for how this book sounds, but I would love to hear a good discussion on the role of Christians in politics. I'd go into more depth, but don't want to wind up off topic. Hopefully this can be something for a future post, though.

Solameanie said...

Frank, I have to say I am impressed. The post, of course, but more so that you have the complete Aristotle on your iPod.

It's cool to see someone use an iPod for things other than ear candy.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Does the book have anything to say about spiritual formation? I ask, because Aristotle certainly thought that character formation was necessary for right political action. I don't know where the "statecraft is soulcraft" slogan comes from but I am sure it relates to things like this:

"This is why a youth is not a suitable student of political science; for he lacks experience of the actions in life, which are the subject and premises or our arguments. Moreover, since he tends to follow his feelings, his study will be futile and useless; for the end [of political sciences] is action, not knowledge. It does not matter whether he is young in years or immature in character, since the deficiency does not depend on age, but results from following his feelings in his life and in a given pursuit; for an immature person, like an incontinent person, gets no benefit from his knowledge. But for those who accord with reason in forming their desires and in their actions, knowledge of political science will be of great benefit."


"Our present discussion does not aim, as our others do, at study; for the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us. And so we must examine the right ways of acting; for as we have said, the actions also control the sorts of states we acquire."

These are quote from Aristotle and they are definitely worthy digging into deeply.

Frank Turk said...

Adam --

Doesn't Aristotle sound remarkably like the Pharisees? No one here would deny that sanctification follows justification, right? So using the state to make people better people is a failing strategy -- because our moral goodness does not come from trying to figure out and then do all the good things: it comes from Christ.

The book does not, btw, speak to spiritual formation -- it speaks to how the civil law informs the common citizen. But oddly enough, it also misses the point broadly that Rom 13 says unequivocally that the way the Christian lives ought to surpass the requirements of the law.

Very odd. I wonder if he's read James Davison Hunter's book yet.

evangelicalcalvinist.com said...

Frank said:

. . . Dr. Beckwith has written an interesting and informative book about the philosophy of politics -- from an expressly- Aristotelian viewpoint. . . .

So nothing else about the book should be a surprise. Beckwith is a Thomist in orientation; which makes his return to Rome make total sense. His thinking on natural law and the outside/in approach (fake it till you make it . . . the habitus); or appeal to virtue ethics all makes sense.

I could go on, and try to beat my favorite drum on Thomism/Aristotelianism and "RO"; but I'll refrain. Thanks for the review.

bou2010 said...

Os Guinness wrote a book, "The Case for Civility" that's along the same lines and is pretty good.

I think behind all of the trouble with America and its politics, we should see the sovereign hand of God in control no matter what.

Rob Bailey said...

The tone and structure of the writing sounds so contrived. Even the quotes you put forth are nearly nauseating. I don't think I could make it through the whole book' especially since politics is my least favorite subject.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

My reply: http://romereturn.blogspot.com/2010/09/frank-turks-review-of-politics-for.html

As for Adam's query, "yes," in several places, including a sizeable portion of chapter 4 when I expound on "perfectionism" and liberal democracy, I discuss character formation. It is in terms of the "moral ecology" of communities and how they shape and influence the character of its citizens. Here's an excerpt:

Because human beings are diverse in their abilities, talents and gifts, a free society with a perfectionist understanding would be one in which a full array of rights would be in place so that a wide variety of citizens would be able to lead flourishing lives and thus contribute to the common good. So, for example, freedom of expression, religious liberty, freedom of association, ownership of private property and personal privacy are liberties that are necessary so that citizens may be able to make informed judgments in light of their own talents, abilities, interests and beliefs. However, these liberties are not ends in themselves. For instance, unless friendship and knowledge are goods, the freedoms of association and expression are pointless. Moreover, certain types of non-liberal associations—e.g., families, churches, civic groups—play an important role in the moral and social formation of the nation’s citizens. Families, for example, are non-democratic institutions (i.e., children don’t vote for their Dad and Mom) that provide a pride-of-place for the protection and moral formation of children, the sanctity of the marital bond, and a private community in which we all first learn how to treat and care for others. Thus, the perfectionist maintains, paradoxically, that liberal democracy functions best when non-liberal institutions are afforded certain liberties to flourish so that they may do
their part in advancing the common good.

