Evangelicals in the Public Square
J. Budziszewski. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. 218 pages.
J. Budziszewski is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Texas. This book is a collection of essays originally presented at a 2003 conference on the topic. In the keynote essay, Budziszewski explores the work of four thinkers whom he considers the preeminent “shapers of evangelical political thought”: Carl F. H. Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and John Howard Yoder. Following his essay are four scholarly responses to Budziszewski’s treatment of each figure. Although written for a conference, the essays are directed at the general evangelical public, and technical knowledge of the field is not presupposed. The book contains little that could not be found elsewhere in the scholarly literature, but it offers an engaging, though somewhat disjointed, summary and critique.
A distinctively evangelical political theory, Budziszewski argues, would be “biblically illuminated,” since an emphasis on the Bible is the evangelical earmark (20). However, “the Bible does not provide enough by itself for an adequate political theory” (23). Thus, an evangelical political theory would depend on Scripture, but not singularly. In addition, evangelicals should draw from the other major source of revelation, the book of nature. If evangelicals are to fashion a systematic political theology, they will need a robust theology of creation, both to supplement the claims of special revelation and also to provide a more general vocabulary with which to articulate Christian truths to persons who are not persuaded by recitations of Scripture.
Having offered an account of what an evangelical political theory should contain, Budziszewski sets out to explore the thought of Henry, Kuyper, Schaeffer, and Yoder. He argues that Henry is unhelpful to evangelicals in the public square because of his wariness of natural law and his overconfidence in the power of personal regeneration to effect large-scale political transformation. Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” is the most promising evangelical attempt at political theory, relying heavily on general revelation without acknowledging it. But a lack of clarity about the precise nature of a “sphere” and a negative view of the state detract from its viability. Schaeffer is simply too rash, calling for radical resistance before engaging in the “steady, plodding incrementalism” that is the hallmark of “ordinary politics” (81). And Yoder is so focused on the particularity of Jesus that he fails to recognize that state government is also an “order of providence,” “built partly into the design of creation” (104).
Although Budziszewski is a charitable reader and a careful thinker, his argument is less than convincing for several reasons. First, if, as Budziszewski rightly claims, the Bible lacks a “political theory,” might that not suggest that constructing such a theory is not an obvious intellectual responsibility for the Christian? Since Budziszewski takes modern statist government as simply given rather than contingent, he is unable to interrogate the assumptions implicit in the contemporary conception of “politics” and the “public square.” Second, we are repeatedly told of the treasures the natural law tradition holds for political theorizing, but we are given almost no specific examples of how appeal to natural law could illuminate evangelical political thought, nor are we given a defense of its theological legitimacy. Finally, Budziszewski’s reading of Yoder is particularly deficient. Bizarrely, Budziszewski claims that Yoder was not committed to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, an error that a cursory reading of Yoder’s Preface to Theology (Brazos, 2002) would have prevented. Furthermore, Yoder believed that the church is a politics and that therefore the only thing a theologian could offer by way of an “evangelical political theory” would be an ecclesiology.