Book review by Chris Sicks for the Englewood Review of Books.
I’m a pastor at an evangelical church just 4 miles from Washington, DC. The majority of our people work for the federal government in one way or another. We never speak about politics from the pulpit, for two reasons. First—and most importantly—the purpose of preaching is to exhibit Christ, not talk policy. Second, we want both Republicans and Democrats to feel at home in our church.
Left, Right and Christ by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes is a welcome book because it addresses that second point. Something is wrong if we don’t have an evangelical church in America where both Republicans and Democrats are represented. For that to happen, we have to be able to discuss political issues with grace-filled hearts and scripture-filled minds.
If there’s a thesis to the book it might be on page 39: “How can two people who share the same fundamental Christian principles—profound, life-transforming, world-transforming principles—differ as sharply as we do at times on something that is also profoundly important like politics?”
To answer this question, each author presents a brief autobiographical essay followed by a section on their common biblical beliefs. Then they take turns sharing their views on challenging issues like the role of government, health care, abortion and immigration.
Now, some of us prefer to read books containing nothing disagreeable. If we don’t see eye to eye with the author we just stop reading. If this describes you, don’t read this book. It contains—by design—stuff you won’t agree with. But how do we learn anything, and how do we understand one another, if we don’t hear each other speak? Do we really believe we are right about everything? Is that humanly possible?
Of course not. Each follower of Christ should use the Bible as a lens through which we see and interpret our world. That’s the strength of this book: trying to wrestle with very controversial issues in the light of biblical revelation. And as I read, I became more aware of how the platforms of both political parties conflict with God’s Word in one way or another.
The forewords by Jim Wallis and Marvin Olasky are excellent in themselves. These men are intelligent and committed advocates of active Christianity, but Wallis is clearly on the left and Olasky on the right, just as Harper and Innes are. (Wallis rejects the “left” label: “Since we are both Christians, we should have the capacity to challenge both the left and the right.” Great point.)
Although I don’t always agree with Wallis, I found his critique of Innes quite convincing. And as I read I had to agree with Wallis’s concerns about how Innes seems to have a “complete and almost worshipful embrace of American individualism” and the way he is prone to set up “false choices and unnecessary absolutes. Liberalism is all and always bad; conservatism is all and always good, etc.”
In fact, if you want to pick a “winner” in the debate that unfolds in this book, I’d have name Harper. She doesn’t make the kind of leaps from scripture to policy that Innes seems prone to do. For instance, Innes quotes 1 Timothy 2:1-2 about the Christian’s relationship to government, and from that concludes that “limited government” is a biblical mandate. We should expect better exegesis from an ordained minister.
There are also some weaknesses in Harper’s arguments. When it comes to caring for the poor, she does an excellent job of articulating how consistently the Bible commands us to care for the less fortunate. When it comes to poverty, she believes that God’s Word should inform our government’s policies.
However, Harper sings a different tune when it’s her turn to address abortion. In that chapter, she never quotes scripture once, instead saying “any religious definition of the beginning of life cannot be the criteria used to decide at what point gestation becomes ‘life.’”
In a similar way, Innes applies different reasoning in two places: In his abortion section he asserts that “government has a special responsibility to the most helpless precisely on account of their helplessness.”
But when it comes to the poor, Innes sees almost no responsibility for the government. Social work is to be done by individuals and non-profits, while the government’s role is to protect personal property, because “the welfare state…violates the eighth commandment…Thou shalt not steal.” Saying that use of my tax dollars to help the needy is theft is certainly an exegetical stretch, but it is consistent with the way Innes seems to cling more dearly to individual freedoms than to the other-centered way of Christ.
I also disagreed with Harper at times, and I think she’s flat wrong on a couple of issues. But all in all her arguments were persuasive and articulate. I found myself challenged in my convictions, not because Harper was a better debater, but because she helped me see what scripture says about these issues.
And that should be every Christian’s goal, because I’m convinced that surprises await all of us in heaven. Each will discover to our chagrin (or alarm) that some of our dearly held theological and political positions were not the same as the Lord’s. Yet, we will worship him with one voice, because of our common embrace of Christ as the only hope for sinners.