Thus, the community has an interest in ensuring that these good and important culture-shaping institutions are not undermined by other practices. For this reason, in a perfectionist regime, the community may rightly exclude from social legitimacy many apparently private practices, such as polygamy, unregulated distribution and consumption of pornography, wife-swapping, homosexual “marriage,” child-marriage, honor killings, racist policies or consensual adult incest. The community may try to achieve its end in numerous ways including total prohibition, such as in thecases of honor killings and child marriage, where severe and direct harm to innocent third parties takes place.

However, because the Christian perfectionist is committed to the Pauline precept, “if it be possible . . . live peaceably with all men” (Rom
12:18), he must be extremely careful that the policies he supports (when third-party harms are not at issue) are not draconian and that the tone in which he offers them is not disrespectful of the citizens with whom he
disagrees. For this reason, Christians must make it clear to their fellow citizens that it is for the purpose of nurturing and protecting the common good and for the sake of the dignity of all persons, including those with whom they disagree, that they offer and support these policies.

In this regard, the great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) points out that “human government,” as Paul (Rom 13:1-7)
and Peter (1 Pet 2:11-17) each claim, “is derived from the Divine government.” For this reason, Thomas writes, the former should imitate the latter: “Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless
He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or
greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): ‘If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.’”

Frank Turk said...

[cross-posted to Dr. Beckwith's blog, pending his admin approval]

Dr. Beckwith --

Thanks for your response; I'm flattered to warrant a label at your blog. :-)

You say this:

In chapter 5, I offer an argument for natural rights having their source in God (not unlike C. S. Lewis' argument in Mere Christianity). Frank is disappointed because he was seeking what he calls "a theological plea." Because "theology" literally means "the study of God," it seems to me that an argument that has God has its conclusion would qualify as theological. I suspect, however, what he means by "theological" is the sort of reasoning that one finds employed by preachers and Bible teachers expositing and exegeting Scripture.

To which I'd respond: it's true -- anything trying to pass itself off as reasoning about God is in so sense "theological". The problem, however, is that we're looking for an explicitly-Christian theology here to inform our thinking, aren't we?

I'd be willing to stipulate all the Scripture verses in your response here as your use of Scripture to make your point -- but it turns out your point is that the Christian can only interact with the lost politically from a natural law basis, and that point is not explicitly Christian.

I think your interaction with those topics is interesting and, as I said in my review, useful for a general discussion of civics -- I think it's an utterly-true fact that the Christian really can participate in any form of government as a good citizen based on these principles.

The questions which I think you leave unanswered and perhaps even unasked are these: why does Christianity always seem to upset the political apple cart? Is there something about an explicitly-Christian worldview that causes Caesar to be threatened? In that, how much is too much, and when are Christians called to suffer rather than fight?

Your book is good for teaching merely-civil engagement. But somehow Paul and Silas were persecuted rather than commended for their work, and Paul ultimately faced death for his work which Rome saw as politically dangerous. You don;t encounter much of that in your book; it seems to me those are issues you should have addressed as they are the explicitly-Christian ones, and also the explicitly-Christian theological questions.

Deb said...

I'm one who would be very interested in reading Mr. Beckwith's book. Although I'm theologically reformed, I hold to the five solas, and am dismayed about Mr. Beckwith's return to the RC, I must admit that the recent resurgence in reformed circles to the viable use of Natural Law (and some respect for Thomist approaches) in both politics and evangelism (e.g. VanDruden and WSC) has been a welcome addition to my studies and cultural application. (Not to mention a great spoiler to way too much of the theonomic stuff I've seen spinning up in many reformed circles lately.