As its mighty big title suggests, God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics attempts to address some broad issues.
Paul Marshall’s essential thesis is that it is the God-given duty of Christians to engage in politics. But in God and the Constitution, he criticizes the average Christian’s approach to such engagement. First, he claims Christians are avoiding their political responsibility. Second, he contends they must develop a more realistic view of what politics can accomplish.
A senior fellow at the Claremont Institute in California and at the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., Marshall draws well from Scripture to underscore the relation between the political duties of Christians and the cultural mandate in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. God made human beings to be responsible for the world, and this includes political responsibility. It is a theme that reverberates throughout the Bible. When the Law was given to Israel, detailed instructions were given for their politics. And this idea is further elaborated in the New Testamentin the letters of St. Paul, for example.
Marshall believes that the Bible decrees that Christians must be concerned with more than church teachings and their own salvation. They must also involve themselves in mundane, day-to-day politics. Avoiding politics, he writes, is in disobedience to God’s plan. In this regard, the author claims that Christians are failing in their duty.
Either Christians are completely apolitical, being more concerned with peacefully passing through the world than in changing it, or they exhibit a kind of manic-depressive religious syndrome, in which they call for a campaign to arrest America’s moral decline, resulting in short-lived and frenzied activity but ultimately ending in defeat, disappointment and withdrawal. And in this, Marshall believes, Christians have abdicated their rightful place in American political life to a more active and effective groupthe individualist secular liberals. The latter are openly hostile to Christianity and try to exclude it from politics altogether.
The author labels secular liberalism a new religion, bent on imposing the belief that individual choice is the highest goal of politics. In his view, secular liberals do not believe that human duties are given to us by God, but rather that the universe provides no moral direction, and we are left only with relative individual choices. Secular liberals see Christianity as the enemy because it questions their authority in morals and politics.
So, as Marshall’s argument makes clear, Christians not only have a positive, religious obligation to become involved in politics; they also face outright exclusion by the enemies of Christianity if they do not. For him, though, Christians have no choice.
What exactly does that mean? The author suggests that Christians begin sober and life-long political work. He observes that politics involves making deals, building coalitions, sharing power, making trade-offs, giving people a place and accepting half a loaf rather than none. He describes politics as full of compromise and lacking in ideals. Even with success, he notes, [p]olitical action does not bring utopias. It does not conquer sin or change human nature.
Here is the problem with Marshall’s style of painting in broad strokes. By leaving out needed details, his approach is too vague to be useful. He ought to have elaborated more on what specifically a Christian can or ought to bring to politics. In fairness, there is reason for this omission: there is no one, single Christian approach to politics. One of the advantages of Christianity is that it leaves its adherents wide discretionwhether they are Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives.
Does this mean that Christians, acting as such, do not bring anything to politics? No, but the answer lies more in their point of departure than in the details of their program for action. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with compassion for the poor, the outcast and the disenfranchised. By contrast, both American liberals and conservatives begin with the idea of freedom and individual rights. These different starting points can have different consequences and lead to different emphases.
On abortion, for example, a pro-choice advocate frames the question around a woman’s freedom and her individual right to her body, while the Christian begins with compassion for the unborn child. So Christians do bring a unique perspective to politics. But how they will choose to implement their compassion is often a matter of discretion, with liberal Christians believing, for example, that Great Society programs must aid the poor, while the Christian conservatives believe that such aid hurts the poor by creating an even worse dependency.
The point is that on most political issues, Christianity allows a wide diversity of opinion. It is not, and should not be, monolithic in its answers to social or political problems. Marshall intended God and the Constitution as a wake-up call to Christians, alerting them to their own political power, but in truth, they are not asleep. Rather, they are already acting within the wide political bounds that their faith allows. This latitude is a strength and must not be mistaken for an absence of Christians in politics.
The author’s worries about a culture war between Christians and secular liberals strike me as a trifle alarmist. First, Christians have already secured a place in American politics. Second, Christians can be liberal too. And if by liberal you mean committed to the poor and the outcast, then they should be, for compassion ought to motivate them.