On my desk: City of Man

Or, more precisely, on my Kindle — about which more in a moment.  In City of Man, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Commentary’s Peter Wehner attempt to guide the next generations of Christians through the shoals of political activism, faith, and partisanship.  Instead of making specific policy arguments, they focus more on the history of Christian political involvement, its successes and failures, and the dangers to both politics and faith in remaining active or passive as Christians and as citizens in a free and secular government.

City of Man touches on a number of hot-button issues such as war, economics, and the structures of government, mainly to note just how little direction we actually get from the New Testament on any of them.  The Old Testament created laws and political structures for its time, but Jesus spoke very little about government, economics, or statecraft.  Instead, Gerson and Wehner note that the Scriptures speaks almost exclusively about “soulcraft,” leaving Christians to apply the precepts of human rights, charity, and how best to create an environment in which Christians can live in this world while preparing for the next.

The background information provided by Gerson and Wehner in the historical perspectives gives a good grounding for their argument for effective and selective activism.  Their example of the civil-rights movement and the abdication of many Christians from the fight is the most profound argument for continued engagement in social and political activism, and perhaps the most compelling evidence for their argument that human rights depend on a bedrock of faith. That means that Christians and Jews have to remain engaged in foreign policy:

In the Christian view of human rights, human beings stand at the center of concern. This means that the sovereignty of the state is not absolute. The claims of human dignity are universal. Human worth is not determined by nationality, and the responsibility to care for human dignity is not bounded by borders. This belief requires the rejection of a simplistic foreign-policy “realism”: the notion that the internal conduct of foreign regimes is irrelevant to the conduct of American policy. America promotes human rights and human dignity for a realistic reason—because brutal nations tend to be aggressive nations. But we also promote human rights because there are moral as well as legal wrongs, and because some conduct is abnormal and inhuman.

Obviously, as Christian believers, Gerson and Wehner reject moral relativism and argues that America has to maintain its standing not just as a nation among peers but as a bulwark of moral authority, which “liberalism” cannot provide:

These trends have opened up a tension at the heart of modern liberalism, whose greatest achievements have lain precisely in the realm of human rights: the Seneca Falls Declaration, which demanded women’s rights; the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery; the Nineteenth Amendment, securing the right to vote; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation. Yet just as our bloody modern history has made the idea of human rights more essential than ever, academic liberalism has become infected by the doctrines of relativism and multiculturalism that render any moral commitment to human rights unexplainable.

The book also argues for a limitation of explicitly Christian activism to those issues that touch on faith, rather than issues where faith has little or no resonance.  The danger, say the authors, is twofold.  First, overpoliticization of faith-based organizations tends to reduce the doctrinal credibility of the organization, whether that be an individual minister, a church or an entire sect.  Secondly, the farther one moves away from doctrine and into areas where the church and the faith have little solid ground for claims of expertise, they lose their political credibility as well.

Towards the end, Gerson and Wehner discuss the always-important issue of tone.  It is not enough, they argue, to argue for Christian values and beliefs; one must argue as a Christian as well.  While Jesus never outlined an approved form of government to His disciples, He did leave one important law for Christians to honor, which is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Fire-breathing hyperbole harms the cause in two ways: people ignore it, and it does little to demonstrate that the effort to engage comes out of love and not some other, less positive impulse.

At 144 pages, this book moves very quickly.  Some of the arguments in the book won’t necessarily appeal to Christians who see the field of engagement as total and complete, and there is certainly plenty of room for debate; I don’t agree with everything written in City of Man, but every argument is well framed.  I wondered whether Gerson and Wehner would argue for more political moderation in this book, in the way that Rick Warren seems to do, but instead they use Warren more as an example of moderation of tone and approach rather than policy.  The first generation of modern Christian activists have mainly stepped aside, and the authors see this as an opening to recalculate the movement and to find the leaders that will focus on the true intersection of faith and politics and find ways to succeed.  It’s definitely intriguing, worthwhile, and a stimulating journey, which I recommend strongly to all.

Addendum: After seven years of blogging, I had almost stopped book reading entirely.  Blogging is a process that takes up a considerable amount of attention, and I used to tell myself and others that I had no time left for book reading.  Three weeks ago, I bought a Kindle for the First Mate, mainly because the selection of audio books for her was small and the commercial titles rather expensive in CD or cassette format; even the Braille Library is limited in newer releases.  The Kindle has a text-to-speech function that works with most Kindle books, and since she’s already used to the computer-generated voice with her PC, she took to it enthusiastically.

After playing with it for a couple of days to get it set up for her use, I decided to buy one for myself — and I love it.  In the past couple of weeks, I have read The Road to Serfdom, City of Man, Peter Ferrara’s President Obama’s Tax Piracy, re-read The Three Musketeers, The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy, and bought the subscription to Reason.  (The classics can usually be found for free or for under a dollar.) It’s been a wonderful experience in diving back into what had once been my passion as a child and younger man, and I can’t recommend the experience more highly.  Right now, I’m in the middle of A Shattered Peace by David Andelman, a book about the Versailles Treaty and its repercussions all the way to today.

I chose the Kindle mainly because of the price and the text-to-speech feature, which the Sony and the Barnes & Noble devices didn’t have.  Occasionally I get asked about the iPad, which also serves well as an e-book reader, but the iPad is more costly (around $600 to the Kindle’s $139) and has the backlighting that tires out my eyes.  The 6″ Kindle is more portable and more convenient, at least for me.

Note: Sales made through the links in this post will result in small compensation to me at no additional cost to the consumer.

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