The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics
Greg Forster. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008. 254 pages.
Forster’s book begins with a personal story. He reports that he wanted to write on religion’s role in the American founding, and he wanted this to be broadly accessible to lay Christians. However, he quickly found that in order to explain that topic, he would first need to explain natural law. But in order to explain natural law, he would need to introduce Thomas Aquinas. But you cannot make sense of Aquinas unless you know something about Aristotle. And Augustine. And Plato. And so on.
The product of Forster’s infinite regress is a very readable history of Christian political thought and its relation to the broader Western canon. That it is expressly historical is makes it doubly valuable given his target audience of conservative Protestants. Forster realizes that for far too many evangelicals, intellectual history runs something like this: Moses, Jesus, St Paul, C.S. Lewis. This book fills the obvious gaps with names ranging from Luther and Calvin to Cicero, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu. But above all, he wants to introduce his readers to one name, who emerges as the hero of the story (though a qualified hero, to be sure): John Locke.
The book’s chief strength is that Forster is, stylistically, such a sharp writer. His prose is accessible throughout, yet he does not oversimplify. He assumes little background knowledge on the part of the reader, but does not neglect attention to primary sources and scholarly material when appropriate.
Another of the book’s refreshing features is that Forster refuses to slip into the now-fashionable mode of modernity critique: pick a thinker and declare, “It’s all downhill from here.” For MacIntyre, the tipping point was Hume; Radical Orthodox writers like Milbank blame Scotus; for Hauerwas and Yoder the slide began with Constantine. Not so for Forster, who paints a more nuanced and historically-sensitive portrait in which the Reformation’s fragmentation of Europe and the secular wings of the Enlightenment are complex crises with no obvious “Christian” response. The thread running through the story is natural law, which Forster clearly sees as central for any plausibly Christian politics. So far, so good: it would be hard to disagree with someone who has Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin on his side.
It is here, however, that the problems begin. In making Locke his hero, Forster makes an error opposite to modernity critics like Milbank. He assumes too much continuity between the premodern natural law of Cicero or Aquinas and the early modern liberalism of Locke and the American founders. If there really is no single summum bonum or telos for humanity, as Locke claimed, he is a far more radical break from his predecessors than Forster wants to believe. To his credit, Forster ends the book with a healthy pessimism: we Christians used to hope for a politics based on a moral consensus rooted in shared religion. “Locke’s confidence that this would happen simply on its own has proved to be misplaced.” If we ever held such hopes, and many Christians still do, they are equally misplaced.
Forster steadfastly refuses to offer a conclusion about how Christians ought to respond to ongoing crises, but I think we can read between the lines enough to know where his story is headed: this is the conservative-communitarianism of Richard John Neuhaus, remixed. We need to recover the “public virtue” that our religiously and morally pluralistic society has now lost. It cannot be based on Christianity or the Bible in the way that Locke or the American founders once hoped, but they were on the right track.
Perhaps they were on the right track, but whether they were we can only know by debating concrete questions (e.g., euthanasia, gay marriage) on which Forster’s quasi-religious public virtue would come to bear. Once we turn to those kinds of issues, the cracks begin to appear in Forster’s account of natural law, which turns out (on closer examination) to be much too neat.
By natural law, Forster seems merely to have in mind an objective moral order that is generally knowable (i.e., by “natural” he means as opposed to revealed). But at least for Aristotle and Aquinas, and probably Cicero, natural law also meant an ethical view in which nature itself has normative force. That is, the good life is one directed to flourishing, which is revealed by what is natural or “proper” to one’s species and is guided by one’s inclinations. This is not at all what Locke or any of the moderns mean by natural law, whose theories are grounded not in species-specific inclinations or flourishing, but in subjective rights (a topic almost wholly and problematically absent from the book).
The question Forster needs to answer is how natural law functions when the morality of a given act is disputed. Take gay marriage: would its morality be established by sociology (gay people are happier when married, avoid promiscuity more, raise reasonably healthy children, etc.). Or is sociology irrelevant to morality? Is gay marriage by definition impossible for, say, biological reasons? The modern natural lawyers in Locke’s tradition and the classical natural lawyers give very different answers to such questions. Through some rather sneaky omissions, Forster obscures this.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, The Contested Public Square is a very readable introduction for beginners interested in the history of Christian political thought.