If liberal and secular-minded people want a glimpse into the dark and baleful agenda of American evangelical Christians, they should read this book. What they’ll find may shock many of them to the core.
The old model of evangelical attempts to transform American society, Greg Forster observes, focused obsessively on politics: to promote Bible-based morality through the ballot box. But that approach is effectively dead. “The time is ripe,” he writes, “for a new model of Christian citizenship to emerge.” So what model does Forster, a political scientist and program director at the Kern Family Foundation, have in mind? Evangelistic crusades? Calls for national repentance? Perhaps the creation of Squads to Promote Virtue and Suppress Vice, modeled on those in Saudi Arabia?
Far from it. Evangelicals have squandered their cultural capital, Forster writes, because they have tried to reclaim a standing in American culture they never had. The American Founding was a mix of fragmented religious (and not-so-religious) voices: “Many Americans resent evangelicals,” he says, “because they perceive us as thinking we have a right to rule them.” What is required, instead, is something as old as the Christian church itself, what Forster calls “generous neighborliness.” By this he means the cultivation of Christian citizens who look for ways to sacrificially serve their neighbors, to solve common problems, and to help their communities flourish: “How can we be the kind of neighbors who make others say, ‘I can’t imagine this place without you?’ ”
Scary stuff? For those who cannot imagine an evangelical as a good neighbor, Forster’s study is a bracing challenge to abandon prejudices about the ultimate aims of those who take the Bible seriously. His main audience, though, is fellow believers: Forster offers them a vision of Christian citizenship rooted in Scripture and the best practices of the historic church.
At the same time, this hopeful book is informed by a deep grasp of the nature of the modern democratic state. Elsewhere in his writings, Forster has grappled with the challenges of religious pluralism and the quest for a just society. Trained as a political philosopher—he earned his doctorate at Yale—he has worked as an activist and written important works on politics, education, and religious freedom. Indeed, few evangelical authors today have thought as carefully—and wisely—about the civic and political obligations of Christians in American society.
American believers need to realize, Forster writes, that they are members of a God-given civilization, called to play a constructive role in all of its cultural activities—politics, economics, education, arts, sciences, and so on. If they insist only on condemning what they don’t like, they will cut themselves off from a shared cultural life: “I think the failure of the American church to affirm the goodness of civilizational life,” he declares, “is our greatest failing today.” Nevertheless, he has no progressive illusions about the condition of Western civilization or American society. Jesus sent his followers into a state of exile—into the wreckage of a deeply fallen and dysfunctional world. This is the permanent condition of the church in history. One of the tragedies of the Christian church is its tendency either to forget this fact—to accommodate its beliefs and practices to the surrounding culture—or to retreat into a monastic zone of isolation. As Forster warns:
We must keep alive God’s message and ways, but we cannot think of ourselves as a separate civilization. Because the church has a mission within every human civilization, we must build godly lives within our home civilization rather than trying to cultivate a separate one. That means working hard to contribute to the well-being and flourishing of our civilization. Otherwise we’re not loving our neighbors.
One realm of civilizational life that needs greater Christian influence, he argues, is the economy, because the economy is critical to everything that happens in society. Many Americans have “debilitating moral doubts” about our economic system. Why, he asks, should we work hard and play by the rules in an economy where scoundrels succeed and slackers get a free ride? Liberals and conservatives tend to view the economy in purely materialistic terms. They make growth, security, and prosperity ends in themselves. They exalt enlightened self-interest. They tell us that productive work is the fundamental source of human dignity.