City of Man: Defining the Future of the Religious Right

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New EraIt’s hard to deny that the religious right has been on the wane. Need some proof?

Once-prominent religious leaders like Pat Robertson are now viewed as fringe radicals by many conservative elites and “ordinary people” alike. Social issues like gay marriage and abortion have been largely dismissed as secondary by tea partiers and Republican politicians. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican voters preferred the irreligious “pragmatism” of John McCain to the Bible-belt fervor of Mike Huckabee.

As author Brett McCracken recently said in an interview with yours truly, aligning oneself with the religious right has become increasingly “unhip.”

But some don’t see such a change as an overall indictment of the movement itself. For Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, authors of the new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, such a change is “less a value judgment than a fact of life.” Despite some fundamental flaws in the religious right’s approach, Gerson and Wehner see the energetic movement of yore as a highly positive, right-time-right-place kind of thing.

But the times they are a-changin’.

We are in a moment of transition, say Gerson and Wehner. The same Christians who aligned themselves with the Religious Right now find little use or relevance in its tactics or execution. Strict conservative political theology has been by and large replaced by universalist political activism. Social conservatism has been subtly supplanted by a blurry, left-leaning social justice. The cutting, careless words of Pat Robertson has been overshadowed by the moderate tone of Rick Warren.

But although the political scene is changing (and necessarily so), Gerson and Wehner see more confusion in the shift than they do clarity. For them, this is a prime opportunity for conservatives (and everyone else) to reexamine the proper relationship between religion and politics. Now, they argue, is not only a time for adaptation, but also for introspection.

The aim, therefore, is to crystalize a proper Christian approach to politics — one that takes full account of theological fundamentals, proper political involvement, and overall tone.

The book tackles each of these areas chapter by chapter, focusing first on the book’s overall subject — the connection between religion and politics. On this, the authors center their discussion around St. Augustine’s famous image of the City of Man, an arena Gerson and Wehner describe as “the flawed and fallen realm of history, government, and politics.” Although we inhabit this realm (and are called to impact it), we are ultimately bound toward serving the City of God.

How, then, do we locate such a balance? How do we effectively reside as citizens of this earth while remaining active citizens of heaven? To determine the answer, the authors provide five “guiding precepts,” which consist of the following areas: (1) moral duties, (2) institutional/individual responsibilities, (3) scriptural instruction on the forms of government, (4) forms of political involvement, and (5) a clear understanding of Ancient Israel vs. Modern America.

From these precepts, the authors proceed to analyze the successes and failures of the religious right. This criticism paves the way for a more important discussion about the proper way forward.

Although political issues surface as examples along the way, Gerson and Wehner are more often concerned with providing basic guide to thought and action. They occasionally use hot-button issues as case studies for analysis, but for the most part they maintain a very high-level approach.

This, however, serves as both a pro and con for the book. Although I agreed with much of the book’s fundamental approach and think it offers value to Christians from all political perspectives, I often found it too general in its prescriptions. The authors provide a great general foundation on the role of the Christian in public life, but I think it could easily be taken the wrong way in application. Indeed, even though the authors rarely drift into specific policy discussions, they themselves make a few application mistakes throughout the book.

This becomes clear in many of the personal examples the authors use to explain their perspective. Gerson and Wehner both served as aids under President George W. Bush, and thus much of Bush’s brand of political-religious fushionism (with which I often disagree) is acceptable in their eyes. This gets frustrating when, for me, their examples conflict with the overall framework they propose.

For example, Gerson and Wehner provide a very insightful chapter on “the morality of human rights” (which I have discussed previously). Although I agree with their statements about the importance of Christian ethics in informing proper government action (e.g. abolishing slavery), Gerson and Wehner tout several Bush proposals that I think cross the line (e.g. AIDS “investment” in Africa). The fundamentals are accurate enough for me to be on board, but when it comes to putting them into action, I often disagree.

The problem has to do with providing a clear and consistent pathway or methodology toward achieving or determining the proper solutions (which is perhaps the cause of their own error). Perhaps they think this debate is out of scope for this book’s mission, but if so, any such examples provided in passing would be better avoided altogether. If the overall focus of the book is simply to provide a proper theological/philosophical foundation to government involvement, any occasional policy examples need to be accompanied by equally rigorous support for the application.

This would seem to be a significant error (after all, application is hugely important), but again, the book’s primary aim is to set forth an overall, fundamental framework. On that particular goal, City of Man delivers. Therefore, perhaps Gerson and Wehner’s contribution is simply good enough. Understanding our role in society is definitely the right starting point for acting accordingly therein, and I am willing to accept this book as a tool for just that.

City of Man may not get all of the specifics right, and there is certainly room for more clarification down the road. But overall the book offers a valuable critique of the religious right and lays some helpful groundwork for the ways we need to frame our thinking going forward.

In the epilogue, the authors argue that “culture is upstream from politics, except in those important cases when politics is upstream from culture.” This is an important distinction, but the all-important question seems to be about which cases constitute the latter.

Gerson and Wehner have done a great job launching the conversation. I only hope that the other remnants of their movement find the purpose to continue it.

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