Review of ‘One Nation Under God’

I have to admit that I didn’t have the highest expectations for Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo’s recent book One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics. The title seemed more interested in staking claims of America’s Christian heritage than delivering balanced and nuanced remarks. Happily, I was pleasantly surprised.

The book divides in two, with the first half the more ‘theoretical’ side and the second half considering particular policy concerns. First, we will consider the conceptual side. Ashford and Pappalrdo delve into many of the conceptual difficulties of Christians engaging politics in the public square. In the first chapter they begin by tracing the grand narrative of Scripture as Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. This both humbles and exalts the political realm. It humbles politics because only Christ will usher in the kingdom. Until then, all our policies and objectives are temporary. But Scripture also grants a great deal of worth to politics because it takes place within God’s cosmos. Because God made it, it is ontologically good (even if “directionally” bad).

In chapter two, the authors appropriate their own version of H. Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and culture paradigms. They first discuss “grace against nature” (16) as the untenable Anabaptist option. Next, they consider “grace above nature” (18) and find it wanting for lack of a serious view of sin. Third, the authors analyze “grace alongside nature” (19). While they clearly think there is merit in this view, this paradoxical view of the two kingdoms is found to be to isolationist and silo-ed; that is, the two realms to not sufficiently interact. Finally, the authors’ own position of “grace renews nature” (21) is taken up.

As a two-kingdom proponent myself (with hints of being a transformationalist), I wish they would have spent a bit more time explicating the competing visions for Christ and culture (or grace and nature). This really seems to be the foundation for the rest of the book–including the theoretical and ‘practical’ part. Nevertheless, the authors fairly (if quickly) describe the differing views and theirs is a balanced transformationalist approach.

Next, Ashford and Pappalardo delve into Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty. Because Christ is Lord of all, all “spheres” of modern life are ultimate under his sovereignty. But this does not turn into theonomy or theocracy because Christ governs different institutions in different ways. I was very impressed with the authors treatment of this topic–both succinct and capable. For those looking for a primer on this aspect of the Dutch theologian/philosopher/statesman’s thought, this is a helpful chapter.

In chapter four, the authors delve into the tricky topic of church and state relations. American history aside, this requires great care. Within an American context, things quickly become convoluted. Again, the authors should be commended for their fair treatment of the issues. And while I may not have entirely agreed with all their exegesis (e.g., John 18:36 and Mark 12:13-17), Ashford and Pappalrdo end the chapter incisively by distinguishing between the church institutional and organic (42). The mission of the institutional church is the proclamation of the gospel. But the organic church orients its life differently. Again, I wish the authors had explicated this important topic some more! Nevertheless, I am grateful for this treatment.

Next, the authors delve into pluralism and the public square. They touch upon the works of John Rawls and the “naked public square”, before also rejecting a theocratic state (and the ecclesiasticism variant). What do they propose as an alternative? Again taking their cue from Kuyper (though not in name), the authors advocate for a principled pluralism that allows both conviction and diversity.

In the sixth  and final chapter in the first half of the volume, the authors note six ways that Christians can engage politics with wisdom and virtue. “Seeking the good of the city”, “living between the times”, “being shaped for public righteousness and civility”, “taking a longer and broader view”, “choosing between thick and thin”, and “politicking in the pulpit (or not)” title the varied sections. Nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but the authors do well to summarize their findings in the first five chapters and give a bit more practical wisdom for implementing all that has been thus far covered.

In chapter seven, Ashford and Pappalardo turn to particular public policies from a Christian perspective. It should be noted that the authors are careful not to appear too partisan. While suggesting specific policy objectives, they go against Republicans and Democrats. And when suggesting particular outcomes, they are wary not to delve into too much policy detail. As they note earlier in the book, the church is neither called nor equipped to adjudicate on the finer points of public policy.

Touching upon Life and Death (ch.7), Marriage and Sexuality (ch.8), Economics and Wealth (ch.9), The Environment and Ecological Stewardship (ch.10), Racial Diversity and Race Relations (ch.11), Immigrants and Immigration Reform (ch.12), and War and Peace (ch.13), the authors helpfully survey much of the current political landscape. A nice touch is the suggested reading at the end of each chapter, with varying levels of difficulty distinguished.

Finally, Ashford and Pappalardo conclude the book by briefly considering Augustine’s City of God and the cultural context for that work. Commending cultural exegesis, careful study of Scripture, and finding one’s hope in God alone, the authors draw the book to a close by fixing our eyes on Christ’s kingdom.

Thus, the authors come full circle. Beginning with Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration, they conclude the book by noting that it is that story (not the latest poll on CNN) that is our hope. Summoning individual Christians (and the collective church) to a wise engagement in the public square, Ashford and Pappalrdo have produced a very helpful and winsome primer by providing “A Christian Hope for American Politics”. Christ’s kingdom will only comes when he returns on a horse (Revelation 19), but until then we are called to be faithful to our King in our respective callings and bear witness–in political word and in deed–to that coming kingdom.

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