In every era and cultural context, Christians have wrestled with how best to represent Christ in the realm of politics and public life. Our own 21st-century American moment is no exception. As the social and cultural “ground” has shifted beneath us, our interface with politics and public life has become especially challenging.
In our own attempt to carve out a path of faithful witness in this American moment, here are five books I think can be especially helpful. I’ll describe each book and then rank its level of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult. (You could give a Level 1 book to any friend or family member. A Level 5 might be required in a PhD seminar.)
1. Augustine, City of God
This is one of the greatest Christian texts ever written. Written in the context not only of the collapsing Roman empire but also the Pelagian controversy, Augustine provides a captivating strategy for being witnesses in the midst of a declining pagan empire. The African theologian argues that our political witness is one of the greatest public goods we could offer, even in a culture of anti-Christian skepticism. Warning: Because of its size and formidable prose, I recommend that you not read it in bed, lest you doze off mid-sentence and be crushed to death. (Level 4)
This book can be paired with Robert Dodaro’s Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Level 5), a significant treatment of Augustine’s political theology; Gerard O’Daly’s Augustine’s City of God (Level 3.5), a reader’s guide; and Curtis Chang’s Engaging Unbelief (Level 3), a slim volume exploring how Augustine draws on the Bible’s overarching narrative to great effect.
2. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism
This little book punches above its weight. Kuyper provides an in-depth perspective on his philosophy of society, “sphere sovereignty.” This book is the English translation of the Stone Foundation Lectures delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. B. B. Warfield oversaw the translation project, going so far as to reject the first (flawed) translation and commission a new cadre of translators. (Level 3.5)
This book can be paired with Peter Heslam’s Creating a Christian Worldview; Abraham Kuyper’s Collected Works in Public Theology (Level 3.5), a beautiful hardback collection of Kuyper’s writings; and Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper (Level 2), a short and personal introduction to Kuyper’s life and thought.
3. Richard John Neuhaus, American Babylon
Neuhaus employs his sharp mind and golden pen to show that the relativism of American universities has radically reshaped society and culture for the worse. (Level 3)
This book can be paired with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Level 5), a penetrating philosophical analysis of Western secularity, and Philip Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks (Level 5), a profound social and cultural analysis of Western secularity. Rieff divides world history into three eras and argues that only in the third era do the West’s cultural elite try to rip the sacred “rug” out from beneath social order. In so doing, our elite culture-makers are producing “deathworks”—cultural products and institutions that poison our society rather than revitalize it.
4. David Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions, 2nd ed.
This is the updated edition of Koyzis’s award-winning survey and critique of contemporary political ideologies. An excellent study in applying a Christian worldview to the regnant political options of our day. (Level 3.5)
This book can be paired with Richard Mouw and Sanders Griffioen’s Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay in Christian Public Philosophy (Level 4). In this fine little book, a public theologian and a social philosopher employ a Kuyperian framework of thought to address the problem of Christian faithfulness in a pluralistic society. Another good companion is Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church (Level 4). Leeman rejects modernity’s separation of religion and politics into discrete realms, arguing that the local church is a profoundly political assembly, an embassy of Christ the King. He explores the nature of Christ’s rule and the manner of its expression in our era between Christ’s two comings. Warning: if you think that the story of the world finds its destiny in the rise of democratic modernism, you will hate Leeman’s book. But, on the other hand, if you think it finds its destiny in the resurrection . . .
5. Francis Beckwith, Defending Life
Human dignity is perhaps the most significant political issue in the world generally and in the United States specifically, and the fate of unborn human beings is the most grave violation of human dignity. Since Roe v. Wade (1973), more than 60 million unborn human beings have been killed in the womb—a number greater than all American casualties in 20th-century wars. Beckwith’s book is one of the best philosophical and legal arguments for the pro-life position. (Level 4).
This book can be paired with John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (Level 3), a classic statement of the West’s envelopment in a “culture of death”; Richard John Neuhaus’s “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest” (Level 2), my favorite essay/speech ever given on the pro-life cause; Daniel Darling’s Dignity Revolution (Level 1) is a substantive but accessible treatment of Christian teaching about human dignity, relating this doctrine to a variety of social and political debates; and John Perkins’s One Blood (Level 1), a salient collection of reflections by a Christian civil-rights leader.
Of course, I wouldn’t be offended if you read my recent essay, “The Single Greatest Cause of Our Time: Building a Whole-Life, Pro-Life Ethic” (Level 2.5), or my recent book, Letters to an American Christian (Level 2.5), a series of 27 brief letters to a hypothetical college student who has just become a Christian and wants to represent Christ well in politics and public life.
As we attempt to carve out a path of faithful witness, books like these are insufficient. We need something—Somebody—much stronger. Therefore, we must not only read but pray.
We must pray that God, by his Spirit, will strengthen us for the days ahead when we’ll experience enormous pressure to compromise the truths of historical and biblical Christianity. And we know that he will hear our prayers. For he is with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
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